Property: When home is where the art is - Commissioning artworks need not be only for the rich, says David Lawson

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The Independent Online
TOBY GREENBURY is standing by with a crowbar just in case some philistine should try to buy his home. He is not planning to wield it on the buyer but on the works of art that have been built into his walls: the stained-glass window, for example, or the fireplace.

This huge blue and white ceramic oddity holds pride of place in the house. If he suspected it was going to be maimed, or even just ignored by newcomers, it would be prised out and carried off.

The exquisite stained-glass panel under the conservatory stairs will definitely go. He has already refused the Victoria & Albert Museum, so an ordinary house-hunter stands little chance. 'It is very personal,' he says. The small triangle took the artist Roy Bradley more than three years to make, during which time students were brought around regularly to admire it.

The house is rarely short of either students or artists. Mimi was leaving just as I arrived, laden with bags for her performance in La Boheme with the Welsh National Opera. Another musician came into the garden later to explain that she was off for a walk to clear her head before an audition.

'I have always liked people sharing my home. I am a bachelor, there is a lot of space and I am away a great deal,' he says.

Mr Greenbury is enthusing over the shelves of pottery and relating the history behind a wrought-iron fire-screen. Elegantly dressed in a neat suit and bow-tie, he could be a gallery owner. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. He comes from that great grey mass of corporate lawyers who normally get their cultural kicks in more conventional ways.

But his home is a kind of personal gallery, full of paintings, ceramics and sculpture. And not one has come from an auction room or dealer. He has them made to measure - usually at a fraction of the price you would expect to pay in the average antique shop.

'Anyone can fill their home with beauty quite cheaply,' he says. 'People do not seem to realise there are hundreds of artists and craftsmen out there eager to produce work.'

This is not a stately mansion. The house sits anonymously in one of those typical Georgian terraces that guide roaring traffic southwards from London's Waterloo station. 'The place was derelict when I bought it, so this gave me the chance to fill it with the things I like,' he says.

A chance encounter with the potter Carol McNicoll ('Zandra Rhodes fixed her up as a blind date') started the ball rolling. She made him a gloriously individual dinner service that now fills half a wall around the monumental fireplace, but also opened the way to a stream of other young talents.

Simon Pettet, now a favourite among the New York glitterati, produced an elaborate ceramic mirror frame that doubled up as a diploma project while he was a student. That led to a commission for the bathroom, transformed over five months into something straight out of a Roman villa.

'It has enormous character because each tile is different,' Mr Greenbury says. 'The kiln was about the size of a biscuit tin, and each tile had to be individually moulded and fired.'

You have the feeling he would put the whole room in to the removal van if he could. The fireplace, also by Pettet, may remain intact if the home's new owner shares Mr Greenbury's taste. Reminders of other students will also stay, including another bathroom with hand- painted tiles. 'The girl had plans to cover it with nude women,' he says. 'I presume she thought that was what a single man would appreciate.'

Mr Greenbury changed her mind and ended up with more abstract patterns. 'This way you get what you want rather than what is on offer.

'We should try to support today's craftsmen rather than looking for older work. It costs no more and can be much cheaper.' It is a lesson he is trying to teach his fiancee. 'She wants an antique ring; I want to have one made.'

Students are grateful for the money, as well as the exposure. One girl from Liverpool sculpted a horse for Mr Greenbury, which paid for a study period in New York. And if you strike lucky, the work you obtain cheaply may be worth a mint one day.

Artists are relatively easy to find. 'Not many people realise that the Crafts Council keeps a library of work. I look through until I find something that I might like and then contact the people directly,' he says.

'For instance, I wanted pictures in unusual places such as behind the fire, in the bathroom - even in the garden. That ruled out conventional paintings, but I found enamel work by a craftsman called Amal Gosht. I now have them scattered all around.'

Other work in the house includes crockery by Idonia van der Bijl, carpets by Irene Vonck and innumerable vases from Carol McNicoll. Nothing is particularly expensive. 'I started doing this when I was an articled clerk without much money available. Anyone could do the same. It is remarkable what you can get for a couple of hundred pounds, and you know it is unique.'

Most of the pieces are about to be crated up and stored, since Mr Greenbury is moving in with his girlfriend. But he harbours an ambition to build his own home in the country. One scheme, involving the architect Piers Gough, fell through, but he is still looking for a suitable piece of land.

'That would be the ultimate experience, working with craftsmen to produce the house I want rather than taking one off the shelf - and then filling it with the art and furniture.' Let's hope his fiancee agrees.

Winkworth (071-587 0600) is asking pounds 380,000 for Mr Greenbury's home in Kennington Road.

(Photograph omitted)

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