Bright as a button
The artist Ann Carrington has a taste for the unusual, as Rob Sharp discovers when he visits her seaside home and finds it chock-full of curious objects
Saturday 15 December 2007
The sculptor Ann Carrington's six-bedroom house close to the seafront in Broadstairs on the north-eastern tip of Kent, is not so much a place to live as an opportunity to showcase her expansive art collection. Vintage Selfridges Christmas decorations rub shoulders with wall-mounted "tusks" fashioned out of hunting knives from Zimbabwe; fluorescent buttons stand in line upon line, like pills in an apothecary. As an Edwardian building that formerly housed 12 children, the home is still very much a normal family space with minimal refurbishment; what stands out are Carrington's possessions. Her work updates conventional cultural waypoints in an often ironic and fresh way (such as her "blown up" Queen's head from a postage stamp made from pearly-queen-esque buttons).
If it weren't for the soft subtlety of Carrington's art, some of her pieces might be better fitted to the surrounds of a secluded hotel something like the one in Hitchcock's Psycho. But the constant surprises don't make the house too surreal for her young family, and Carrington herself is warm and down-to-earth, despite her raft of celebrity clients (Elton John and Gwyneth Paltrow number among her fans). Born in Birmingham, she took an MA at the Royal College of Art's sculpture school and was influenced in part by her travels to Africa, which included a six-month Commonwealth Fellowship to Zimbabwe in 1991. "There, it's about seeing how children use materials they see them with a fresh eye," she says. "A safety pin is not just for holding things together; it's also a beautiful thing. Objects have seven lives." After this, she based herself in London living in Islington and working in the East End along with many of her contemporaries. Yet, in 2002, she needed a change.
"It took us both by surprise because we're very urban people. We had lived in a Georgian flat in central London for years," she remembers, "and a friend of ours had a holiday home in Whitstable. We came down here and decided to take a look around and as soon as we walked into this we just knew." She adds that this was the first house she and her husband looked at; and they only got halfway round before taking it.
Three rooms stand out in her new home (or these are the three she is keen to show off). In the first, her "front room", the Queen's head piece (one of a series) dominates. "I've got so much stuff, it's got to be organised in some way, through shapes that complement each other," she says. "The work passes through the house on its way to the gallery, but there is a rhyme and a reason to it." Opposite the Queen's head sit more of her works: two bronze hares' heads with boxing gloves for ears. They look at once humorous and sinister with their Blake-esque, daemonic features: their surfaces are warped and imperfect and have the consistency of bone; bone was used for the moulds. She continues: "The room is warm and rich and gives you a glowing feeling. With all its antiques it makes you feel like you're wrapped in a blanket; it's the feeling you get when objects have been in your family for a long time."
This is evinced by the furniture from her family that is peppered throughout the house. In this room, there's a bureau that belonged to her great-great-grandfather that looks, she says, "like it is standing on tiptoes and tapers off to a little point. It's also a great thing to display things in." On the floor, there is a crocheted Austrian multi-coloured rug. "I bought this from Camden Passage when I was really poor. I had to have it. I folded it up and thought: 'One day I'll have a big house'; though I had to wait a few years."
The front room is contrasted by her back room, which she uses as an office. Here, the colours are much brighter, which helps her to work. The walls are painted grey-blue to match the curtains, and any artwork that didn't match has been banished. The Spode china is evidence of her love for all things British, as is the 1950s Selfridges Christmas decoration. Here, also, are the jars of specially dyed multicoloured beads and buttons that she uses in her work. Berber tribal rugs from Marrakech finish the picture.
Upstairs, a spare room is dominated by a brass bed that was bought from the local "emporium" Ronnie Scott's. "It's great for people with a love of objects," she enthuses. "He just collects things; it's like a house clearance but on a much bigger scale. If you go there asking for coal hods, say, he will take you to a room with 50 of them." A delicate figurine made from shells part of a commission the artist recently won in Margate sits on a bedside table and gives the room the feel of a doll's house. "It's nice to have a room that, although it's lived in, is a bit more precious," she explains. The paint changes colour as it rises up the wall, at about the midway point. "I thought that must be a good idea. It makes the room feel a bit more antiquated. The colours are nice, sleepy, gentle colours, muddy almost."
The artist's latest project is for the organic food company Seeds of Change, which is trying to promote awareness about environmental biodiversity preservation. Carrington was commissioned to create a sculpture that then toured the country: she called it Pledge Tree and made it completely from reused tyres and wheels sustainable materials. The idea was to invite people to write a personal promise to make a change to the environment, and hang it on the tree. On the day of our visit, Carrington assembles it on the windy Broadstairs seafront.
"I thought it would work," she says of the project, "because I share a lot of the same aims many of my sculptures feature recycled materials. I first thought of the rainforest: there are a lot of rubber trees that have been cut down, so I thought it would be a good idea to recycle rubber into something useful." It's more than useful. In its own way, the decaying, sinister nature of the sculpture tells more of the future than a thousands words. Indeed, it is like her home; a conduit for her unique perspective on the world.
For more information about Ann Carrington's work call 020-7409 7800. The Pledge Tree is auctioned today on ebay (go to www.ebay.co.uk/charity) with all the proceeds going to I Count, a campaign to stop the effects of climate change
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