Neutrals be damned: How artist John Brinklow tapped into an appetite for colourful excess

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The Independent Online

But how do you dust it?" That's the question every woman who comes in here always asks," says John Brinklow, laughing. "Men, they just, well, they accept it."

A decorative artist, Brinklow lives with his wife, Sarah Skelton, a garment technologist at Karen Millen, in a stylish, four-bedroomed Victorian terrace in south London awash with colour – inspired partly by Skelton's love of India – and unusual painted details, thanks to Brinklow's skills.

But, right now, in what used to be a guest-room, you wouldn't know it. In the corner by the door there are glimpses of the terracotta tones in which the room was once painted ("It was rather nice – like a Paul Klee painting," Brinklow reminisces). Now the walls are roughly covered in coarse black emulsion, and there are light-blocking blinds at the window. Which is a shame, as the room has a sweet little balcony now obscured from view. Yet it is Brinklow's favourite place in the house, and the transformation is strangely compelling, as the entire space is filled with more than £10,000 worth of the ultimate boy-toy – albeit with a bit of a twist: a fully functioning miniature German city.

"Sarah calls it 'Johnnyville'," he says, diving enthusiastically underneath the MDF stage upon which his 1:87-scale empire sits, to turn on a set of tiny fairground lights and a working merry-go-round (sadly the drive-in cinema – with portable DVD player for a screen – is not working). Trains and cars run along tracks between pretty 19th-century townhouses, there are fireworks made from fibre optics, there's a zoo, and a street-festival scene complete with tiny revellers in folded paper headdresses made by Brinklow. The "city" is home to 3,500 architects' figures (and there will be 20,000-odd more when the football stadium he's building is installed). Naturally, there's also a rocket launcher with matching German rocket. ("Why not?" he reasons, "it's not a real city.")

It is extraordinary, and so incongruous that it is hard to see how it fits within a house that is otherwise so well put together – by two people with great taste (though, not very surprisingly, Brinklow says, Skelton "hates" his special room).

"I think what it comes down to is the intricacy," he continues. "I'm not naturally a patient person but I do it for the discipline." Which is interesting, given that his career as a decorative artist largely involves painting highly detailed trompe l'oeil scenes on to walls, floors and ceilings.

In the hallway, there is a prime example of Brinklow's talent, if not temperamental leaning, for painstaking work. On its high moulded ceiling, designed to reflect the original Victorian encaustic tiles on the floor, is what looks like a complex mosaic made from tiny tiles in blues, reds and golds. In fact, it is one of Brinklow's paintings – which he did on a large piece of stretched canvas, before stapling it into the plaster. "It's a bit wonky," he says. "The house is old and on a crescent, so nothing's square."

The fan-light above the front door is also one of his designs. Look closely and you can see the couple's initials – though the effect is subtle. "It's a bit runic," he explains. "We did think that if we ever sell the place, you can't really have your initials above the door, can you?"

The house is refreshingly unaffected by passing trends – it was last painted more than a decade ago, bypassing the period's obsession with minimalist white and slick Scandinavian furniture. Now the style magazines are back in love with colour, and the house's fashionability has come full circle. Though Brinklow is cheerfully oblivious: "I never realise I'm part of a trend, even when I am."

As such, the atmosphere is relaxed and bright, with Skelton's office a good showcase for their typical palette. It's easy to think that white, or pale colours are what make a room bright – but even on a dull day, the room's Indian spice-stall colours bring sunshine.

Pistachio shelves set against walls the colour of smoked paprika, with a flash of turmeric yellow above the picture rail are packed with colourful goodies – mainly gathered by Skelton from Indian street markets during her previous job, working for Monsoon. There are funny-faced puppets – decorations for Diwali – Jaipur woodblocks, hand-painted papier mâché pots and spice tins, as well as an ancient trinket box passed down from her great-great grandmother, and some vintage sewing boxes picked up in junk shops.

Hanging on the adjacent wall is a colourful painting of blonde, red-lipsticked girls in polka-dot bikinis, almost bursting out of their red frame. "'Girls on Blackpool Beach'," says Brinklow. "One of Sarah's – she had it hidden in her college folder and I took it out and said, 'We're framing that – it's beautiful.' Sometimes I can feel a bit restricted and tight when I paint, focusing on tiny, precise details, whereas Sarah just gets on and does it. I love that.

"Every room in this house tells a story," he adds. And Brinklow has a few good stories of his own. Like the ones about how his career began. His final show at the Royal College, where he did his MA in the 1980s, featured a lavishly painted wardrobe decorated to look like Napoleon's torso, while inside, the trompe l'oeil effect imagined Josephine's boudoir. "The show was two weeks of worry, as I didn't know what I was going to do when I left," he says.

On the final day, Bob Geldof walked in and he and Paula Yates bought the wardrobe. "A few weeks later, he called and asked: 'Do you do murals?' 'Yes!' I said, not having ever done one."

The next thing Brinklow knew, he was at the couple's house in Faversham painting theatrical Romanesque columns on to the dining-room walls and a mad-looking Planetarium-style astro-themed ceiling in the library. "The whole house was cranked up to number 11." He says he was paid "diddly-squat" but the timing was right: it was the year of Live Aid and Geldof was about to become a ubiquitous media personality. "So suddenly I was flavour of the month." Brinklow was commissioned to decorate the homes of many of the 1980s and 1990s glitterati, including Annie Lennox, Gary Kemp and Dave Stewart. "It was terrifying. I was fresh out of college with an open brief and practically limitless budget. It all came too soon, really."

Nevertheless, he pulled it off, and remained the celebrity muralist of choice through the 1990s with jobs, among others, including the children's rooms at the home of then-couple Jude Law and Sadie Frost. Then the enemy arrived – in the form of the television programme Changing Rooms and its flamboyant presenter Laurence Llewelyn Bowen: "Everything was to excess; rag-rolling, sponging and paint effects generally – but with Changing Rooms it developed this real naff tag, and I suffered for that."

But in recent years, Brinklow's art has had a renaissance: "In this digital age, everything is so slick that there is a renewed interest in hand-done things." Though he is bemused at how out of touch we've become with old-fashioned techniques. "People come up to me in the street when I'm painting outside and ask: "Do you actually do that by hand?"

Surprisingly, he puts part of his return to vogue down to Banksy and other street artists who create, like Brinklow, large-scale, realist artworks. Though, as you may expect, Brinklow is happier about being busy than being fashionable.