Home is where the art is

The Tuscan farmhouse of an artistic couple is full of sculptural and decorative delights - even the loo is rich and exotic

The first thing that strikes you as you enter Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender's Tuscan farmhouse is the spread-eagled bust of a woman suspended on chains of crystal beads. Out behind her, like wings, she sports a pair of antlers, while her outstretched arms and head support a trio of candles.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender's Tuscan farmhouse is the spread-eagled bust of a woman suspended on chains of crystal beads. Out behind her, like wings, she sports a pair of antlers, while her outstretched arms and head support a trio of candles.

This bizarre chandelier immediately gives some indication of the delights that are to be found in the Gorky/Spender household. "We have seven deer in our woods," explains Gorky. "We would love to put them in the pot because they eat our trees, but it's illegal to hunt them. They drop their horns in our garden, and so I had Matthew make me this amazing Germanic thing."

Spender, son of the poet Stephen Spender, is a sculptor. The courtyard that you pass through to enter the house by a door in the central tower of the farmhouse, is filled with large, carved female figures standing solemnly like sentinels. The porch is stacked with kindling for the huge fire-place in the main downstairs room where the chandelier hangs: poplar chips from Spender's latest carvings for an exhibition in Verona, old rosemary bushes ripped out of the garden and great wizened pieces of olive trees, the remnants from a frost 15 years ago that destroyed the whole olive stock.

Gorky and Spender came to live at the farmhouse in San Sano in 1968. "When Matthew and I got married, my mother popped us into this house which she had found," says Gorky. "We then spent 15 years fixing it up." The traditional structure is little changed save for the addition of a second external staircase. Originally, livestock would have been kept downstairs, creating warmth for the people above.

In Spender's charming recollection of his life in the area Within Tuscany, he remembers how bad a state the house was in. "The sun came through gap-toothed holes in the roof and floors, right down to the stables below. So we latticed them with chestnut rafters, re-tiled and made good, largely with our own hands."

As Gorky herself suggests, the feel of the house is not unlike Charleston, the home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and haunt of the Bloomsbury group. "Matthew has made most of the furniture, and I have painted everything." Though Charleston was not a direct influence, there is a strong link with Bloomsbury. David Garnett, a great friend of Gorky's mother, has been to stay on several occasions. "He taught Matthew all about bees and helped us to seed the lawn." Francis Partridge has also been a visitor. "She said about me 'Maro is very thoughtless, and says the first thing that comes into her head, but I think she means well.' "

The Gorky/Spender house, however, is much more rich and exotic in its decoration than the famous Sussex abode. Gorky, after all, is not English. Her father was the brilliant Armenian abstract expressionist painter Arshile Gorky, and her mother is American. Gorky's paintings are bold and abstract, with strong and vibrant colours. They are found everywhere about the house, stacked in huge quantities in the large airy studio. "I work in layers like my father, so I do several paintings at the same time." A particularly striking large "triffid painting" is found in her daughter Cosima's bedroom - "her favourite landscape". Gorky finds inspiration in plant shapes: "the weirder they are the more I like them."

There is also a portrait of Cosima in her room, tawny tresses cascading down her shoulders, and around her startling hazel eyes. A pair of Matthew's brightly painted wooden female figures flank the wardrobe. He also made the bed and an amazing mirror with a frame of silhouetted heads and plant shapes. This is tiered with little shelves hung with a large collection of beaded necklaces, bangles and other treasures.

The pattern in each of the bedrooms is similar; it's a clear case of Spender the carpenter, Gorky the embellisher - wardrobes, bed-heads and doors all enlivened by her treatment. There are terracotta tiles or stone flags on the floors, richly coloured rugs, exotic fabrics; embroidered, tasselled and striped. Everywhere there are wonderful, wacky lamps and chandeliers made of beads and crystal. "They came from a man in Sienna, but unfortunately he's retired now."

The bathroom was my favourite room - a very splendid creation. "The loo we call the papal throne of Gaeta." It is raised as if on a stage, and encased in a wide bench tiled in terracotta. In the centre of the room, a magnificent porcelain roll-topped bath juts out from the wall. The walls are dotted with an eclectic selection of pictures. Paintings of Saskia (Gorky's elder daughter) as a toddler, and of Cosima as a baby, studded with shells. "When I had all those female hormones raging around inside me I couldn't make any abstractions, my brain didn't formalise very well." There is also a photograph of Gorky aged six, shortly after the death of her father, among the ruins of Pompeii. Sunken-eyed and wrapped in a dark cloak, she looks like "a haunted little Armenian waif". Alongside, in direct contrast, hangs a society portrait photograph of her wealthy American grandmother.

Downstairs in the dining room there is another fine portrait of the beguiling, sunken-eyed Gorky, but this time it is a mosaic, surrounded by plates and bowls decorated by Gorky. "We have a kiln in the garden set up for us by the American potter Betty Woodman, a great friend." One of Woodman's vases, decorated with bright circles of colour stands in the main room next door.

Gorky had an itinerant childhood, by the time she was 15 she had already lived in America, Italy, Spain, France and Britain. "I wanted to create here the stable and happy home that I never had as a child." In the process, she and Spender have also made a thing of beauty.

Matthew Spender and Maro Gorky can be contacted at this e-mail address: spender@chiantinet.it

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