Inside the colourful Devon home of a top interior design artist
- Credit: Andreas von Einsiedel
Inside the North Devon home of an artistic couple who have been delighted to find a property which suits both their work and living needs
As an artist, Mark Rochester is not alone in finding the dramatic seas, skies and scenery of Devon a powerful source of inspiration: “I like to paint ‘en plein air’ but when the wind is blowing Force 5 or above, being out on the cliffs can get scary.
“On bad weather days, I’ll find refuge inside, painting in one or other of the neighbourhood’s medieval village churches but once it warms up I’m clinging to the cliffs again, where the colours and the dramatic coastline never fail to excite me.”
Mark is familiar with the area having grown up in Braunton, some ten miles along the coast from Ilfracombe where he now lives. “After leaving school, I moved to London to study textile design at the Central School of Art, and spent the next 25 years there, working as a freelance textile designer.”
However, around ten years ago, he and his partner Martin Storey who is a knitwear designer for Rowan, decided that it was time for a change: “We loved life in London but we both work from home so our two-bedroom house in Dulwich was bursting at the seams.
“Affordable London houses large enough to provide each of us with studio space don’t exist, but we knew we’d be able to find a more spacious house in Devon that wouldn’t break the bank.”
Preparing themselves for a lengthy property search, Mark and Martin were thrilled to discover the ideal house during the first morning of viewings. “The estate agent must have been equally thrilled. We’d seen a couple of houses before this one, but the position, the size and the Regency architecture made it irresistible.”
Situated high up on the hillside above the port of Ilfracombe and overlooking an area of open land to the front, the views across town and out to sea are unobstructed, as is the daylight that pours into Martin’s attic studio and Mark’s studio on the ground floor.
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There he intersperses painting with working to commission on fabric designs for the likes of Sanderson, Colefax & Fowler and GP & J Baker. “I was thrilled to see a couple of my wallpapers from Baker’s Emperor’s Garden collection used in the home of Tom Hanks’ character in Bridge of Spies,” says Mark with justifiable pride.
The floors between the two studios are used as the main living space. “To begin with we couldn’t believe how spacious it felt having all these empty rooms, but once we’d moved in they filled up alarmingly quickly.”
Whilst some designers are drawn to the minimal style, opting for white walls and a few pieces of iconic contemporary furniture, Mark and Martin’s home is an eye-popping mix of pattern and colour. “Over the years we’ve accumulated quite a lot of stuff but thankfully we both like what the other collects,” explains Mark.
“Having a house of this size has allowed us to display our collections of ceramics and paintings, and even though we’re rapidly running out of wall space, if we see something unusual, we’ll always find a way of squeezing it in somewhere.”
Mark recalls that his passion for collecting Poole Pottery was kick-started by a honeycomb-lidded pot that was inherited from his grandmother: “It had a hand-made quality about it that I liked and the visual connection between Bloomsbury Group painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell - who had briefly worked at the Poole Pottery during their involvement with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop after the First World War - appealed to me as a designer and artist.
“In the past we used to belong to collectors’ clubs, which was a good way of learning about whatever we were particularly keen on. We’d meet up at auctions and egg each other on when it came to the bidding. These days it just a question of looking on eBay.”
From the hallway, stairs lead up to the kitchen and dining area on the mezzanine, while another short flight rises to the two living rooms. “That’s one advantage of this house – it keeps me fit running up and down stairs,” says Mark, opening the door at the rear of the dining room, which leads out to the courtyard garden. “The garden is tiny but it’s very sheltered and as many sub-tropical plants survive the winter down here, it tends to look like a small jungle.”
The kitchen and dining area were completely re-modelled after they bought the house. “It used to be a warren of claustrophobic little rooms including a scullery but getting rid of the internal walls transformed the space.”
The adjoining galley kitchen was originally two rooms but by taking out the partition, opening it up to the rafters and painting it white, the sense of light and space increased dramatically.
But as elsewhere in the house, colour is a strong feature; an open shelf is filled with an array of vintage china whilst decorative handmade glass is displayed on another. Jaunty model boats made by local artist Rachel Sumner using salvaged wood are ranged along the walls, a reminder of the fishing boats to be seen in Ilfracombe’s picturesque harbour.
Mark is a keen swimmer and during the warmer months he takes a dip most days. One not-to-be-forgotten swim was across Ilfracombe harbour from the shore to the quay where the Damian Hirst’s sculpture Verity now stands. “It’s further than it looks and the current is very strong. I crawled up the slipway totally exhausted like the archetypal shipwrecked sailor, feeling lucky to be alive,” reveals Mark.
With great food venues locally and fantastic coast and countryside, it’s not surprising that there’s been a resurgence of interest in Ilfracombe as a holiday venue. Mark concludes: “ We still love going to London for a few days, but then driving back from the station the sea comes into view and I know for sure that Devon is where I want to be."
Seven of the best
Based on his time living in North Devon when lockdown ends Mark recommends the following places in the area:
The Corn Mill at Hele. Tea rooms and garden. Delicious home-made cakes and scones.
Take Thyme, Ilfracombe. Fresh local fish and Exmoor-reared meat.
Thomas Carr at 1873, Fine dining.
The Grampus Inn, Lee Bay. Laid-back, unpretentious pub with good food, excellent wine and local beers.
Marwood Hill Gardens are one of Mark’s favourite places to wander.
Burton Art Gallery, Bideford. Interesting permanent collection of paintings and ceramics with changing exhibitions by contemporary artists.
Ilfracombe Musuem open daily until the end of October. Eight rooms of local history and curiosities.