I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a great work of art in a municipal museum I nearly always feel there’s something missing. Stranded in a sterile gallery, surrounded by rows and rows of stuff by other artists, even the finest artworks can seem rather sorry for themselves. Personally, I far prefer to see an artist’s work in the place where they made it – and it seems I’m not alone. Nowadays loads of artists’ studios are open to the public – and now the Watts Gallery in Surrey has had the bright idea of gathering together the best of them on one handy website.
Wandering around artists’ studios is one of my favourite pastimes. Of course I like to kid myself that the reason I do this is to acquire a greater understanding of their work. Maybe that’s part of it, but the main reason is that I’m a nosy parker. I love nosing around other people’s private property, and one of the best things about dead artists is that they’re incapable of telling you to mind your own business. Freed from the tedious constraints of etiquette, you can poke about in their bedrooms, read their intimate correspondence – even visit their antique lavatories if you feel so inclined.
So when I heard about the Watts Gallery’s new website I was impatient to log on and find some new studios to root around in – in Britain and abroad. As I soon found out, there are plenty I’ve never heard of (and can’t wait to visit) plus quite a few I’ve already been to. Maybe you know some of them already. Anyway, here’s my top ten. What’s yours?
Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden, Cornwall
Arty tourists who flock to Penwith usually head straight for Tate St Ives, that big glitzy gallery on the seafront, and forget about the tiny house around the corner where this prolific British sculptress made some of her finest work. ‘Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic,’ wrote Barbara Hepworth. ‘Here was a studio, a yard and a garden where I could work in open air and space.’ And what a space! Her little walled garden is delightful, full of plants and sculptures, and her powerful personality still inhabits the sunlit studio where she worked from 1949 right up until her death, in 1975.
An ancient farmhouse near Lewes, on the green edge of the South Downs, Charleston was the unofficial HQ of the Bloomsbury Group – that ragbag of progressive artists, writers and intellectuals (including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey) which had such a profound effect on British culture between the wars. The home of painter Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) and her artist husband Duncan Grant, the house is an artwork in its own right, lavishly decorated with murals and mosaics. Virginia Woolf’s old home, a charming cottage called Monk’s House, is also open to the public – a bracing walk away across the dramatic landscape of the Downs.
Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, Herts
If it hadn’t been for Adolf Hitler, Henry Moore might never have found his way to Hertfordshire. Britain’s greatest sculptor moved out of London to escape the Blitz, buying an old farmhouse called Hoglands near the pretty village of Much Hadham. ‘I think we may stay here for some time,’ he told a friend in 1940. He ended up staying here until he died, some 44 years later. After the war he gradually bought up the adjoining land, establishing a 70 acre estate, which is now a spectacular sculpture garden.
Hill Top, Cumbria
Beatrix Potter was born in London but the place where she felt most at home was Windermere (her parents used to take her there on holiday) and after the success of her first book, Peter Rabbit, she bought Hill Top Farm, above the lake, and left the frantic bustle of the Big Smoke far behind. This farmhouse became her studio – it features in many of her exquisitely illustrated stories. When she died she left the house and 4000 acres of surrounding farmland to the National Trust. Today Hill Top is an enchanting museum and those 4000 acres form the heartland of the Lake District National Park.
Hogarth’s House, Chiswick
When William Hogarth bought this handsome house, in 1749, Chiswick was a rural village an hour’s ride outside London. Now it’s a bustling suburb, and the quiet country lane outside has become a busy dual carriageway (though during rush hour it can still take an hour to get from here to Central London). The house is decorated with engravings of some of his great satirical works. A short walk away is Chiswick House, a stunning Palladian villa in gorgeous landscaped grounds built by Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington.
The Munnings Art Museum, Essex
Alfred Munnings is regarded as a pantomime villain by modern artists, on account of the silly things he said about modernism when he was President of the Royal Academy. However 60 years since his death his artistic reputation is ripe for a revival. His portraits of the county set seemed terribly old-fashioned at the time, but now they just seem timeless. And as the controversies of his lifetime fade away, a new generation is discovering what a good painter he really was – the best equestrian artist since Stubbs. His elegant Georgian home in lovely Dedham Vale is the best place to learn about his work.
2 Willow Road, Hampstead
Britons have always been suspicious of modern architecture, and architect Erno Goldfinger was the movement’s favourite bogeyman. Ian Fleming even named a James Bond villain after him, and when the Hungarian émigré built himself a modernist house in leafy Hampstead his neighbours were up in arms (the protests were led by Henry Brooke, who subsequently became the local MP). Goldfinger insisted that this concrete block was actually a faithful adaptation of a Georgian design, and although it caused an almighty rumpus when it was built, back in 1939, it’s stood the test of time. Goldfinger lived here with his family until he died, in 1987, and in 1994 it was presented to the National Trust – by Henry Brooke’s son, Peter Brooke MP.
Horta Museum, Brussels
Brussels is the undisputed capital of Art Nouveau, that exuberant aesthetic which spawned so many beautiful buildings during the early years of the last century before it was snuffed out by the horrors and hardships of the First World War. Victor Horta was the leading figure of this joyous, flamboyant movement, and his home and studio is one of the wonders of that lost age. An architect and designer, Horta was responsible for every detail, inside and out. It’s a perfect starting point for an Art Nouveau tour of Brussels, taking in his numerous other buildings, and those of his contemporaries.
Liebermann Villa, Berlin
Max Liebermann isn’t such a big name in Britain but on the Continent he’s rightly renowned as Germany’s leading impressionist painter. His successful career coincided with the boom years of Bismarck’s Second Reich, and in 1910 he built this summer house in Wannsee, beside Berlin’s largest, loveliest lake. Over the next 25 years he painted numerous pictures of its gardens, and the lakeside. A German Jew, Liebermann died of natural causes in 1935, and thus escaped the worst excesses of Nazi persecution, but sadly his beloved widow Martha wasn’t so lucky. She killed herself in 1943, after learning she would be deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Mesdag Colletion, Den Haag
When Vincent Van Gogh was a young unknown artist, lost and lonely here in Den Haag (The Hague), the most celebrated painter in town was Hendrik Mesdag. His palatial home now houses the Mesdag Collection, incorporating a wide array of his landscapes and seascapes, plus some of the many artworks he collected, in particular the atmospheric paintings of the so-called Barbizon artists, plus prints and ceramics from Japan (both the Barbizon and Japan had a big influence on Van Gogh). Just down the road is a massive panorama that Mesdag painted of Scheveningen, a jolly seaside resort a few miles away.