Jane Hill has lived at Shepherd’s Cottage for about 20 years now. Its unique, a seventeenth century backlands cottage just behind Highgate high street, once inhabited by a sheep drover who may have penned his flock in the lower storey byre, fattened them on the grass of the ‘Highgate Bowl’ and then drove then down the hill to the London fatstock markets.

Jane’s beloved lurchers are Solly (Solomon) who is 17 years old and his piebald  son Luna   – who looks nothing like him.

She came here from a much larger house in Northamptonshire that she shared with her husband, the critic and novelist Alan Brien. Jane generously agreed to be featured in the inaugural issue of the Bible of British Taste’s new magazine, but there wasn’t space there to do full justice to its wonders and the palimpsest of pictures and objets trouvés that it houses, many of them intimately connected with her activities as an art historian and curator and the author of monographs on Dora Carrington and Gertrude Hermes. So, having added a scant few captions here of my own  (and corrected the the name of her younger dog Luna, whom I absentmindedly misnamed ‘Pluto’ in print – so sorry, Luna!) we agreed that she would send me some more amplifying texts that I have added here …. part of the pleasure and poetry of her telling is how and where she has found each and every thing, some inherited, many spotted and collected in junk shops, street markets and charity shops or given by the artist or members of their circle  – please read on now for the strange and evocative stories of everything that you see here, told in her own very eloquent words.

‘A friend pointed out the shadow cast by the brass chandelier, when lit, resembled a watercolour by Elizabeth Bishop, a favourite poet.  I now have the book of her paintings, ‘Exchanging Hats’.’

‘Dogs have access all areas but for the leather chairs, hence the log obstacle, which tickles me, as a throw-back to David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ and the Log Lady.  Her log had shamanic qualities. ‘

‘The dummy board silent companion holds a candle and the tinselled reverse painting on glass is a floating picture; it takes up position in various places.  Peggy Angus’ hand block printed ‘bespoke’ wallpaper ‘Birds and Grapes’ strip teased itself away from the damp walls at Furlongs, her Sussex retreat below Firle Beacon; like bark from a birch.  I have other fragments.’

‘I am as drawn to Blue and White china as I am to indigo.  Most pieces get outings at some point.’

Chimneypiece brought fro her old house in Northamptonshire, cut down a little to fit. “The pride of place painting is by Irish artist Tim Millen, the one picture I have commissioned and a leap of faith that came true. He had carte blanche but for the subject ‘Writer’s Hut’.  I blew the quail and duck eggs that are now strung together and peppered the oranges with cloves for the iron tree.’

‘…. Table found on a trip to Cambridge and annual pilgrimage to Kettle’s Yard; a special place from the day I happened upon it by chance.’

‘The self portrait on the stairs is by Edith Vonnegut (daughter of Kurt) and one of a series of her Amazonian women I spied in a gallery in Miami enroute to Mexico in 1992.  I loved the ones with wings, but those had  all gone, three months later when I returned to the Florida Keys. “She’s got wings, you just can’t see them.”  was the gallerist’s consolation.  And so she flew home with me.’

‘Picking flowers is a compulsion, near daily pastime out walking or on the allotment and it is rare to return home without an armful. Its the way I have learned how to put colours together. ‘

‘I got this collage recently, it says Portmeirion – is it the hotel?

‘The Cottage is one room deep over four floors, all north facing.  Each space has its own atmosphere and light.  When I’m in the basement it feels like being in a canal boat, a place to hunker down in.  When I’m at the top its an eyrie, the crows’ nest.’

‘I started going to jumble sales when I was 14 but then I was buying silk and satin blouses and things like that. This taste came much later when I started loving folk art and more naïve and primitive things’

‘Cupboards are relatively rare.  I’m of the William Morris school of persuasion, ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’  The crockery, in daily use, perches on cobblers racks.’

‘I find pictures so companionable, they feed my imaginative life and I travel vicariously through them.’

‘I visited John Craxton in his Hampstead studio and I like to think this unattributed bucolic dreamworld, bought at Camden Lock, could be one of his anthropomorphic landscapes.  He described himself as a kind of Arcadian’

Breakfast is porridge, often not eaten until lunch.

‘The pub settle  – I brought that from the old house, it’s in 2 pieces, it’s been mended and its got 2 different legs –  I love things that have been mended.’  Underneath here are Bernard Meadows sculpting tools I bought from antiquarian and chief-totter Keith Fawkes who exhibits his wares in Flask Walk, Hampstead. This is an example of me buying something as a collection because I couldn’t bear it to be split up – I wanted to pass them on to a museum or a sculptor who would value them, they’re tools for maquette making, all made in Sheffield – Look how lovely they are ! He’s really famous for his crablike  – ‘Geometry of Fear.’

‘That’s Joan Souter-Robertson’s painting of the church at Long Critchel in Dorset. – Joan Souter-Robertson, she was a tremendous old duck ; very Fortnum and Mason when I met her and a little Barbara Cartland-ish.  Pink was prevalent.  Frames painted by the artist are always desirable. I wrote an article on the ‘Boys’ of Long Critchel House for The World of Interiors – they were Raymond Mortimer, Eardley Knollys, Eddy Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor. That’s the church that they saw from the house – their view. She [Joan] was a great friend of Frances Partridges she said it was Ralph Partridge who gave  her [Dora] Carrington’s boxes of tinsel papers that she used for her reverse paintings on glass – and also her tools.’

‘The barely visible Farmer’s Chair currently occupied by filing was bought in Wales, as was much of the carved furniture I have.  The arms, each a mirror image, come from a curved split branch.’

‘The basement kitchen, furthest away from neighbourly influences, and with its immersive qualities is the most tardis-like of the rooms.  Always warm, because of the AGA, it is where I tend to work, hence the filing systems beneath the table that have to be re-accommodated to get feet under the table. I made the table using  a counter top (one oak plank-two pine) my dad salvaged from the Wells Fargo bank in the City (in the sixties?) and Kentish Town roof timbers which I then painted under the influence of having stayed with Richard Warholic in his stilted wooden swamp house in an avocado grove in the Florida Keys.  I also made a Santos box, but someone stole that from my front door where I used it for the post.  The Cottage’s front door has never had a letter box cut into it.’

‘Comfort and having what you need to hand, is key to all of my arrangements.  The orange chair tends to be a morning respite where I drink coffee, write morning pages and marvel at the ecstasy of the wren’s song.  The ‘bad’ but moving painting above returns me to Kindrogan Field Studies centre in Enochdhu where I spent a summer turning hens’ eggs in the incubator, monitoring the height of the lake and setting night traps for moths … amongst other things, including stalking the peacocks willing them to drop their tail feathers.  It was the warden’s wife, Margaret Brookes, who introduced me to Dora Carrington and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.’

‘The green china, they’re all anon, the owls on that shelf , they’re like a majolica. It used to be completely green but I’ve started adding a tiny bit of yellow’

‘I think of this goddess, identity unknown, as Daphne and now the winter gem, Sarcococca, is growing through her thinning scalp she is definitely escaping the clutches of Apollo.  The Ancient Lights sign is a protest against a threatened, still to be resolved development next door on land previously classified as Open Space.  We have a petition. Please watch this space  https://highgatesociety.com/townsend-yard-petition-highlights-fire-safety-risk/

‘Toile de Jouy, with all of its scenes, is a passion, as are textiles altogether.  The Ed Middleditch abstract ‘Roses’ is too big to be happily housed and gets shunted around like a Japanese screen divider.  It belonged to Guardian columnist Jill Tweedie, purchased in the sixties from Madeleine Bessborough’s New Art Centre when it was in Sloane Street.  She also showed Gertrude Hermes’ work.’

Alan Brien by Bratby.

‘All of my 3D groupings are story telling.  I am drawn to cemeteries and have several times lived alongside a church yard, most recently as writer in residence at the Hosking Houses Trust.  Artist Daniel Miller gave me the phrase ‘golden palette’ for this wee one that I think of as a pond (though only when its horizontal). ‘

‘I realised when the door began sticking the book room floor was sagging from the weight and so I emptied two shelves housing an early edition of the very heavy Encyclopedia Brittanica (keeping Alan’s Dictionaries of National Biography with the bookplate of Coningsby Disraeli of Hughenden Manor House, ‘Forti Nihil Difficile’, nothing is too difficult for the brave) and filled them with lighter objects; at least that was the intention.  The pottery vessel with its erotic decoration is one of three pieces I’ve found in local charity shops that I think are by the same hand.  The old carving of the Green Man is amuletic. I invest it with powers.’

‘The book shelves were salvaged from Highgate village’s Fisher and Sperr antiquarian bookshop established just after WWll and made from banana crates (stamped Elders and Fyffes) when timber was hard to come by. And the mirror lens from a telescope is engraved (1907) with the maker’s name, amateur astronomer Rev. Ellison, clergyman and later director of the Armagh Observatory. I mean that it should be properly rehomed and rehoused one day.’

‘Hampstead and Highgate are known for their Modernist houses.  I bought a portfolio of works by Donald Craig, father of Stirling Craig, architect of 2 Hampstead Lane, following his death.  These two house portraits remind me of Presteigne.’

‘‘Weather Wise Fool Otherwise’ was printed by my upstairs neighbour Giles Leaman when I lived in Kentish Town , his printing press had belonged to Eliza Banks, daughter of artist and printmaker William Nicholson.  He also played the didgeridoo.’

‘I had a heart-warming correspondence with artist Richard Warholic and thrilled to the sight of his beautiful hand writing; also to Carolyn Gowdy’s.’

‘Family portraits – Jane photographed by Jane Bown, the friend whom she met and made when lecturing at Dartington Hall, another of her taken by Clive Boursnell at Hawker’s Hut in Morwenstow when she was staying nearby at Buck’s Mill and writing her book on Dora Carrington  ‘This array of photographs speaks of the much loved places and surrounds where I wrote my books; the boat cabin in Bucks Mills left in trust for artists by Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland, nothing between me and Lundy but a seventeenth century lime kiln and the seventeen mile distance of that ravaged layer, the sea. And Llwyn Llwyd in the foothills of the Black Mountains (photo by Philip Grey). Both primitive, both remote and harbingers of happiness. A picture of Peggy Angus’ Higgins House, Barra, should be here too; I must remedy that.’

Original wallpaper scraps by Peggy Angus from Furlongs

‘This assemblage is always changing, in flux.
The pink tissue plant flag made by the horticultural students of the Harington Scheme is misspelt   ‘Tulip Stressa’ which fitted the bill, as I was.  It should read ‘Tulip Stresa’.  Origami peace cranes.’

‘Campaign bed waiting to go on exercises.’

‘It feels luxurious to have such a fine sized bathroom, with a chair in which to sit and keep the bather company.’

‘Borrowed light, always important in a north facing house, brings the outside in.’

Bath, one of the few things added by Jane, replacing an avacado coloured one.

‘I bought this botanical picture alongside a startling primitive early nineteenth century depiction of the medieval love story of Heloise and Abelard.  I’m a fan of accretions and the ‘Thomassons’ in the house, defunct relics that have been maintained though they no longer operate.’

‘No matter how often I attempt to rearrange this trio they belong with each other.  The central painting, with one child (obscured by the lamp), has a family of siblings verso.  It looks like it was painted with house paint. ‘

‘I assemble things all the time… the Mateus Rose bottle lamp in the bathroom…’

‘So often I will buy a painting, invariably remove the frame and hang the picture with invisible disc plate hangers. ‘

Bedrooom, the wickerwork Swan basket found long ago in Camden market ‘Pearly pink, of shells and dresses.  A tower of baskets holding ribbons, lace and French beaded flowers.’

‘Continually attracted to isolated, white painted cottages.  This one stands in as ‘my’ boat cabin, Bucks Mills.  Owls perch on the chimney pot serving this fireplace; it amplifies their call in such an exhilirating way.’

All the linen is in use, or will be

‘Toile de Jouy, Laura Ashley productions of wall and textile designs from Charleston Farmhouse (was it the eighties?), a length of chintz and a patchwork quilt with the paper templates left in.’

‘Vintage Monart glass; orange flecked with gold being amongst my favourite colours.
A wobbly tripod table, perhaps a tobacco rack, that appears to have been turned like spindles, supports the swan.  The cottage in its twentieth century incarnation was inhabited by Miss Constant’s milliners.  I found turned cotton reels beneath the floor boards.’

‘What a treat it was to find this ‘exclusive needlework tapestry created by Woman’s Journal’ after a painting by David Kwo, 1950s pattern in its original box with wools and canvas.  It’s a work in progress.’

the end, for now

The Sculpture of Gertrude Hermes


The Art of Dora Carrington




Very many thanks to Jane Hill. All photographs copyright bibleofbritishtaste. Excerpts may be used as long as clear links are supplied back to the original authors and content.