Open Studios: Jeremy Nicholls

The last in our series of interviews with Open Studios Artists is with Jeremy Nicholls, a decorative woodworker based in the pretty village of Wimbish near Saffron Walden.

For how long have you been making your decorative wooden pieces?

I have made things all my adult life, originally mainly because I couldn’t afford to buy them. It was a lot cheaper – and more fun – to make things instead.  But I suppose I’ve been concentrating on it properly for about 10 or 12 years now, developing my skills over time.

What process do you use when painting on the wood, and how did this first develop?

I paint with ordinary artists oils onto metal leaf.  It’s a traditional decorative painting technique that I picked up during the time when everybody was mad about stencilling and rag-rolling and that kind of thing.  I found it one of Jocasta Innes’ books, where she describes a technique for creating pretend tortoiseshell. I’ve also seen it used to imitate mother-of-pearl.  I loved all that, marbling and so on. Also, although I’ve always been able to draw a bit I used to feel intimidated by painting, both from a technical point of view and because art is supposed to be deep and meaningful in some way.  She made messing about with colour into fun.  When it works, that is!

What is it about this process that excites you?

Well a whole bunch of things really.  I like designing, usually in my head, often on dog walks.  I like envisioning how things might look and working out how to bring them into being; I like the whole business of constructing something that wasn’t there before.  Then the decorative painting, by contrast, is much more spontaneous as an activity.  It has to be done quickly, and there’s an element of chance involved; serendipity.

Your jewellery boxes, mirrors and tables are very fine, but have a robustness about them too. How did you learn your woodworking techniques?

Most of what I know about furniture construction I learnt in junk shops, just by looking to see how things are made.  And from books of course.  I am entirely self-taught and there are many traditional woodworking skills I simply don’t have.  But what I can do, I try to do better and better over time.

The work you produce has a very arts and crafts feel. Which artists have influenced your work?

I never set out to imitate anything but inevitably what I do is influenced by all the things I have liked over the years.  I grew up in the ‘50s, when new furniture seemed to be very plain, wipe-clean and hygienic and the old Victorian stuff was just heavy and dark.  I remember when I first discovered art nouveau: I thought it was wonderful!  So extravagant and over-the-top.  Then I’d always loved illustrations in books – Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens for example. Later came the fashion for all things art deco, and yes, arts and crafts, Mackintosh and so on.

Describe your working space.

A total mess! I’m afraid I’m not one of those people with perfect workshops with everything in its place and lined up in rows neatly. I’m one of those whose useable workspace gets smaller and smaller as all the clutter builds up then when it really gets impossible I’ll have a big clear up.  

The metal leaf combined with the oil painting makes the images glow, and apertures of strong image sing out in some of your pieces. How did this imagery develop?

There’s always something attractive about things glimpsed through a partial barrier, whether it’s a view through trees or in a gap between buildings or from a window or partly open door, so that’s one thing.  Then my father was a picture restorer and he used to show me sometimes the effect of taking the old discoloured varnish off part of a picture and suddenly revealing the bright original paint underneath – a transformation, a kind of magic again.

Tell us about some of the commissions you have completed.

Oh all sorts.  I’ve done people’s houses, and gardens, and streets as well – usually they provide some photos and I do a sort collage of images.  I’ve done things on a musical theme, cats, owls, damsel flies and Indian elephants – twice – peacocks.  I did a yacht for an older guy who had once designed his own, based on a Chinese junk style of mainsail.  I have one customer who I made a needlework box for who wanted cherry blossoms, to remind her of England, then later commissioned a box for her partner, who is a farmer, which had to be a combine harvester.  Not any old combine harvester but a particular, Australian combine harvester of a particular make and colour!

Do you have a preference between depicting real life/landscapes and abstract imagery?

I suppose really landscape is my first love and probably always will be.  My Grandfather was a professional artist, very well-known in his day but deeply traditional and therefore all but forgotten today.  He was a landscape artist, so I suppose I’ve grown up with that.

I enjoy abstracts though. They are interesting for a change. Just playing with shapes and colours really.

You did your first Cambridge Open Studios in 2003, what was the catalyst in you getting involved 10 years ago?

When we moved here it was a larger garden than we’d had before and we decided to look for a piece of sculpture for it.  Through Cambridge Open Studios that summer we found Alan and Anne Foxley and bought one of his pieces.  When he delivered it he spotted my workshop and asked to see what I was doing.  His reaction was so positive and encouraging and it was his suggestion that I should do Open Studios myself.  Both he and Anne continued to be very supportive and encouraging – just what you need when you’re starting out. 

You are always so busy with commissions, do you get much chance to make pieces just for you?

No, not often.   Usually I’m just playing catch-up.  It’s good to be busy of course but the downside is people tend to commission a variation on what they’ve seen already, so you can end up always making more or less the same thing.  So it’s good to have a gap now and then to develop something new.

Where are you holding your Open Studios this year, and with whom?

This will be the third year I’ve shared Heidi Lichterman’s home in Bottisham, together with a jeweller, Claire Howieson.  I used to do Open Studios here at home but we are very off the beaten track with very few other Open Studios around us and although the Foxley’s would always be very good, sending people on from Saffron Walden, I just wasn’t getting enough people through the door to make it worthwhile.  Heidi’s is great: there are several other people in Bottisham itself and a scattering through the neighbouring villages and that attracts more people.  It’s also a very relaxed atmosphere there, slightly chaotic and a congenial, good place to spend the weekend.


Can we buy your work at any other venues?

Normally I do a number of craft shows through the year, usually the shows organised by Rob Chapman of Craft in Focus.  He’s very strict about only selecting people who genuinely design and make their own stuff.  They usually generate a sufficient flow of commissions to keep me busy.

So far I haven’t made much of an effort to get my work into galleries.  The trouble is, once the gallery has added their mark-up, or taken off their commission, you can often end up either working for next to nothing or having your work priced up to the point where very few people can afford it.

This year is a bit different as I am taking part in a shared exhibition at The Old Fire Engine House in Ely, with Munni Srivastava and Barbara McGirr, in October. This has given me a chance to make some new pieces, which is great.  I’m having some fun. I just have to hope that people like the results! We’ll see. . .

Open Studio Guide:

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