The artist Shirley Vauvelle lives a mile from the coast between Scarborough and Filey in North Yorkshire. Before she starts work in her home studio, she takes a daily swim in the sea, scouring the shoreline for driftwood as she leaves the water. “I’ve always collected found things, such as shells and pebbles,” she says, “but I’m particularly drawn to weathered wood. I love finding pieces and bringing them home.”
Home for Vauvelle is the 19th-century Lebberston Hall. She and her husband had been looking for a renovation project for two years when their estate agent persuaded them to view the house, which was lived in by an elderly woman. “She was like something out of an Enid Blyton novel,” Vauvelle recalls. “The house hadn’t been touched since the 1970s. It was a pretty ugly building really: Victoriana-heavy, with two horses in the paddock.” What convinced them was the potential to renovate the existing garages and outbuildings and, curiously, a mature horse chestnut tree. “It is in such a beautiful position,” Vauvelle says. “It seems to ground the whole building. When I saw it, I could really start to imagine living here.”
They bought the property in 2005 and moved in with their three young sons (the couple have since divorced). “Although it was quite a grand, double-fronted house, the rooms were surprisingly small and dark and not really suitable for family living,” Vauvelle says. They employed Ric Blenkharn, a local architect, to comprehensively reimagine Lebberston Hall. He added an open, double-height extension to the original building, creating a studio with a 20ft-high window where a tired kitchen once stood. A dated lean-to and row of existing garages and outbuildings were demolished and rebuilt to accommodate a contemporary open-plan kitchen, dining room and minimalist garden room with double-aspect views of the grounds. “He really gave this building breathing space,” she says.
Vauvelle, 54, studied surface design at Leicester Polytechnic in the late 80s and spent the early years of her career working, briefly, for a manufacturer, before becoming a freelance textile and tile designer. In the 1990s, she had “a lucky break” with a London gallery on Lots Road that commissioned her to produce limited-edition collages. At the same time, she opened up a small but successful gallery in the village of Kirkburton in West Yorkshire with her husband, selling work by local artists.
When she finally emerged from the renovation process, she realised it had been six years since she had “done anything creative”. It was as she was going through her divorce that Vauvelle felt the need “to make”. She picked up an adult-education leaflet and enrolled on a yearlong course for hand-building ceramics.
“I’d never touched clay before and I absolutely loved it,” she recalls. “I had no intention of going back into business, because my head wasn’t in the right place.” It was Vauvelle’s son Alfie who encouraged her to start selling the pieces she had amassed. “He virtually pushed me through the door of a gallery in Bridlington – he was only seven at the time! They bought everything I had, there and then, which gave me the bite.”
Her business began officially in 2010. Today, Vauvelle’s work is sold in galleries nationwide and online via madebyhandonline.com and Etsy. She describes herself as a mixed-media artist and her pieces range from delicate porcelain dishes to larger, sculptural assemblages that incorporate weathered wood, wire, fragments of vintage maps and magazines and handbuilt porcelain shapes inspired by her surroundings. Intricate patterns (fish scales, dried seed heads, ammonites) are marked on the clay and loose, painterly glazes applied before her objects are loaded into the kiln.
Vauvelle’s home is a place for creating, but it is also where she displays her own collection of contemporary art and craft. A sculpture by John Maltby sits on the mantelpiece, while work by local painters Rob Moore, Tom Wood, Bren Head and Kane Cunningham hang on the walls. The Cornish maker Kirsty Elson is another favourite. “I swapped a double fish piece in return for one of her seafront scenes,” Vauvelle says.
Many of the larger pieces of wooden furniture here were bought in the 1980s from Gordon Reece, an antiques dealer who is credited with creating a new market in “ethnic” antiques. From a three-storey mill in Knaresborough and then later in Mayfair, he sold a collection of tribal art purchased on travels through Asia and the Middle East. These precious, heavily patterned pieces share space with relaxed, colourful, high-street purchases and eclectic charity shop finds.
“This really is the most beautiful living space,” Vauvelle reflects. Like her predecessor, she has given into the lure of Lebberston Hall. “I’ll still be here, under oodles of cobwebs, in my 80th year.”