When photographer Steph Wilson first stepped into the south London school that was to become her home, it was a sometime squat, dark and rundown, the walls black with mould. She shudders at the memory. Three years later she has turned it into a grand church to plantlife, an urban conservatory that appears illuminated by stage lights.
Last year, sales of succulents rose by 34% as young people leaned into the fashion for houseplants, a trend explained both by itinerant living and the long quest for wellness. But here in south London their primary effect is drama: a giant cactus stands among hundreds of little sisters, the ceiling strung with succulents that fall in theatrical curtains from dainty chains.
Wilson moved in when she was 24, after the death of her father – “a bouncer, a drug dealer, an actor – oh, and he was in the SAS”. It was an investment; her family bought the place both as a home for Wilson and her many pets, and for the studio space, which she rents out for fashion shoots. The light is extremely soft, the ceilings extremely high – the other potential buyer was a professional trampolinist.
When she moved in she ripped up the lino, got rid of the mould, installed heating and a new kitchen, built an aviary for her 12 canaries and four Gouldian finches, another for the parrot, installed a tank for her goldfish and started to accumulate plants. Some came from Conservatory Archives in east London, some from friends, and some from Gumtree, including the cactus that had grown out of its previous home, and which she had to lop a branch off of in order to get it through the door.
It’s beneath the hanging baskets, in her living room – “my colonial-style hotel lobby” – that Wilson sits on the antique three-piece suite (“I got everything from Newark antiques fair – all my furniture came to less than the price of my mattress”) with her two dogs, and watches sunlight stream through the glass ceiling. “The grand finale is when the afternoon sun hits the large canvas of cadmium red I hung over the dining table,” she sighs happily. In the back room beside a deep blue sofa, an antique armoire offers a pedestal for her miniature cacti, and some sprout cheekily from the drawers. Every surface contains a jumble of vintage planters containing the next generation of plantlife, pictures and boxes of birdseed.
At the other end of the space is the kitchen, where a lone frond of ivy whispers its way towards the hob. Open shelves display a jumble of teapots and cups. The dark green cabinets, made bespoke by Naked Kitchens, reflect her jungle of plantlife, as do the 1970s tiles in the bathroom, laid in the palest of pink walls. A vast studio to the right of the front door is strewn with her canvases and the props from a recent photoshoot.
Yet there is not a great deal of art on Wilson’s walls; instead, the focus is on the greenery that, as you walk through the cavernous house, feels less like a collection of pot plants and more like pets, or sculptures, or stragglers from a very good party. Beneath the white staircase stands a well-used piano, and the steps above hang with dried flowers. Upstairs are two bedrooms, where leaves tumble from the ceiling. “My most pathetic pleasure was finding a bedspread that matched the plant.”
A tea towel-sized private garden is tended sporadically by her mum, and it opens on to a vast communal lawn, shared by a close collection of neighbours, who live in separate buildings that once made up the school. Though a minute’s walk from the front door, the screech and rush of the high street feels far away.
Living here, Wilson says, has taught her she’s “good at keeping things alive”. Including, it turns out, herself. She used to suffer badly from anxiety and panic attacks: there was a period, in a previous home, when she couldn’t leave the house. But here, she says: “I’ve created a pod away from anxiety. It’s rooted in escape. All my friends come round and say they’re cured by lying on my rug. The birds are a living lava lamp.”