I write from my new base of operations, a long rickety trestle table, an old Italian ex-school desk scribbled with names and biro drawings of flowers etched into the pitted surface. It is the only piece of furniture we have bought for our new apartment, at an overpriced antiques place in Chiswick on the day we moved. Adam Gopnik in in his book The Table Comes First wrote - 'I don't understand how a young couple can begin life by buying a sofa or a television,' he said indignantly to me. 'Don't they know the table comes first?' The table comes first. The table comes first, before the meal and even before the kitchen where it's made. It precedes everything in remaining the one plausible hearth of family life, the raft to ride down the river of our existence even in the hardest times. The table also comes first in the sense that it’s drama - the people who gather at it, the conversation that flows across it, and the pain and the romance that happen around it…
A couple of weeks ago Mum and I packed up the cottage. It was a hot May day, the kind of day when the light is golden, the air muggy and strewn with millions of dust particles visible in the breeze. As the temperature rose, everything smelled different because, I suppose, heat conveys the faintest of smells more strongly - the lilac tree, the garbage, tarmac, perfume, the apples in the bowl. There was a stillness and yet a quick, strangely equatorial wind, nervy energy rustling the leaves of the clematis that climbed around the windows, which were all thrown back to let as much air as possible create draughts and currents of breeze through the house. Occasionally a door would slam somewhere - we kept wedging them open with boots and boxes. Sometimes the scents of a hot day take me back to the little rickety house we rented in Africa, to those dusty plains where the smell of woodsmoke is so strong that you can almost taste the burning wood on the tip of your tongue.
It took most of the day to work our way through the house. Room by room, we took it apart, deconstructed, until our home shed its intimacy and became just a house again, colourless, blank. We started with the books, because they are the easiest things to pack, slotting neatly into boxes, requiring no wrapping. I made piles for various methods of disposal, paperwork for the bonfire, crockery for the charity shop, old clothes and deceased house plants for the dump. It always amazes me how much 'stuff' I have when I move, and piled up in one room it seemed an enormous quantity. Everything from extension cables to sock drawers to spices. And how easily it is all distributed somewhere new, I thought, into different drawers and closets. We worked all day until, reaching the final room, my bedroom, we collapsed on to the bed on our backs, side by side, and lay there for a long time without saying anything, watched the shadows flitting on the ceiling. Later, we walked down through the garden to the village pub and drank ice-cold fizzy drinks and ate salted crisps on a bench under the creaking pine tree and talked about sex, and how weird it is, when you think about it. We meandered home, stopping to stroke the publican's oriental cat, which is quite the ugliest and squirmiest cat you ever did see but lovely all the same and reaching the gate I realised it was the first moment I'd been sad about leaving, the first time I'd really thought that I will miss the place. Because that night it was magical, and I will.
In an interview I read recently on A Piece Apart, Claire Cottrell described her feelings for her home, Los Angeles: You live in a place long enough and your identity becomes entwined with it. I can’t explain myself without talking about Los Angeles. Someone told me that it takes nine years to understand this city and I think that’s true. I fell in love the minute I landed, but after ten years it becomes who you are. The light defines my work. So do the colors: It’s the food I eat. The clothes I wear. It’s all Meyer lemons, avocado honey, and cream linen. No joke. I go somewhere else and feel out of place. You can’t wear a sun hat and sandals in New York City and be taken seriously. After almost 15 years it becomes a mantra. Los Angeles is a philosophy for living. I learn it by driving through the old residential neighborhoods — Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Whitley Heights, Pasadena. I look in to the courtyards and the open windows. I see the swimming pools, the blankets of jasmine, the lemon trees, the archways, the wind chimes, the Spanish tile. There’s a romance here, but you have to find it. The photographer Todd Hido talks about the connection between nostalgia and his work’s purpose: “Since I left home after high school, I’ve always been trying to find it again in some way.” That’s how I feel about California.
I didn’t feel this way about Oxford, or at least I haven’t for a long time - years. Oxford was somewhere I intended to spend a brief spell and stayed longer than I ought, probably, because I fell out of love with it in a way, and I believe firmly that you should always leave while you are still in love. But London was calling to me and that has slowly grown over time. It’s somewhere I feel I make sense, it’s the right context for my life, somehow. I guess it’s in my blood.
We’re still gingerly navigating our way around our new and unfamiliar roost, here. As if it’s an Air BnB, someone else’s space that we are temporarily borrowing and camping out in. I guess it will feel like that for a while. The ceilings are double the height of those at the cottage, there is a step up into the kitchen that I can’t seem to remember is there and I still have to open each and every cupboard in the kitchen before I find the fridge. The floorboards are old and creaky and the boiler ancient - all the radiators make a funny noise when they come on as though they have to summon the energy to get going. It needs work, but the bones are there. We bought it for the light, the kind of light that serious painters look for in their studios, and the way that it made us feel as we walked through the door - the shadows thrown across the walls by the canopy of trees outside, streaks of slanted sunlight on wooden floorboards. The principal rooms are elegant and simple despite being cluttered as they are now with piles of books and plants and detritus. To the front, a giant shuttered bay window lets in a flood of light in the morning and by dusk I sit at the French doors at the back, down to the garden, to catch the last rays of evening sun which make the windows of the apartment buildings on the next street glow apricot-gold. There is dappled, skittering light on the gravel, the sound of city hens crooning in a nearby garden. In the bedroom stands a beautiful four-poster that my parents have given us. They had it made in 1987, of lacewood from London plane trees that fell in the great storm of that year, the year my sister was born, and it has intricate marquetry inlaid around the frame and up the bedposts.
And then there are the parks; we are surrounded on the map by a vast crescent of green - Kew, Richmond, Marble Hill, Ham, Bushy Park, Hampton Court, the Royal Paddocks. It’s an ancient, historic part of London, not cool by any means - our neighbourhood is a fairly boring West London suburb and there's a notable lack of hipsters on fixie bikes - but that’s fine by me. It’s leafy, it’s packed with beautiful old townhouses and rose-covered porches, it’s beside the river, and it’s on the road out of town; from here the M3 snakes directly out into open countryside for foraging and down to our cutting garden in Hampshire. We are on the prettiest fringe of this vast, sprawling, magnificent city, a network of endless avenues to explore.
Until we find a permanent studio in town these interconnecting, interchangeable rooms are my nucleus for both home and work - our ‘HQ’, flower-wise. The dining table is doubling as a workbench for arranging, the garden shed and office upstairs are serving as vessel and equipment storage, the garden for buckets and supplementary work space during the summer months. I already feel that I can embrace living creatively here, with the space to grow the business we have started, and still enjoy downtime at the end of each project. Our flowers and plants will be even more a part of our domestic landscape; our floral frontier. There could be worse things than being shacked up with beautiful blooms.
This morning I sat at the bedroom window with a tray of toast and coffee and watched the world go by - commuters and buses, dog walkers, planes taking off at Heathrow, continuing their heavy, steady ascent into the sky. I made an arrangement in an attempt to stop myself getting rusty - flowers have taken a backseat the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t a particularly good arrangement but I photographed it anyway against the only available dark surface nearby which happened to be a Daft Punk record leaning against the wall that my husband bought me for my birthday a couple of years back; a strange choice considering we didn’t, and still don’t, have a record player – iPods, iPads, CD player, gramophone even; every possible other device for listening to music except a record player. And then I got transfixed by this Geum - a ‘Tequila Sunrise’ - the most bewitching flower. Ruffly layers, that sexy granny’s bed-jacket shade of apricot that you know I love so well despite myself. Rust tips to the petals. Copper sepals. Burgundy buds. And named after a summery cocktail. Perfection.
Jess, in the meantime, has been updating our website with new pages, images and drawings. We hope you like!