Chichester is best known for its rolling hills, Roman history and nearby beaches, less so for its growing arts and crafts scene. We talk to five local artisans, each with a different story to tell about this district and cathedral city in southeast England.
When I arrive at Anne Marshall’s white-washed studio in Birdham, Chichester, I am first struck by the cool, Scandinavian aesthetic. The Bromley-born glass artist beckons me in from the doorway, her eyes betraying a full-hearted smile behind a baby pink mask.
Stepping into the polar-white interior, with pendants hanging like stalactites from the ceiling and iridescent fish in slabs of glass-like frozen time capsules, it feels as if I have entered an Arctic glacier. Instinctively my eyes follow the glass-fronted cabinets and clean-lined countertops down to the whale-shaped tealights in steel blue. Nordic colour accents repeat around the room in tree decorations, gossamer glass baskets resembling snowflakes, door tags and drink stirrers.
The sound of clinking glass rises above the soothing regularity of the background music as Anne rummages around in the cupboards. “I’m just finishing up these bottle glass trees,” she says, pointing at the miniature forest. “I did these last night,” she adds, seemingly unfazed by the magnitude of the task.
“I love making the tall Scandinavian trees. It takes me back to Norway, when I lived in a boathouse with views across a beautiful pine forest,” Anne says, with twinkling eyes. “In the words of Anita Roddick, I wanted to ‘be anything but mediocre’ so I went against my father’s advice to become a secretary and travelled around Europe instead.”
On her solo journey from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe, Anne felt the first stirrings of a taste for a peripatetic lifestyle and later found that she could support this semi-nomadic existence as a flight attendant. “Often, I found myself exploring the local markets or staying up doing long shots rather than staying in the hotel with the crew drinking. Sometimes I took risks. It’s good to take risks now and again as long as you follow your instincts. I take the same approach with my glass work, putting something in the kiln just to see how it turns out.”
As well as drawing creative inspiration from her travels abroad, Anne looks to her local environment for new ideas. “My partner and I often go mountain biking along the South Downs Way and just sit there with some sandwiches taking it all in. My environment has a huge bearing on my work. The whales, they are made from glass used on boats, and the earrings, from bits of washed up sea glass from the local beaches.”
Anne moved to West Sussex after a friend introduced her to sailing. “I just loved it here, so I sold my house in Reigate and moved down. I used to crew for someone at the local yacht club. Once I got my Yachtmaster, I did some boat deliveries to Greece, Mahón and Puerto de la Cruz. Crossing the Bay of Biscay in winter was my first awakening to night sailing and big seas.”
Given the way it feels and looks, glass seemed like the obvious choice for Anne, whose innate attraction to water influenced some of her life choices. “I used to run a swim school at Westbourne House School in Oving,” says Anne. “I also used to swim competitively nearby, setting off ludicrously early to train before work. I love the fact that glass is very transparent like water. I have more blue glass than anything else – mainly turquoise and glacier blue.”
Anne’s introduction to glass fusing was largely at the hands of a friend whose birthday present planted the seed. “A friend bought me a course at West Dean College, and I found that I just loved cutting glass. Then there was the course at the Glass Hub in Somerset where I had a go at glass blowing. And the course at Made in Space in Havant. That was the final push I needed to convert my studio. Warm Glass in Bristol came next and my confidence just grew.”
The Chichester Art Trail placed Anne on the creative map, leading to various opportunities at The Rare Brands Market and the Little Art Gallery, West Wittering. Anne holds regular workshops for children and adults in her garden studio. “It’s been hard work running classes this year in the pandemic, but ordinarily I hold two or three a week. I also sell products through my website, and I run a pop-up shop in my campervan from time to time.”
“Just step over him,” says Marysa de Veer, watching me tiptoe around the dog lying comatose on the floor. We are in her workshop in Midhurst, Chichester. The antique binding equipment and floor-to-ceiling shelves of books and pots of paint give the room a lived-in feel reminiscent of a Dickens novel.
Marysa is preparing a book with a look of deep concentration. “It’s a prototype of a ‘spring back’ for a course I’m giving at West Dean College,” she says, splashing the endpapers with a warming palette.
“A spring back is an old-style account book that opens flat. I just love colour and experimenting with the most unlikely combinations. I grew up in West Africa and I suppose there’s always an element of sunshine in my books. But it’s a feel rather than a conscious decision.”
Marysa became acutely aware of her creative impulses from an early age. “At my first school, there was pottery in the cellar and an art room in a conservatory in the courtyard. And there were lessons in carpentry and weaving and dying your own wool.
“My mum is quite creative. She was a librarian and did a course at Aberystwyth. When I was quite small, I remember her taking me into the library and the librarian opening the safe and showing me the manuscripts and the beautiful books embellished in gold. That probably stayed with me.
“My natural inclination is crafts. I did a bookbinding course when I was 23 and living in Surrey. I went on to start Otter Bookbinding, named in part after the village of Ottershaw where I was living.”
Marysa pulls out a red leather-bound book with gold-leaf lettering from the shelf. “This is one of a set of books containing architectural drawing style designs by the late Stuart Devlin (a prolific designer of furniture, jewellery and silver ware). The pages have been joined up into folios and sewn through to create a book that opens flat. It was commissioned by his widow who has since bequeathed it to Goldsmiths, University of London.
“It’s quite eclectic here. My recent commissions include a family history, a series of sketchbooks, logbooks, a family bible, a Mrs Beaton and an anthology of poems. Everybody’s got a story to tell.” Saying this, she turns to the biscuit-coloured cat winding its way along the room-length table. “It’s really varied. There’s no shortage of things going on,” she continues, stroking the cat.
“This is Maureen,” she says, pointing at a picture above the sink. “Maureen taught me bookbinding at Guildford College of Technology. She was a kind of patron or mother to us. It’s all thanks to her that we’re here pulling this together,” she adds, swilling the paintbrushes under the tap.
“Maureen only lived up the road from West Dean College and always had a bottle of wine at the ready and the fire going whenever I dropped by with the dogs. She was ageless, your best friend, one of those super-duper special types you never want to be away from for long.”
Like many others, Marysa has had to adapt to the pandemic by moving classes online. “I’m currently working on a series of online tutorials centred around making books on the kitchen table. Anyone wanting to further their studies in bookbinding, try a different creative outlet or simply boost their well-being can do so in the comfort of their own home and just have fun with it.”
On a cold, damp day in rural Midhurst, with the smell of wet, decomposing leaves hanging in the air, I am transported to warmer climes by the harp-like sound of the Kora – a West African string instrument made from a calabash (a large pumpkin-like vegetable).
Kora player and maker Jali Mbye is playing impromptu in his garden as if it was second nature to him, but his performance is worthy of a concert setting. His mind seemingly elsewhere, he breaks into song, demonstrating an equally impressive vocal range.
His talent for music became apparent at an early age, performing locally in The Gambia. By 11, he was touring globally, including in the UK, where he now teaches Kora at Adaptatrap, Brighton, and makes them in his Midhurst studio.
“I love making things with my hands,” says Jali, adjusting the strings on a Kora destined for Finland. “Making or playing the instrument holds me in the present for hours. I lose myself in it. That’s what I try and impart to my students. I prefer to teach in person, fully absorbing the rawness of the instrument, rather than teaching remotely. It’s impossible to emulate that over the internet.”
The varnished black neck with a silver machine head and electronic pickup is humbled by the calabash body covered in cow hide. “This is a modern Kora,” says Jali. “It’s been fitted with harp strings instead of fishing lines and the neck is made from locally sourced hardwood. The original design rarely stays in tune,” he says, grabbing one from behind his workbench. “It’s impractical, but it keeps me connected to my roots.”
Besides playing and making the Kora, Jali writes his own music, drawing inspiration from his cultural heritage and local environment. Artists John Lennon, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder also influence his work. “Especially John Lennon,” says Jali. “He’s not just seeing. He’s sending messages. He really talks to me. That’s what we do in West Africa, with the Kora. We send messages, human-to-human, through our shared language of music.”
Despite the geographical distance between The Gambia and the UK, Jali remains connected to his home country through the Kora. “My cousin prepares the calabashes over there – drying them out and attaching the cow hide – and sends them over for me to finish. “It’s really important to me to stay connected to my family. I do miss them, even though we chat online. I also miss the landscape. But the deeper I go into Chichester and its surroundings, the more I find, and I’ve found some really beautiful places.”
Soap maker Juliet Rose is well practiced in the art of multi-tasking. In her Midhurst-based shop Sea Change, she is half talking about her journey into soap making, half keeping an eye on the customers as they spritz themselves in her latest collection. “Nutmeg, saffron and oud,” says Juliet. “Probably my favourite scent right now.”
“The Castaway conditioner bar is also invariably good,” she says, handing me a bar. “My partner and I came up with that idea last summer, something that’s like being stranded on a desert island and the only thing you need to keep your hair beautiful.” I pop it in my basket. “The patchouli, sandalwood and vanilla moisturizing soap is another favourite of mine. Its slate-like marbling comes from all the sea salt, which, believe it or not, is actually really good for your hair,” says Juliet. “And that one’s made from an entire pumpkin,” she says, pointing at another.
The Londoner born and bred started out as an artist, exhibiting in Bristol, London, New York and Washington. “I was an intensely creative person. My work was getting some serious recognition. But five years after my master’s, it just dried up. I had the artist’s equivalent of writer’s block. It’s only just started flowing again.”
A postcard of a white duck set against a scarlet-red background catches my eye on the counter. “It’s a print of a much larger version now hanging above someone’s fireplace in Bristol,” says Juliet.
"At the time, soap making filled that creative void. And it’s not much of a leap from making shampoo bars to soap and then all these green lights happened and suddenly I was invited to have a stall in Camden Market, which I did for about six months, and that led to a stall in Covent Garden, which I did for about 10 years.”
There’s no denying that Juliet has led an interesting life: exhibiting worldwide, living above a jazz bar in Central London, running a stall in Covent Garden, Jubilee Market. But selling soaps on Midhurst’s more sedate high street is where she’d rather be. “Of course, I miss that London buzz, I’d be lying if I didn’t, but the pace of life here is more sustainable, with the beach close by and the South Downs on my doorstep.
“I can’t imagine going back to London now. I love it here. I love the quiet. I love how safe it is. When I first moved here, I was still doing the market in Covent Garden, spending the whole week making everything for the weekend. By that point, the online business was growing, and I started doing wholesale, and the shop just sort of fell in my lap. I’ve only just stopped doing the Covent Garden market because of the virus.”
“I had the idea of setting up a plastic-free shop for a while. I’ve always been interested in the plastic-free movement anyway, and the Marine Conservation Society, so when the shop came along, I just thought it was a really good way of getting the message out there,” she says, gazing at the picture of David Attenborough above the counter.
Juliet’s soaps are heavily inspired by her environment. “You can just go for a walk and something will crop up. Everything informs the arts and the soap. I’m into obscure independent films and do a really unusual collection of niche scents like burnt engine-oil perfume and leather-room spray. It’s not to everyone’s taste. It’s an interesting, offbeat thing. But some people really like it. The burnt engine-oil fragrance was inspired by Killer Bob from Twin Peaks. My partner and I are really into David Lynch.
“I was also commissioned to make a collection of bath teas reminiscent of swimming in the local rivers. It smelt of hedgerows and weeds and mud. It was a powerful, olfactory experience. There’s nothing like nature. I’m such an urban girl, but I love it here. I’d never go back to London with all that concrete again.”
As well as bars of shampoo, conditioner and soap, Juliet makes candles, wax melts and perfume. “My partner has a distillery and makes all of the essential oils. Eventually, when we have a bigger garden, we want to make everything from scratch. I’ve always been interested in putting scents together. It’s probably the closest thing to painting because it takes such an intense amount of concentration. Making candles is the same sort of thing really.”
“It’s very tidy today,” says Heather Muir, opening the door to her garden studio. “Usually it’s a big mess.” A long-haired tortoiseshell cat follows us in, wrapping itself around my legs. In Heather’s white-brick studio in the centre of Chichester, rows of porcelain pots in natural hues recur around the room, their pristineness accentuated by the rather unwieldly Virginia creeper trailing in from next door.
The glazes on the celestial spheres, Heather makes from scratch. “There’s a lovely clay man down in Bognor Regis,” says Heather. “He’s the local supplier. I buy all the raw materials from him and make up the glazes in the studio. I’m always looking for ways to be more sustainable, only using resources that come from the Earth.”
Heather picks up a pastel-pink vase, turning it in her hands. “I was down on the beach at the weekend and some ash must have blown in because there was black all against the ripples of sand and it was just beautiful. The sea and sand and weather all influence the creative aesthetic. But I’m more interested in the form and getting the shape right. I was commissioned through my website to make three vases of the same shape, but different sizes. That was tough. Porcelain is my favourite material to work with but it’s not the easiest on the wheel. I had to learn how to throw taller and bigger mainly through YouTube clips and lots of practice.
“Ahem, excuse me,” says Heather, rescuing the cat from the counter. “You know what happened last time,” she says, running her fingers through its dense coat. “I don’t know how she gets up there. And then she jumps down and the whole thing shakes, and I’m like, ‘Rose! Don’t you even think about it’.”
Rose jumps up onto the disused wooden wheel, imploring affection. “My parents bought that old wheel when I was 21. It still works. It’s just very cranky. I probably ought to sell it but it’s a bit sentimental. So, I’m hoping I can recondition it for teaching. This one, however, I bought last year,” says Heather, looking at the neighbouring machine. “It’s called a Shimpo. It’s so quiet.”
Heather recalls having creative tendencies as a child. “Growing up surrounded by clay, with my father working as a sculptor, it was inevitable really, that I’d end up doing something like this. I graduated with a degree in 3D Design: Ceramics from the Bath Academy of Art in the 90s, then had children, then became a teacher. It wasn’t until later that I took ceramics more seriously.
“That passion doesn’t leave you even after having four children. I bought this house, set up my studio and it’s gone from there."
Heather now spends her spare time in the studio, around teaching at a local primary school.
“I’m in here whenever I can,” says Heather. “More so in spring, summer and autumn when it’s warmer and you can make something in a day. It’s great mindfulness stuff. People are doing it as an escape from the madness of the world.”
“I also belong to the Southern Ceramic Group, which started up in the 70s and has just grown and grown all along the South Coast. Around 40–50 of us get together for an annual exhibition at Chichester Cathedral. It’s great. You get a real variety of styles coming together. That was cancelled this year for obvious reasons. The Chichester Art Trail got cancelled too – that would have been my first. I’m hoping to run a stall at Draper’s Yard, Chichester soon. They are really trying to promote local artists.”
Heather pulls a pot from the electric kiln and walks over to the glaze tests for colour inspiration. "Ceramics, it’s just my thing. Here, I can just forget everything and get into what I’m doing and just focus on that. I’m just glad I’ve found it again.”
Top image: hand-painted end papers made by Marysa de Veer © Otter Bookbinding