The art of restoration

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This historic Georgian home is a hive of creative activity thanks to the two artists who live and work there. Sharon Dale reports.

When Mike Smith and Julia Keates heard about a stone house for sale in Headingley they were disappointed to find a grotty looking property with a shabby 1950s front door.

Fortunately, they spotted a gate leading to the other side of the terrace, which revealed a magnificent Georgian frontage and a large garden.

“We put an offer in straight away for £11,000, which was a lot in 1977, and we hadn’t even seen the inside. The estate agent insisted we have a look first,” says Mike. “It was absolutely horrendous.”

The property had been empty for two years, it was riddled with woodworm and the old lady who had lived there grew plants in the bath. She also let out some of the rooms, which were in terrible condition. But beneath the grime, the layers of gloss paint and the dead pigeons, was a treasure trove of original Georgian features, completely intact.

The shutters, staircase, decorative ceiling roses, high skirting boards, front door and the built-in cupboards had all survived for well over a century and the couple spent years bringing them back to their best. At one point, they had a bath of caustic soda in the cellar for stripping the old paint off the internal doors and shutters.

“It was in a state but it didn’t put us off because it was an amazing building and we could see the potential, but it was a huge job and it was hard work,” says Julia.

“There was no central heating and we moved in winter with a nine-month-old baby and just an open fire in the front room. We used to pile overcoats on the beds to keep warm at night.”

A heating system was essential, but there was no need to change the original Georgian layout and proportions, which suited them perfectly. The old cupboards have provided much-needed storage space, while the shutters are an excellent security device and a fireplace caked in blue paint turned out to be marble.

There have been a few changes over the years. They made a hatch with louvre doors through from the kitchen to the dining room in the 1970s though it has since been replaced.

“It was great for being able to keep an eye on our son when he was playing in there but we’ve since made the dining room into a music room and filled the hatch in with a glass-fronted cupboard,” says Julia, an artist and musician, who plays the flute and viola. She and Mike did all the renovation work themselves and converted the three servants’ rooms in the attic into a large en-suite bedroom for their son, Ben.

“I love working with my hands. I often think woodwork was the most useful O-level I did,” says Mike.

He and Julia are both former art teachers. He was head of creative arts at Brigshaw High School in Allerton Bywater and she was head of art at Leeds Girls High School. Leaving teaching has given them the time and energy to focus on their own work.

Julia has requisitioned the loft room as a studio for painting her striking abstracts. Mike, a gifted printmaker, works on a smaller scale, hand-carving his linocuts, so he has the spare bedroom.

His hobby is gliding and he is an instructor at the Sutton Bank club. The gliders feature in work, as do birds, seascapes and almost anything that inspires him to draw in the sketch book he carries everywhere. His work was recently chosen to feature in the Great North Art Show in Ripon, which starts on August 31.

“I love the technical aspects of printmaking and the fact that lino cutting is the same now as it was in the 15th-century,” he says. “I don’t paint because I know I could never compete with Julia.”

Their contemporary paintings and 
prints, along with pictures by Julia’s 
father and sculptures by her mother, feature all over the house. They suit the architectural style and the décor, which is a mix of old and new. Much of the antique furniture is from Julia’s parents, aunt 
and godmother and the Regency and Georgian elegance sits well with modern classics like the Marcel Breuer chair in the sitting room.

The surfaces are filled with mementoes collected from their travels, so there are ceramics from Majorca, Sicily and Morocco along with shells, pebbles and lumps of lava from holidays here and abroad.

Although they enjoy travel, coming home is always a pleasure, even though Headingley has changed since they arrived there in the 1970s. The ‘studentification’ of the area and conversion of homes into bedsits is a big issue.

“It’s had a devastating impact, but as much as we complain and look to move elsewhere, we can’t find anything like this house anywhere,” says Mike. “It would be incredibly hard to leave. We have put our heart and soul into it.”

The Great North Art Show is at 
Ripon Cathedral from August 31 to September 22.

www.greatnorthartshow.co.uk; www.mikesmithprints.co.uk; www.juliakeates.com

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