Inside story of art dekko

  • Artist Stephen Bird is set to open his amazing Ampleforth home to the public for this year’s North Yorkshire Open Studios. Sharon Dale enjoys a sneak preview.
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Stephen Bird’s compulsion to paint is clear to anyone who has visited his cottage in Ampleforth. There are paintings everywhere. Canvases cover every wall, they are stacked six deep on the floors, propped up on the piano and piled on top of cabinets.

When his children were small, he had little time to spend at his easel, so instead he satisfied his creative urges by creating mini-murals on the walls and making and painting furniture.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

“I have always had to draw and paint. Fortunately my family are very sympathetic,” says Stephen, who is head of art and history of art at Ampleforth College. Over the years, since graduating from Goldsmiths College of Art in London, he has developed a distinctive, thought-provoking style that combines theology with his own cultural references and a lot of humour.

So his painting of Tobias and the Angel shows the pair chatting in a pub in south Lambeth. Noah is building his ark at Deptford Creek before the Thames Barrier breaks and when the angels appear to Abraham in Stephen’s painting, he is on a camping holiday in the Lake District with a tent and a Morris Traveller.

His latest series of narrative paintings were created on an artistic sabbatical funded by the Farmington Institute, which supports projects that encourage engagement with biblical text. They are his interpretation of the book of Genesis and will be on show next spring starting at Durham Cathedral and then York, Oxford and London.

“There is a religious aspect to most of my paintings. It’s a very rich culture,” says Stephen. “I work from my imagination and I am inspired by literature and biblical sources. I also get ideas from my drawings. My sketch books go back 40 years and are like visual diaries.”

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen is one of three artists in the village taking part in the North Yorkshire Open Studios event, which runs for two weekends, June 6 and 7, and June 13 and 14.

Visitors who venture into his home and garden are sure to be impressed and not just with the copious artwork on display. The quirky four-bedroom cottage is a wonderful mix of handmade, found and collected items.

Stephen and his wife, Elaine, bought the property 22 years ago after he started working at the college.

“We moved from London to York initially and I used to cycle up here to do drawings of the ruined abbeys. I took a wrong turn and ended up in Ampleforth. I saw the job at the college advertised and thought I could do it for one term. I’ve been there ever since and I love it,” he says.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

The house needed some updating but the couple were more keen to make it their own than to ruthlessly modernise. The first thing they did was rip out the fitted kitchen and replace it with free-standing furniture. It includes a table from an aunt’s pub and stools and a bench made and decorated by Stephen, who has helpfully painted warnings above the very low doorway reminding visitors to duck.

One of his favourite possessions, dubbed “the patron saint of the cottage”, sits proudly on the kitchen windowsill. It is a carved wooden sculpture of St David that was discovered in the garden shed. It was made by Joseph Hoy, who was an Austrian refugee given sanctuary by Ampleforth College.

The sitting room, with its dark red walls, is a cosy space full of paintings, of course, plus books and music. There is no television. “We had one for a while when the children were here. The grandparents felt sorry for them and bought them one. Now the children are grown up we have got rid of it because we never watched it,” he says.

Not being tied to the “gogglebox” means more time to paint and make. Stephen’s studio is in what was the cottage’s second sitting room. He gets up at 6.30am so he can squeeze in an hour at the easel before work and, as college is just down the road, he sometimes cycles back home so he can paint at lunchtime too.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

In the summer he paints outside in the long garden at the back, where he has created a “shed heaven”. There was already a workshop, which has benefited from the Bird touch, and he also built a tree house from recycled rugby posts for his children, Conrad, Lucy and Henry. Best of all is “the bus shelter” covered with carvings and a sign “Non perdere la speranza”, which translates as “Do not lose hope”.

“I used to sit and wait for the bus in a bus shelter in Lambeth and I missed it so I made my own,” says Stephen.

The garden is also home to some of his sculptures and his pots, as pottery is another passion and one that he shared with the children when they were 

Although they have grown up and gone, they often return with friends, who include members of Conrad’s band Holy Moly and the Crackers.

It’s one of the reasons that Stephen and Elaine are loathe to leave their village home. “I’m not sure who else would have it anyway,” he says. “But we love it and I love the area. Yorkshire is such a fantastic place. It is like being in a gallery.

“The village is brilliant. It is on the edge of the most incredible landscape and with two primary schools, two pubs and two churches plus a shop, it’s a very self-sustaining community. At first I missed London and was torn between city and country life. Now I am completely converted to country living.”

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

Stephen Bird's Coram Cottage at Ampleforth.

• To see more of Stephen’s work visit www.sgbirdart.uk. Stephen, fellow artist Jonathon Pomroy and photographer Lucy Saggers are all opening their home studios in Ampleforth to the public during the North Yorkshire Open Studios event. More than 100 artists and makers from all over North Yorkshire, from Skipton to Scarborough, are taking part and it runs across two weekends, June 6 and 7 and June 13 and 14. Visit www.nyos.org.uk.