Printmaker Helen Peyton’s rustic live-work cottage in the Dales holds a big surprise for visitors. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
It’s quite normal for new visitors to go slack-jawed and temporarily speechless when they walk through the front door of Helen Peyton’s cottage. Dominating the sitting room is an enormous Victorian printing press topped with a fearsome looking eagle.
The Columbia press is a prize specimen and is on permanent loan to printmaker Helen on the proviso that when she no longer uses it, she passes it onto another artist or art department that will use and cherish it. “I couldn’t say no when it was offered to me. It is amazing but it was a huge struggle to get in the house. It’s made of iron and weighs one-and-a-half tons,” she says.
Helen recruited her partner, Vincent, a dry stone waller, along with the local tug of war team, who somehow managed to heave it indoors.
The sitting room now doubles as her studio, the TV has long gone and there’s just space for a couple of armchairs squeezed up close to the fireplace.
Where does everyone sit is the question that spring to mind, and the answer is that what appears to be a small cottage is something of a Tardis and stretches over four floors.
The kitchen is now the hub of the house and is where she, Vincent and her two teenage children meet, eat and chat.
Helen, who has lived in the Dales for over 20 years, bought the house near Appletreewick eight years ago. It had belonged to a former missionary and warden at the Anglican retreat Parcevall Hall for almost half a century.
Her family waited for Helen to get a deposit together rather than sell the cottage to a developer or as a holiday home and, apart from valuables and sentimental items, they left everything in it, from the vintage furniture, the old dryer and cassette radio – all made to last and still going strong – to old pots, pans, crockery and books.
“They were very kind and I just moved in with a suitcase. The previous owner was a great adventurer and a collector and I’m a bit of hoarder so it suited me,” says Helen.
The characterful cottage also came with a long list of repair and renovation jobs, which Helen is slowly working her way through. “It was quite derelict and the roof was collapsing but I fell in love with it immediately,” she says.
Over the years, she has made it watertight while heat comes from a solid- fuel Rayburn that powers a couple of radiators. “It’s cold but you get used to it and we don’t catch many colds,” she says, adding that the views, location and charm of the house more than make up for low temperatures.
Her adoration of the place increased when she discovered a hidden fourth bedroom in the attic. The 20ft long and 6ft wide space had been boxed off, but now, after Helen bashed through a wall, it is her son’s bedroom. She added a mezzanine bed accessed via a playground slide she bought from eBay.
“It’s fun and he loved it when he was young,” says Helen, who uses a large part of the attic as a storage room with cut-price shelving she made from scaffolding and wood.
Her creative talent and sense of humour is also in evidence on the first-floor landing where she has a collection of kitsch religious icons
Some of her life drawings, prints, cards and posters dress the walls. The prints are often objects that inspire memories and emotions – including a vintage record player and a collection of bobbins. The glass of beer print is in honour of her sister, Jane, who runs the School of Booze, and the starry sky prints are of the dark, starlit skies above her home.
Naturally good with her hands, Helen’s early working years included studying cabinetmaking and photography and working as an illustrator at a heritage centre before studying for a degree in printmaking.
Her portfolio career now includes creating her own lino monoprints and lino reduction prints, teaching life drawing and working for museums.
She is creative practitioner at The Hepworth in Wakefield, where she runs workshops, makes art and helps to develop special projects, including one to make the gallery dementia-friendly.
Along with her printmaking, she is renowned for founding pop-up Smart (social museum and art) Galleries. This original idea, inspired by her love of objects, their stories and their association to our emotions, saw her long-listed for the Turner Prize.
“You start with an empty room and invite local people to fill it with objects that they treasure and that have stories attached. They don’t have to be antiques.
“The first was at the Craven Museum in Skipton and within three months, through word of mouth, 1,200 objects were on display,” says Helen, who has made linocut prints of some of the items.
“A lot of the stories are emotional. One man brought a pair of pipe grips he had made at school. He kept them because they represented a pivotal moment for him.
“His teacher praised them and that gave him the confidence to do his exams and eventually go to university.”
Helen’s next project on the cottage will be the lower ground floor, which she plans to turn into a kitchen, leaving the old kitchen freed up as a sitting room.
“I also need to do the roof again,” she says. “I’m not rushing as I intend to stay here. I love the house and I love the area. I couldn’t live anywhere else but the Dales.”
Helen Peyton’s work is available from the Zillah Bell gallery in Thirsk. She will also be selling at the Hepworth Wakefield Print Fair, March 1 to 3, and has a shop on her website, www.helenpeyton.com.
Helen is taking part in the North Yorkshire Open Studios, which runs over the weekends of June 1 and 2 and June 8 and 9.