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Beaufort & Blake meet Tess Newall

Based in the rolling hills of East Sussex, surrounded by clucking chickens and rustling apple trees, you’ll find Decorative Artist and Set Designer Tess Newall working away in her studio. From exquisite, whimsical lampshades to large scale murals and studio sets, her hand painted designs radiate joy. She discusses her meandering career journey and finding inspiration in the everyday.

Tell us a bit about yourself, have you always been creative? 

Yes! My mum is an artist and my dad is a building conservationist, so I grew up surrounded by paints and fabrics and plans laid out on the kitchen table. I was always making things from bits and bobs I could find around the house.

You studied Anthropology at Oxford University before becoming a Decorative Artist and Set Designer. How did you get started?

I had a place at Chelsea art college, but when traveling in Sri Lanka aged 18, I decided I wanted to study Archaeology & Anthropology instead. I was fascinated by the relationship Buddhist philosophy drew between lunar cycles and working days. Thankfully, fishermen hadn't been out on the day of the 2004 tsunami as it was a Poya (full moon) day. I wanted to learn how different cultures function. I wrote my university application from a tiny internet cafe on the beach! At Oxford I specialised in the evolution of human cognition, tracking the link between art and the brain - objects like tools becoming decorative, beyond the functional, marked a key development in social groups. I went on to do an Art Therapy foundation course at Goldsmiths, but then realised that I wanted to be making with my own hands. I assisted a brilliant set designer for a year, and then started out on my own - making and painting sets for shop windows, fashion shoots and then films. Decorative painting came more recently; my husband Alfred Newall is a furniture maker, and his interior design clients began asking me to paint pieces and murals for them. I've always loved interiors, so it feels like a very fortunate career progression.  

Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you ever get Artist’s block and if so, how do you overcome it?

So many different places! Sometimes it's as simple as going for a walk and taking time to look at the curly shape of a fern frond. But when I'm really searching, I turn to my book collection - historic fabrics, Italian frescoes, Swedish interiors... there's a lot! I think the best cure for artist's block would be a browse of the V&A Museum archives - you can search the collections online, from your own home - it's like stepping into the Narnia wardrobe and delving into a world of infinite treasures...

Talk us through your perfect Sunday.

Taking a thermos of coffee and a packed breakfast in a rucksack up the hill behind our cottage on a clear early morning, then having friends over for lunch when we safely can again... and once it's dark, curling up with the weekend papers in front of a fire. Bliss.

How would you describe your style?

I'd happily dress as a member of The Railway Children or Little Women for all of winter! Billowing skirts, boiled wool berets and muddy boots. I grew up in Scotland and that's always been my cold weather "style".

Have you found any silver linings to lockdown life?

Slowing down and spending time as a family of four. Our baby girl was born at home two days into the first lockdown. It was very sad that our family and friends couldn't meet her for such a long time, but we've been lucky to be in the countryside and be quite self-sufficient with eggs, vegetables, apples - we also picked a lot of wild garlic in the spring! I think being thankful for everything that we do have has been a silver lining for many people. We've also never seen so much wildlife around us, with no cars or aeroplanes - the earth has been allowed to breathe.

Any podcast or book recommendations?

Listen to How to Fail With Elizabeth Day, she is such a thoughtful interviewer. Read Heartburn by Nora Ephron, and My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud for any mothers - it is a very funny, honest and tender account of motherhood. I read it in two days straight! 

Photography: James Ratchford

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