Artist in residence: the London home and backdrop of a portraitist

A midcentury house on a wooded hill has been stripped back to its origins to provide both inspiration and a relaxing home

Arriving at Curtis Holder’s south London home, I am invited to view what the portraitist smilingly calls his “smoking room”. Neither fuggy nor fusty, Holder’s version of a Victorian gentleman’s hideaway is, in fact, his studio. Holder, who’s currently appearing on the Sky Arts feelgood Portrait Artist of the Year show, designed the welcoming space himself, adding sleek, wood-panelled storage to echo the midcentury feel of his live-work 1960s townhouse where, as he puts it, “Everything has its place.”

There was little left of its original architecture when Holder, and his partner, Steve Goggin, a digital content manager for the Historic Royal Palaces, moved here 15 years ago. “At that point we didn’t have a tube station and the area was still affordable,” he says. The cul-de-sac property is set in an estate of modernist properties bordered by quiet woodland. “I used to live nearby, and I’ve always loved this road. I called it San Francisco Way because it’s so wide and the houses are so unusual.”

Curtis Holder with his partner, Steve Goggin, standing in front of floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboards
‘We wanted to unpick the mistakes and take it back to its original, midmodern feel’: Curtis Holder (left) with partner, Steve Goggin. Photograph: James Balston/The Observer

Previous owners had been less enamoured of the property. “There’d been some odd alterations made to the house. At some point, someone had even tiled the facade, which looked very strange,” says Holder. “It felt unloved. We wanted to unpick the mistakes and take it back to its original, midmodern feel. It also had to be practical – somewhere we can work, live and relax with friends in.”

Built into a steep hillside, the three-storey house has a layout that allows them to separate work from social life. The top-floor bedrooms, with their wide views, are a sanctuary, where new, built-in storage swallows up clutter. In the main living area below, walls were removed to open up the kitchen, while new doors lead to the garden. In the sitting room, the planners allowed them to install a full-height window, while woodland wallpaper brings the shimmering birch trees of the front garden inside. Elsewhere, popular midcentury designs – a George Nelson bench, silvery Verner Panton lights – and plant-festooned open shelving add to the feel that you have stepped into a 1960s Habitat catalogue, brimming with postwar optimism.

One of the few authentic features left inside was the glazed internal wall which brings light to the open-tread staircase. The timber-framed panel, now carefully restored, was inspired by the pioneering glass architecture of nearby Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition in 1851, which burned down in 1936.

There used to be a greenhouse at the side of the house, but it was the worst for wear, so they replaced it with Holder’s second “wet” studio, where he experiments with watercolours, inks or spray painting. The work surface is made of chipboard and the floor is painted with splash-proof resin. Opening the art cupboard brings him particular joy.

Woodland wallpaper in the living room.
Hillside habitat: woodland wallpaper in the living room. Photograph: James Balston/The Observer

He works briskly, layering pencils and graphite for the dynamic effect that caught the eye of Sky’s judging panel. “I draw in the moment, putting down what’s happening now. I don’t like to tinker with pieces,” says Holder, who has made it to the semi-finals. Social media inspired him to submit his art to the show’s producers. “My Instagram followers were so supportive. I thought, I’m 52. It’s time to be brave. What can I lose?”

Sitters come here for different reasons. “One lady was about to turn 50. She had a list of things she wanted to accomplish. One was to be drawn nude. She was nervous at first. By the end, the power balance had shifted. She was the one who felt in control. I see this all the time.”

A bedroom with artwork by Curtis on the wall.
Finished product: a bedroom with artwork by Curtis on the wall. Photograph: James Balston/The Observer

In summer, he holds drawing classes in the garden for neighbours. “We’re an artistic, friendly community,” says Holder, who is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school. All the art or design in the house has a personal connection. A studio stool is by Assembly Room, whose husband-and-wife founders live a few doors down; Holder swapped his own art for the prints and paintings by Alex Mein and his nephew, Jethro Syder-Spence. A large abstract is by Don Hutson, the father of a school friend. “He was the first artist I ever met. I’d go to their house and gaze at his paintings, wondering if I could ever have a career in art.”

Growing up on an estate in Leicester in the 1980s, Holder, a graduate of Central Saint Martins, remembers how his mother, a nurse, would answer his boyish questionings with accomplished drawings. “She would talk and draw – plant roots, clouds – to explain how things worked. We communicated through mark-making.”

Art school, however, was not on the family radar. A character in EastEnders changed all that. “Colin was an artist, he was gay, he had a flat – and a boyfriend. I thought, there’s a living to be had in this world of art.”

Discussions about Portrait Artist of the Year are embargoed (the winner is announced on 16 December), but he plans to put his appearance to constructive use. “The art world is often perceived as a diverse land of milk and honey. The reality is that it’s still white and male-dominated. What prevents people from breaking into that world is visibility. If you don’t see yourself represented, you’ll think there’s no way in. I’d like to take my story to as many children as possible and say, you can survive as an artist. It’s like any other job, you have to work hard. But it’s as real as becoming a doctor. I want to show others that art can be a career, and a way of life.” and @curtisartist Portrait Artist of the Year is on 9 December at 8pm on Sky Arts, Freeview Channel 11

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Serena Fokschaner

The GuardianTramp

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