A few months back, Outside In’s Communications Officer Kate Davey visited Stephen Wright’s House of Dreams, which is filled with the discarded objects of everyday life; milk bottle tops, broken dolls, dolls’ eyeballs, the contents of Christmas crackers, false teeth, pen lids, crockery, and the rich pickings of car boot sales. In our blog post this week, Kate discusses what she saw when she visited Stephen in his magical home.
Alighting at East Dulwich train station, I turned right and walked along a residential street. As I reached my destination; the home of renowned visionary environment creator, Stephen Wright, I stepped through the high gate into the front garden. It was then that I knew this trip was going to be very special. Looking around, I took in Stephen’s collection of ephemera, plastic knick-knacks and jaunty mosaics which lined every bit of space in the patio-ed garden. Knowing that just beyond the boundary fence, everyday people were going about their everyday lives made me feel like I’d just been let in on an enchanting secret.
I knocked on the door and Stephen greeted me with open arms and a beaming smile. I had been in email contact with him prior to the meeting, so it was brilliant to finally put a face to a name. He invited me inside, leading me through a matte black corridor overlaid with scrawling white text conveying very personal messages taken straight from Stephen’s diary.
Stephen and I chatted about the conception of the House, and how it emerged from his desire to create something permanent following a career in the temporary world of design. He started the endeavour with his then-partner Donald Jones (1939 – 2004), taking influence from numerous visits to French visionary environments including Raymond Isidore’s Picassiette in Chartres and the Palais Ideal by Facteur Cheval in Hauterives. The sad death of Donald, closely followed by the death of Stephen’s parents three years into the project perhaps heightened Stephen’s urge to create something that would last forever. The House is Stephen’s personal legacy, bequeathed now to the National Trust.
Further inside the House, the majority of the ground floor is filled with re-employed bottles and containers and baby-faced dolls; the bric-a-brac of yesterday transformed into works of art, imbued with meaning by Stephen himself and the visitors that come, loaded with their own stories. Stephen has found that people will knock at the door with a personal deposit to make; one man even delivering his wife’s ashes. The House has become a depository for DNA and unique narratives embodied in personal belongings.
Vibrant and bright, the main body of the House is almost a direct contrast to the sombre atmosphere of the entrance hallway. Desert colours splash across the floorboards giving the House an injection of Mexico, betraying the influence of folk art and folk traditions from Haiti, India and Central and South America. Stephen’s use of found objects is indicative of the process of many renowned outsider artists, and, working within the House at least once a week, the cathartic act of collecting, rehoming and installing is most important to him.
Stephen showed me some of his latest work, which marries together his past life as a fashion designer with the current style of the House. The works are handmade costumes, modelled by Stephen and others and photographed by his current partner, actor Michael Vaughan, with whom he is also working on a book. When Stephen wears the costumes, he brings to life a new, unique character. It is Stephen’s fantastic ability to create such full, exciting characters that make both his new works and the House so enthralling, inviting the visitor to return over and over again. It is like entering a safe space, a sanctuary; a place of solitude amongst meaning, and in stark contrast to the busy, material London streets outside Stephen’s front door.
On Thursday 27 August, there will be a film screening and a talk by Stephen Wright at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Tickets are £10 per person (Friends of the Gallery £8.50, Students £9). Click here for information on how to book.