Polly Hope, Jobbing Artist
Polly Hope does not go out too much. And why should she, when she has her own dreamlike world to inhabit at the heart of Spitalfields? Step off Brick Lane, go through the tall gate, across the courtyard, past the hen house, through the studio, up the stairs and into the brewery – you will find Polly attended by the huge dogs and small cats, and a menagerie of other creatures that share the complex of old buildings which have been her home for more than forty years.
Here, Polly has her sculpture workshop, her painting studio, her kiln, her print room, her library and her office. It goes on and on. At every turn, there are myriad examples of Polly’s lifetime of boundless creativity – statues, paintings, quilts, ceramics and more. And, possessing extravagant flowing blonde hair and the statuesque physique of a dancer, Polly is a goddess to behold. One who know who she is and what she thinks, and one who does not suffer fools gladly.
So, while I was on my mettle when I visited Polly’s extraordinary dominion, equally I was intoxicated to be in the presence of one so wholly her own woman, capable of articulating all manner of surprising truths, and always speaking with unmediated candour from her rich experience of life.
“I don’t know where it comes from. My father was a general in the British Army with generations of soldiers behind him. There were no artists on the family, and I have never found any great grandmother’s tapestry or grandfather’s watercolours.
I went to Chelsea and the Slade, and hated it. They wanted to teach you how to express yourself, but I wanted to learn how to make things. So I went to live in a tiny village in Greece because it was cheap, and I supported myself and my family by writing novels under a pseudonym. That was where I discovered textiles because they still make quilts there, and I was looking for a way to make large works of art which I could transport in my car. So I used the quiltmaker to help with the sewing. Today there’s various wall hangings of mine in different places around the world.
My second husband, Theo Crosby, and I liked East London, and Mark Girouard – who was a friend – showed us this place and we bought it for tuppence ha-penny in the early seventies. At that point, the professional classes hadn’t realised Spitalfields was five minutes walk from the City, but we cottoned onto it. This was one of the little breweries put up in the eighteen forties to get the rookeries off gin and onto beer, and make a few pounds into the bargain. Brick Lane was not the area of play it is now, it was a working place then with drycleaners, ironmongers, chemists, all the usual High St shops – and I could buy everything I needed for my textiles.
I decided it was time to do some community work, so I got everyone involved. Even those who couldn’t sew for toffee apples counted sequins for me. I did all the design and oversaw the work. The plan was to make a series of tableaux to hang down either side of Christ Church but we only completed the first two – the Creation of the World and the Garden of Eden – and they hang in the crypt now. I’ve done a lot for churches, I was asked to design a reredos for St Augustine’s at Scaynes Hill, but when I saw it – it was a perfect Arts & Crafts church – I said, “What you need is a Byzantine mosaic,” and they said, ‘”Yes.” And it took six years – we offered to include people’s pets in the design in return for five hundred pounds donation and that paid for the materials.
I am jack of all trades, tapestry, embroidery, painting, ceramics, stained glass windows, illustration, graphics, pots, candlesticks and bronzes. My ambition is to be a small town artist, so if you need decorations for the street party, or an inn sign painted, or a wedding dress designed, I could do it. I can understand techniques easily. When I worked with craftsmen in Sri Lanka, or with Ikat weavers, I learnt not to go into the workshop and ask them to make what you want, instead you get them to show you their techniques and you find a way to work with that. Techniques that have been refined over hundreds of years fascinate me. I don’t see any line between craft and art, I think it’s a mistake that crept in during the nineteenth century – high art and low craft.
I’m a countrywoman and I grew up on a mountain in Wales where there were always animals around. Living here, I play Marie Antoinette with my pets which all have opera names. My step-daughter Dido even brought her geese once to stay for Christmas. I have a mixed bag of chickens which give me four or five eggs a day – one’s not pulling her weight at the moment but I don’t know which it is. When they grow old, they retire to my niece in Kent. She takes my geriatric ones. I used to have more lurchers but one died and went to the big dog in the sky, now I have a new poodle I got six months ago and a yorkie who always takes a siesta with the au pair, as well as two cats. And I always had parrots, but the last one died. I got the original one, Figaro, from the Club Row animal market. One day I found him dead at the bottom of his cage. I just like living with animals, always have done all my life. A house is not a home without creatures in it.”
By now, we had emptied Polly’s teapot, so we set out on a tour of the premises, with a small procession of four legged creatures behind us. Polly showed me her merry-go-round horse from Jones Beach, and her hen house designed after the foundling Hospital in Florence, and her case of Staffordshire figures with some of her own slipped in among them, and the ceramic zodiac she made for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, complementing the building designed by her husband Theo Crosby. And then we came upon the portraits of Polly’s military ancestors in bearskins and plaid trousers, in images dating back into the nineteenth century, and then we opened the cupboard of postcards of her work, and then we pulled box files of photographs off the shelf to rummage.
We lost track of time as it grew dark outside, and I thought – if I had created a world as absorbing as Polly Hope’s, I do not think I would ever go out either.
Monty & Fred, deer hound brothers, 2009.
Oscar, golden retriever.
Portrait of Theo Crosby, with one of the Club Row parrots and a lurcher.
Portrait of Roy Strong and his cat.
Portrait of Laura Williams depicted as Ariel.
Wall hanging at St Augustine’s, Scaynes Hill, West Sussex.
The Marriage at Canaa.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand.
The Red Flower, applique and quilting.
Archaeological Dig, applique and quilting.
Portrait of Polly Hope copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies
Artworks copyright © Polly Hope