On the Nuneham Courtenay estate, beautiful red brick buildings set against lush green are quietly tucked away alongside the Thames. It is here, however, that some of the brightest and boldest colours can be found; sensuous fabrics to transform the house from a gentle English day to a subtropical paradise.
Artist and designer Kathryn Croxson moved to the UK from Australia five years ago, leaving behind a career as a graphic designer in the architecture and fashion industry, during which she worked on women’s clothes, activewear and boutique ranges, with a particular interest in the production side. “It can take ten minutes to design something and then another 20 hours to create it,” she smiles, “and so I enjoy both elements in the making process.”
Her fabric designs begin with paintings, striking abstract statement pieces which are a response to the inclement climate she found here. Each is the antithesis of rainy days and miserable Mondays: luminous abstracts leap from the canvas blasting bright energy into the room to dispel the monotony of ordinary life. The splashes of bright and even neon colour have an almost tropical party vibe, like Gauguin’s Tahiti, a cocktail of colour that evokes emotions of escapism. “Wherever you are in the world, there are such amazing colours if you look,” Kathryn explains, “and the contrasts between them make them ring out. The Australian artist John Olsen and the British fashion designer Matthew Williamson inspire me, and so does light. I love the Monet works where there’s a saturation of pinks and mauves, and Van Gogh’s yellows and blues, alongside which he’ll use a dash of bright red to catch the eye. I enjoy playing with kaleidoscopic colour, intricate patterns and designs inspired by the nature I see on my travels.”
Kathryn uses her paintings, and occasional digital collages, as a basis for her bespoke fabric designs, printed on cotton, canvas, rayon and silk, either using them in their entirety or choosing a detail for a repeating pattern.
The exuberance of each is heavily influenced by Kathryn’s travels in hot exotic places, across South America, in Fiji, Antigua, Bali and Turkey for example, as well as the hot Australian environment where she grew up. One design, ‘The Dabs’ was taken from a painting in the Fuchsia pinks of frangipani, teamed with the yellows and aquas of Antigua. Another fabric, ‘Feathers and Fur’, shows a fusion of cheetah print (“one of my favourite animals in Sydney Zoo; I haven’t seen them in the wild”) and colourful Australian birds in reds and blues, whilst ‘Confetti Head’ was inspired by hot days in Greece where the sky was blisteringly blue and the sun bold: the turquoise of the background is scattered with white pebbles which also represent busy thoughts falling away as you relax into a holiday environment.
“I design flamboyant fabrics to add that delicious feeling of relaxing in a warm climate to the home. When I moved to the UK I was surprised how neutral the patterns and designs in high street home stores tend to be, often focussing on the hearth with cosy deep tones harking back to a traditional era. The contrast with interior design in Sydney where the décor highlights the light and fresh colours in the world was surprising.”
Another of Kathryn’s fabrics recollects the more local environment, albeit with her own dreamlike twist: Alice Liddell, who fell down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, used to come here in his boat and the river and the estate must have been a lush paradise to visit in the spring, with the peacocks which roam free in Nuneham Courtenay village spreading their magnificent tail feathers in iridescent teals and green.
And while fabric is as bright and bohemian as the talking flowers in Wonderland, the silk twill she uses is hand-rolled in Gloucestershire by Beckford Silk. The company was set up in 1975 with an ethos of making things by hand in the countryside, inspired by the very British Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris a century earlier, and some of Kathryn’s scarves are on sale at Blenheim Palace. In 2018 she won a competition to showcase her products in their shop; this included one-off printed leather bags, limited edition kimonos and homeware from her signature bold print, limited edition designs.
“I love working with fabric because it’s amazing how when you translate a hard-edged canvas onto textiles, because the fabric is soft and silky, the loose expressive lines really move and flow. So, the material itself has a dynamism even when tailoring has added form and structure. I’m currently working with a new material made from recycled bottles that will be striking yet sustainable for swimwear first and then other activewear. Exercise makes you feel great about yourself, and puts you in a happy place. It’s that positive energy and vitality that I try to add to a home through my designs – whether it’s a splash of life from cushions or blankets, to coasters, napkins, mugs or plates; as hand-painted ceramics, bright bold accents lamps that throw soft colour across the room, or busy wallpaper for statement walls. I hope I am helping people make their own Wonderland inside.”
This year the annual Oxfordshire Artweeks festival (2-25 May) has been restricted by coronavirus to a virtual presence: visit artweeks.org and follow #oxfordshireartweeks on Instagram to enjoy the creative talent of these and hundreds of other artists and designers this summer.