In Thorncombe, Dorset, is a Georgian house with a sonorous spirit, as if it has been untouched for centuries. In fact, it has been carefully and sensitively restored by artists Cameron Short and Janet Tristram. The pair have made it a home for their family and their business, Bonfield Block-Printers, which is named after the Grade II listed house. Hand block-printed fabrics sprawl across the kitchen table and occupy a work room upstairs, illustrated with folkloric patterns and words that trace narratives familiar yet strange. The old shopfront opens to a large workshop – once the old village store, now home to their vintage cast iron roller press, and open by appointment.
“We do things as and when we can with our home,” Cameron says. “We’d rather wait to find the right bit of wood or the right hinge.” This slow philosophy is at the root of all the couple do with their business, too. “I often wonder if we should expand our work, but we have to think about our lifestyle,” Cameron says. “We like making our own things, and spending time at home with our children.” They also don’t want to create more than what is needed. “At the moment, we have a low output, so it is easy to ensure we have almost zero waste.”
The duo met in London, when Cameron was an art director for an advertising agency and Janet was working in a fabric shop, having moved to England from New Zealand. They decided to move to rural Dorset, not far from where Cameron grew up, and settled in a small farm cottage. Cameron worked on a building site by day and carved woodblocks in the evening, learning from Janet who formally trained as a printmaker; she guided him through the early stages, teaching him the techniques to carve patterns.
Spending time with British wallpaper designer Marthe Armitage allowed Cameron to develop his approach to effective repeat designs. A craft scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) provided funding, meaning he could concentrate on the business. “Cameron began making wallpapers, and I suggested we create smaller, more affordable pieces as well,” Janet says. “That’s when we started making cushions and playing with other mediums.” Now, their patterns spill across wallpaper, fabrics, lampshades, bags and the linings of garments.
“We can all find a sense of resonance in a familiar object, tale or image. That creates a kind of magic.”
‘She did rue it’, reads the archaic text on one of Janet’s prints, telling the story of an imagined woman Beulah and the losing of her thimble on the Romney Marsh in 1880. “We come across lost things all the time that have a real potency. They’re half-stories, and we make up the rest,” Cameron says. “There’s a romance in everyday objects, folklore and photographs,” Janet adds. “We can all find a sense of resonance in a familiar object, tale or image. That creates a kind of magic.”
There is a literary, lyrical undercurrent to each design, rooted in rural myths and the oral tradition. “We’re avid collectors of old books and are drawn to the design aspects just as much as the content,” says Cameron. A particular interest in books on the countryside results in inspiration for many of their works, allowing them to “look at the world through the eyes of someone who has long gone.”
The work of Cameron and Janet pays homage to the unsung characters that shaped the countryside. “These stories are romantic, they’re sad, they’re tonally very interesting,” says Cameron. To create the lining fabric for their Somerset Song coat, they pored over folk lyrics collated by Edwardian collector, composer and musician Cecil Sharp, who gathered over 4,000 songs from rural singers. “We found a depth of expression and tone in those wonderful stories.”
The forms of letters show traces of the artists’ hands. “When Cameron and I collaborate, you can see two veins,” Janet says. “Cameron heavily researches typefaces, and draws things out beautifully, like an architect. Then I’ll research old letters from the 1700s and think, it’s like a spider that’s fallen into ink.”
A series of bags have been made using century-old hemp and linen, hand-dyed with persimmon fruit using a Japanese technique called kakishibu. “It turned the grey fibres a really beautiful warm brown,” Janet says. Their prints were then added directly to the bodies of the bags, or to patches. “We gravitate towards a sort of naive stitching, that brings character to a piece rather than just being practical” adds Cameron. “There’s a beauty and an honesty in it that we love.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Kendal Noctor.
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