A Room of One’s Own: how Room Portrait Club’s SJ Axelby opened up her world by drawing interior spaces
During lockdown, the artist’s home became a source of solace – and the subject of her pen-and-ink drawings. SJ illustrates how sharing this inspiration through Room Portrait Club became a source of real joy
- Rosily Roberts
If you are an avid follower of interiors Instagram accounts, it’s very likely that you have already seen the work of SJ Axelby, an artist whose mixed-media depictions of interior spaces have gained her an enormous following in the last two years. She is the founder of the hugely popular Room Portrait Club account, which each week offers up a photograph of a room with a call to artists to create their own image of it, in whichever way they see fit.
“I have always loved colour and pattern,” says SJ, who studied textile design at university before going on to work in publishing. Shortly before Covid, in pursuit of a career change, SJ began to train as an interior designer. Then, when the pandemic hit and she was advised to shield at home, she abandoned her course and turned to drawing interiors instead.
Unable to leave her house, “I started to paint the interiors that I longed to be in,” she explains – as well as those she was surrounded by. Home, to SJ, represented safety and security in a scary world. She wasn’t alone – many of us started to think about the walls, ceilings and furniture that surrounded us in unexpected ways. SJ’s drawings, which she creates first with pen, then adds colour and texture with watercolour, pastel, crayon and ink, are a beautiful manifestation of this newfound appreciation.
In January 2021, SJ launched Room Portrait Club. Each Saturday, she posts a photograph of a room on the Instagram page and waits for the interpretations to flood in. The responses she receives are astounding. “I get all different styles and in all different types of media – even sculptural responses sometimes. There is an embroidery artist who has done a stitched portrait every week!” she says, clearly astonished. “Some people who haven’t picked up a pencil or paintbrush in years have written to me saying that the club has inspired them to start sketching again.” After she receives the week’s drawings, she then posts a selection on her page.
People of all different ages and abilities submit their work and, SJ says, she finds it especially gratifying when children take part. For many people during lockdown, it was a lifeline. “It was one little thing that brought joy to people who were isolated, lonely, or lacking focus – some much-needed escapism.”
SJ has seen first-hand the positive effects that Room Portrait Club has had, not just on herself but on her own family. After SJ’s father died in May 2021, her mother turned to the club for a bit of solace. “She has done an entry every week since then!”
How does SJ choose which room to feature each week? Sometimes they’re submissions, sometimes she works with interior designers directly. For this feature, she has done two drawings specially for Inigo, from our listings and stories past and present – Gotten Manor, currently on the market with us, and the verdant Russell Court – which you can see here. “I know instantly if a photograph will work,” SJ explains. “I look at composition, how well the room is framed in the image. They have to be colourful too – no grey rooms! The quirkier the better, really.”
But she doesn’t want it all to be easy. “I like to include one or two features that I know will challenge the artists, something that is difficult to capture.” That might be a mirror, some glass bottles, or an intricate wallpaper. “I want people to have that little moment of thinking: ‘Ah! How am I going to draw that?!’ before they start,” she says, with a glint in her eye.
In the two years since lockdown began, SJ’s sketches have led to some remarkable collaborations. She’s worked with Kit Kemp and Lulu Guinness and has created a series of tablescape portraits for Liberty London. More recently, Christie’s commissioned SJ to draw the antiques from a sale curated by British fashion designer Peter Copping, which also accompany this feature. For this project, SJ reimagined the interiors of Peter’s 15th-century manor house in Normandy, inserting antiques from the sale into the opulent rooms. “Normally, the objects would be photographed in interior spaces,” SJ explains. “But for this collection, I superimposed them myself with pen and ink.”
Her latest venture is a book, SJ Axelby’s Interior Portraits: An Artist’s View of Designer’s Living Spaces, which will be published by Harper Collins in September. It will feature SJ’s drawings of 89 of her favourite rooms, belonging to a range of creatives, from interior designers to ceramicists. Each will be accompanied by an interview with the owner.
And, of course, she plans to continue running Room Portrait Club, which has grown into a wonderful community. “There are people from around the world, with such diverse backgrounds,” she says. “I just see myself as the curator. The members are what make the club what it is – and it is a truly joyous place.” What it comes down to, SJ believes, is that, really “we all just love looking at pictures of beautiful places.” Almanac readers will surely agree.
SJ Axelby’s Interior Portraits will be published by Harper Collins on 15 September
Room Portrait Club on Instagram
SJ Axelby on Instagram
Illustration credits: 1-2 taken from Inigo listings; all others courtesy Christie’s. All illustrations © SJ Axelby
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