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A Room of One’s Own: Rose Electra Harris’ Bermondsey studio is an ebullient ode to beauty

The artist is known for her exuberant painting and prints, all of which exalt the everyday: from flowers and furniture to jugs and lemon juicers. As someone inspired by interiors, Rose finds her work is strongly shaped by the rooms in which she works too. No wonder her south-east London studio is so easy on the eye

Photography
Chris Horwood
A Room of One’s Own: Rose Electra Harris’ Bermondsey studio is an ebullient ode to beauty

Rose Electra Harris has gin to thank for her current studio. Sort of. It was after Bombay Sapphire commissioned her to design a limited-edition bottle that the young artist finally felt she could afford to pay for a studio without having to share. “It was a big financial risk, but I had to go for it,” she says.

Her small set-up in Peckham’s Bussey Building wasn’t working for her – “there was no synergy between me and the quite laddy, post-uni bunch I was with” – and, having experienced working in a space all her own at her parents’ house during lockdown, she thought going solo might just be the ticket. “I was intrigued to see what impact it would have on my work,” she explains, before erupting into the infectious giggles that frequently pepper her conversation. “The problem was that when I first got this place it was so bare, which wouldn’t work for me at all. So I had to fill it. And fill it. And fill it!”

In fact, filling the room, which forms part of a complex of studios in Bermondsey, wasn’t so difficult for Rose, who has always amassed the things she likes to look at. She grew up with an antique dealer for a father and an interior designer for a mother and so stuff – particularly nice-looking stuff – has always played a part in her life. Space has too, she says – just look at the interiors she draws, prints and paints. But while before, “I was painting half-imagined interiors or places from memory, recently I’ve been magnetically drawn to painting this room over and over,” she says. “It’s been a refuge. Physically and creatively.”

Looking around the expansive space, we’re not surprised. The room is, in Rose’s words, “full of beauty” – sprawling scented geraniums, beloved objects and furniture, treasured mementos. “Just don’t look too closely at Jabba’s toys,” she implores. (Her handsome Labrador is also something of a collector.) “Saying that, I quite like the caterpillar…”

But, we must be serious for a moment – for Rose herself is deeply serious about beauty. “I went to a talk about Helen Frankenthaler recently, where someone said that beauty in art was seen as a bit naff – and that we need to reclaim it,” she says. “Because it’s not naff. The way it can change your view on the world is really powerful.” Buoyed by our visit to the room that inspires her more than any other right now, packed to the rafters with the bright and the beautiful, we couldn’t agree more.

“Since moving into my own studio I’ve really noticed how having more room physically has given me more space mentally. Perhaps that’s an obvious correlation, but it’s new to me. It’s also given me a great amount of freedom. I use different corners for different things and, like I say, what’s been amazing has been actually painting the space I’m in. I’m still working with semi-imagined interiors, but for the first time I keep returning to a very real one. It’s an interesting development.

“My art has definitely changed since I moved in here. I’m exploring line, texture and shape much more than I ever have. Before it was all about interiors and recognisable objects. Now, form is at the fore. Take the red iron bed, which is now a sofa that Jabba has colonised. The linear bend of the metal is amazing – I keep seeing it crop up in my work. I’m so familiar with its shape – it was my childhood bed – yet putting it in here made me look at it in a new light.

“This room continues to interest me in different ways, as do the things I’ve gently added. I’ve filled it slowly, even though it looks like I’ve been here for about 10 years. Everything in here has a story: the bed, for instance, or the armchair and tulip vase, which were my granny’s. Then there’s a wooden cog that belonged to my other granny. Other things I’ve bought myself, but they’re no less full of stories, each of which I get to explore when I paint or draw them. I bring new meaning to them with each representation.

“Anyone familiar with my work will know that I like motifs. The same things crop up over and again. Part of the reason behind that is because I like the challenge of getting something right – and the idea of what’s right always shifts. I paint things not necessarily as they look but how they make me feel, which can change day to day. I enjoy seeing how things develop when I paint and repaint things. Also, returning to the same motifs allows me to play with other aspects of the picture. The elements around it might change in a way that completely transforms the image, yet you still have the one constant.

“Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with painting, but I actually trained as a printmaker at the University of Brighton. Printing couldn’t be more different as an artistic practice. It’s so technical, which is something I love about it – you have a very rigid framework that you can then push and challenge to create different results. Printmaking is full of rules, in that sense, but there are no rules at the same time. Painting is sort of the opposite. There are no rules – except when there are! Some chemical combinations, for instance, can be terrible for linen canvases, I recently learned to my horror… It’s a nightmare! I find it quite weird – you’re told to push and experiment however you want with painting, so you do, and then everyone says: ‘No, not like that!’

“Can I tell you a secret? I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing when I paint. I’ve never been properly taught, so I have to approach my canvases very instinctively. I don’t ever have a plan – and this studio definitely allows for that. I often have lots of pieces on the go at the same time. I might, at any time, have a canvas in each corner. Sometimes I won’t have touched one for months before I have a flurry of activity. For whatever reason, I’ll suddenly know what to do next. It’s a result of the luxury of being able to surround myself with unfinished pieces, of being able to leave them be. I think they sit in my subconscious until I’m ready to return to them.

“There’s a push and pull between the real and the imagined or the remembered in my work. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between them a lot lately. I’ve never wanted my art to be fully representational, because I’m not necessarily interested in visual realism, but as I grow as an artist I find myself increasingly drawn to abstraction. I used to be quite scared of the abstract world – or at least wary of it. Now I’m intrigued. I think this room has something to do with it – the shapes and colours and forms it’s allowed me to explore. That said, I think I’m too interested in the stories of objects to go fully abstract – for the moment, at least.

“I don’t want my art to be obvious, though. I want viewers to have to ask questions about what they’re looking at and – importantly – to come to their own conclusions. The only thing that I do want them to feel is that it’s beautiful. Beauty is of prime importance to me. That a picture can bring you joy, can uplift you, simply from the way it looks is, to me, the most wonderful thing in the world. That’s powerful.”

Further reading

Rose’s work will be available in the ‘British. Cool’ sale at Bonhams, New Bond St, London W1 on 3 March

Rose’s work will also be featured in New Normal Projects’ upcoming group exhibition, ‘An Allegory of Love and Time’, which is on display at 147 Stoke Newington High Street, London N16, 17-20 March

Rose Electra Harris

Rose Electra Harris on Instagram

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