Inside London's Surreal House Of Dreams

By Sandra Lawrence Last edited 16 months ago
Inside London's Surreal House Of Dreams

"I don’t do beige and magnolia. Minimalism means you can't make your mind up. It's lazy."

It’s a good job artist Stephen Wright is at least monochrome in his clothing today, or he might disappear completely into the rainbow explosion that is 45, Melbourne Grove, AKA The House of Dreams.

Beige and magnolia could actually be in there somewhere but it's hard to tell beyond the profusion of shocking pink, gladiola-orange and bleach-bottle blue.

"I love bleach bottles," he says, pointing at a bright pink variety hanging from the ceiling and labelled 'Berry'. "I buy them just for the colours."

With a background in high-end design, of fashion, knitwear and stationery, the man who used to supply the likes of Harvey Nicks and Liberty; who exported his wares to Japan and Australia, Wright eventually tired of the scene. "Every year I knew what it would be. I'd create a collection, market it, send it out, and create another collection."

Outsider art

Wright’s life changed when he discovered outsider art; creativity that pays no heed to what is acceptable, fine or 'tasteful' and without reference to the established art world. Work from the heart, not the art schools.

Jarvis Cocker’s seminal 1998 documentary Journeys to the Outside inspired both Wright and his partner of 25 years, West End costumier Donald Jones. The work of Raymond Isadore at La Maison de Picassiette, the extraordinary Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval, the ocean-washed sculptures of the Abbé Fauré and Wright’s personal hero Bodan Litnianski (whose 'shell' garden is currently up for sale at £45,000 if you fancy a small maintenance project) spoke profoundly to Wright and Jones.

They determined to create their own palace, in what estate agents now call 'leafy' East Dulwich: the House of Dreams.

Wright had been renting his Victorian terraced house in the then-unfashionable suburb from a Mr Samuel Twist ("Isn’t it a wonderful name?"). The elderly Mr Twist offered to sell his house for the now-risible price of £49,000. Mosaic began. Small at first — an entranceway to the 'the garden of delights' at the back — but as Wright became bolder the colours flowed.

The art of loss

Two years into the project Donald Jones died, closely followed by Wright's mother and father. Devastated, Wright retreated into himself. "I needed to write," he says. "I wrote about loss, firstly for myself." I made sculptures from my parents' clothes – comfort sculptures, I suppose."

Two years passed. The House of Dreams slumbered while Wright wrestled with his grief.

As the pain mellowed, Wright met his current partner, actor Michael Vaughan. "I warned him about the House of Dreams," says Wright. Far from being shocked, Vaughan was enchanted. "He told me 'You have to carry on'. I was beginning to heal, and was ready to start again. I worked in secret. Even my friends didn't come in. No one. Not even the gas man; I used to supply meter readings myself."

Wright poured his heart onto every surface. "It was about loss. About washing down a partner when he dies. About childhood. About being overweight and bullied at school."

A secret journey

For six years Wright continued alone. The Melbourne Grove property became home, studio and therapy-room. The story of his journey is literally plastered over the walls, in both text and found objects, the flotsam and jetsam of modern life. Every so often the eye catches a phrase. It might be angry, railing at the trappings of a modern world gone crazy — of 'fucking skinny lattes and fucking mobile phones' — heartbreaking, depicting the people he loved, or just plain honest: admitting the outside world terrifies the hell out of him.

It terrifies the hell out of most of us, but most of us don’t admit it.

"Finally I was ready to share," says Wright.

The grand reveal

Wright’s friends were astounded when he eventually swept back the curtain of secrecy (so were the neighbours who, happily, were and remain, supportive). But perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised. The House of Dreams is in the spirit of the great Outsider Artists Wright loves so much. "I was building a womb," he says, threading his way through strange-shaped pillars and arches, flashing with sparkle, encrusted with jewels of every variety — except the conventionally precious.

Plastic dinosaurs, superheroes, brooches. Tea pots, lids, spouts, cups, handles. Christmas decorations, popstar badges, vinyl records, posters, sink drainers. Each object is taken on its own merits, rescued from the dustbin of society and welcomed into Wright's haven for lost souls.

"I give equal emphasis to everything," he says, standing in front of a collection of goddesses, madonnas, fly-swatters and showroom dummies. "This is Geeta. I saw her in a sari shop, went inside and said 'I have to have her."

And then there are the dollies. Hundreds of dollies — and dolly-parts. Dolly heads, dolly legs, dolly eyes, dolly torsos; even a jar of plastic dolly-shoes. Many of Wright's sculptures are disabled, reflecting his experiences with disability, both visible and unseen.

Permission to climb Everest

The house has been bequeathed to the National Trust. "It’s my life's work and it has a message. It's about freedom of thought. About not being the same as everyone else. People who come here are looking for something in their own lives. The House of Dreams gives them permission to climb Everest; to do things they've always wanted to."

Sometimes that absolution runs to Wright's taking-on of physical burdens. He is often the recipient of human body parts for inclusion in the House of Dreams. Look closely to see false teeth and the moulds that make them, curlers with hair still rolled around them, a cellophane envelope containing a stranger's cut-off ponytail Wright has lent sanctuary to. "I even have someone's ashes," he confides. "It’s not spooky. I love it."

Not everyone does. "There is a handful of people who can’t handle it," says Wright. "Most of them tend to be straight men. 80% of my visitors are women. I guess there's a streak of eccentricity, but it isn't eccentric to me."

Continental influences

We don’t have too much outsider art in the UK, one of the many reasons Wright is uncomfortable with life in London. He spends a lot of time in Continental Europe: Barcelona, Budapest, Madrid, Brussels, Paris. "The artists in Paris understand. And the markets are better." By this he means the regular marchés, not the art scene.

"The markets on the continent are not sanitised or controlled. People just put a blanket down and put a load of stuff on it. Inspectors just let things go." He despairs of London's over-regulated, trendy markets — in fact of London, full stop. "Everything that’s interesting about being in London is being killed off by developers."

Black and white

Given his great love of colour, it’s interesting that Wright's currently working with black and white — and with his left hand. "It’s less controlled and can explore characters and spirits. Drawing is instant. Mixing sand and cement for mosaic is a slow job. Facteur Cheval? (the Lyonnaise postman who created a palace by himself over 30 years) I don’t know how he did it."

"There's more to me than the House of Dreams. I'm an artist. I always do the opposite. No one's going to control me, make me do things I don't want to do. The house is just another vehicle for ideas."

Wright is working on a photography book with Michael Vaughan, a calligraphy book, exploring the text-style that can be seen all over the house, from the doorbell to the ceiling, and a series of costumes. These extraordinary, fully-fledged characters are all-in-ones, complete with faces and personalities, not particularly comfortable to wear. Emerging fully-formed from Wright's imagination, these confections of other-ness, made from the fingers cut from gloves, from boxing gloves and Wright's parents' old clothes will be used for a film/show at Compton Verney in Warwickshire in 2018, and also star in a book.

Britain's got no talent

The House of Dreams is occasionally hired for film shoots but Wright doesn't say yes to everyone. Unlike other London properties that have been quirkily 'dressed' for the meeja set, 45, Melbourne Grove contains a large chunk of Stephen Wright's soul. A producer from BBC's Britain's Got Talent got short shrift after describing his life's work as 'a good backdrop.'

Open days

There are many who don't see the House of Dreams as just 'a backdrop' and once-a-month, Wright opens his doors at 8am to such pilgrims with a generous heart and, often, a cup of tea. What started as a trickle has become an unmanageable flood, so now entry is by advanced booking only. He's already fully booked until June.

Do book though. "I'm quite belligerent," says Wright. "Just because it’s open now doesn’t mean it always will be."

Last Updated 23 March 2016