Thursday 23 March 2017

My favourite room: The china syndrome

Chinese furniture fills the home of artist Varvara Shavrova, says Mary O'Sullivan, although she is Russian and her husband is from Monaghan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

The opium bed is 100 years old
The opium bed is 100 years old

Russian artist Varvara Shavrova is married to Irish engineer Rory McGowan, yet their Dublin home is furnished neither with Russian artefacts nor with things Irish; instead, virtually everything is Chinese as much of their married life has been spent in Beijing.

When the couple met and married, China hadn't yet been mooted, but, looking back, Varvara feels it was always going to be part of their history -- unusual Chinese objects had featured in both their early lives. "Growing up in Moscow, I had a jacket which belonged to my grandmother. It had been given to her by a diplomat who brought it back from China," Varvara explains in her perfect, though delightfully accented, English -- adding that Rory's younger brother had once commissioned a chess set for him in which all the figures were Chinese characters.

Art is also a big feature in the home they share in Dublin 6 with their two little boys, Fionn and Kirill, and, when it comes to the art she's chosen for the house, Varvara opted for the obvious -- it's mostly her own work. And why not -- it's wonderful. Her big, sweeping canvases add drama, colour and interest to each room. They're flamboyant, just like the woman herself, who tells it like it is, including explaining why she didn't wear white at her wedding: "I wasn't a virgin," she says with a laugh.

It's almost inevitable that Varvara became an artist -- both her parents were artists, although neither were official artists in communist Russia. "My father worked away by himself; he had private collectors from important museums in Italy, France and America -- not on a grand scale, but he was very versatile. He supported us by doing graphic design as well as painting. My mother was the art director on a music magazine. My first memories are of climbing into bed with my parents and looking at art books with them, books which would have had the works of Velazquez, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci." Varvara's parents were non-conformists, but nonetheless Varvara believes they were happy -- they didn't have great wealth, but they had intellectual freedom. "It was a mad and creative family, with people sitting in the kitchen talking until five in the morning," she reminisces.

She studied art in college in Moscow but, after two and a half years there, she took off for London, where she had good friends. That was in 1989. She soon found a niche, getting a "practically free" studio for her painting from the Florence Trust, and she also taught Russian and did translations to support herself and her ageing parents back in Russia.

She met Rory at a party in her own flat in 1991, but for the first five years they were just friends. Eventually, in 1996, Varvara and the Monaghan man, an engineer with Arup who, at the time, worked a lot in Japan, got together. "He always came to our parties when he was in town and this time, just back from Japan, he was shattered and fell asleep in our front room. When the party was over I said, 'Come and help me clear up.' As we were chatting, he asked was I interested in riding, and took me horse riding in Epping Forest. Then he invited me to a wedding in Dublin and we went riding in Glaslough in Monaghan. After that, things developed really fast," she says, adding that their lives got taken over when she found she was pregnant with Fionn. "I was like, 'I'm an artist, what am I doing with this guy?' A Russian priest friend said to me, 'Give it a try. It's not forbidden for an artist to be married'," she recalls, and adds: "Rory is very romantic -- he had a view to bringing me to the Cliffs of Moher to propose, but, because I was four months pregnant, he proposed in a laneway in Covent Garden. But he did go down on one knee."

They got married in a Russian church in August 1997 near Highgate Cemetery, "where Karl Marx is buried", and had a green wedding cake. Both families turned up and, according to Varvara, although the Russians are very like the Irish, the Irish were noisier.

Fionn is now 13 and they also have Kirill, 9, and two bilingual animals -- a cat from Russia called Chuka who had belonged to Varvara's father, and a dog called Bran who was born in the hutongs of Beijing where the couple lived from 2002 until last autumn. "China had won the bid for the Olympics and so Arup got involved," Varvara recalls. It was decided that Rory would move to Beijing and Varvara and the family moved with him.

The couple loved it there, and while Rory worked in English, both of them began learning Chinese. The boys went to local schools and Kirill, in particular, has impeccable Chinese. Throughout her married life Varvara has painted and exhibited -- she has had more than 20 solo exhibitions and is represented in many prestigious collections -- and she continued to do so in China. She mounted an exhibition called Untouched based on her photographic record of daily life in two places -- Beijing and Ballycastle, Co Mayo; Beijing because she was living there, and Ballycastle because she's been going there since 1999 when she was invited to be a fellow of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation. "Ballycastle became the connection to Ireland for me," she explains. "Between 1999 and 2002, I went back more than 10 times. I felt engaged with that landscape." She and Rory now have a holiday home there and the family go every year for the whole summer.

Beijing also had a huge impact on Varvara and she currently has an exhibition influenced by her years in Beijing in the Patrick Heide gallery in London, which runs until February 12.

This glamorous bundle of energy also found time to set up a social network. "I called it the Beijing Bad Mothers, it was a way for Western and Chinese women to meet and socialise. The name is just a bit of fun -- some weren't mothers at all. We met every second or third month and had charity events for children with disability; Rory ran three marathons for them," she notes with pride. Since her arrival in Dublin a mere six months ago, she has also found time to set up Baile Atha Cliath Bad Mothers and already had one charity event in aid of To Russia With Love, see www.torussiawithlove.ie. All this as well as finding schools for her boys, getting them settled, and finding a home for the family.

They settled on a large period house in one of the leafiest roads in Dublin 6, which, it transpires, is ideally suited to the furniture they bought in China and had shipped to Dublin when Rory's job brought him back to this side of the world. "When we moved to China, we went with one table and one child's bed. We ended up buying everything there, all from antique shops," she says.

Their collection of furniture features all sorts of wonderful pieces including a 100-year-old opium bed, Chinese chests, Mongolian rugs and Chinese mirrors painted with tea scenes from Ping Yao, one of the few remaining walled cities in China. There are lots of typically Chinese pieces made with black lacquer with red detail. All in all, a fantastic setting for a Beijing bad mother to network with her Baile Atha Cliath counterparts.

L

'Windows on the Hutong: New Works by Varvara Shavrova' continues at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, 11 Church St, London NW8 8EE, until February 12,

see www.patrickheide.com

and www.varvarashavrova.com

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