My Favourite Room: An artist's home by the sea in Ardmore
When Brenda Harris decided she needed to get away from the increasingly traffic-clogged town she lived in, she toyed with moving inland, but the pull of the sea proved too much for this dynamic artist
'The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever" is a popular saying by that great explorer of the sea, Jacques Cousteau.
It was certainly true for Cousteau, whose whole career revolved around the sea, and we are indebted to him for his many inventions, including the aqualung, which made extended underwater exploration possible.
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However, it might seem like a bit of exaggeration in relation to everyone else, yet people who were brought up near the sea often find it difficult to settle elsewhere. Artist Brenda Harris, who now lives in a gorgeous house in the seaside town of Ardmore, Co Waterford, discovered that she was one such person.
"I was brought up in Clontarf by the sea, then when I married, my husband and I lived in Delgany, also near the sea," Brenda says. "It was a little village when we moved there, but after 20 years, it had grown so much we had to wait in traffic to get out, so we decided to move. We liked the idea of Kilkenny, and we thought we'd renovate some old pile there. We saw amazing houses, but we realised, after Clontarf and Delgany, we couldn't cut ourselves off from the sea. It feeds you."
Brenda is probably more sensitive than most to her surroundings, given that she's an artist. Over the years, she's been inspired by the sea and has depicted it in her work, though it's not the main motif of her output - equally important to Brenda would be colour and light.
She paints seascapes, delightful country gardens, floral landscapes, and, these days, slightly more abstract, vibrant multi-coloured canvases, all of which she's sold extensively worldwide. She's also exhibited abroad, in the UK, France and the US.
These days, she doesn't need to exhibit, as she's able to rely on commissions. She sells a lot online, including some of her original work, as well as limited-edition prints. "I sell limited-edition prints in Ireland. I have a different way of doing things for the US market," Brenda explains. "I have a whole print collection that I just market to certain areas like America, which are printed in the US."
Before Brenda took up painting full-time 25 years ago, she had been in business, and that has obviously stood to her in the marketing of her artworks.
She is unusual in that she combines an artistic side as well as a business side, and always did; it was something she feels she inherited from her mother.
"My mother was a great businesswoman, a designer, an artist. She designed clothes, she designed wallpaper - she was amazing, and she guided me from day one," she says.
Both Brenda's parents were in the rag trade, and had their own company, Trend Fashions. She followed in their footsteps from an early age. "I went to the Grafton Academy for a year, then I studied business at the Marketing Institute. I had my own business at 19," Brenda recalls, proudly adding that she worked with all the great Irish names in fashion of the late 1970s/early 1980s, including Henry White, Michael Mortell and John Bentley.
She met her husband, David Harris, an accountant/banker, also from Clontarf, when she was 21, and when their children - Jenny and Greg, both now in their 30s - were young, Brenda designed a childrenswear range.
"I called it Maple Rags and sold it everywhere, including Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I did adultwear and childrenswear simultaneously until 1986," she explains. "Then I started doing consultancy."
The painting came after that, and initially it was purely for herself. "I started painting for pleasure. Then I started framing my paintings and the framer gave me my first exhibition, and it grew from there," Brenda says, adding, "One thing that's very important in my work is travel. My parents travelled a lot and we - my brothers and I - travelled with them from the age of six, and I think it's been hugely important from the point of view of inspiration. You see things and they become points of reference in your work."
The painting took off in the early 1990s, and around the same time Brenda was asked to do some interior design, which she also loved. "I sold my paintings to a lot of corporate clients and they started asking me to design their offices to make them more amenable for communication. I did it based on feng shui principles. I did it intuitively, and I found it really interesting," Brenda says, adding, "I still do the odd interior design job."
Her biggest interior design job has been that of her home in Ardmore, which she and her husband built from scratch.
"Initially, we were looking at old houses. The house we had rented while looking for a house was old, but boy was it cold, and that is one huge advantage of a new-build - the comfort. This house has an A [energy] rating."
Brenda adds: "I designed the house and it was an amazing experience for me. We did have a technician draw up plans for planning permission, but all the ideas were mine."
The house is detached, double-fronted, and on a site of three-quarters of an acre, with views of the sea and lovely fields all around. While the front of the house has a cottagey look about it, with lots of smaller windows, at the back Brenda has made the most of the vistas by putting in big, expansive windows.
There are views of Goat Island, and at least five beaches within walking distance. It all feeds into her painting. "Painting nature just does it for me, I love every minute of it - the changing skies, I can see the weather coming," she says.
She loves the location for her painting, but also for the opportunities for enjoying it for herself. "We swim in all weathers," she says. "It's so nice, you get pulled out of your cabin, it opens you up. I feel really lucky to be here. Nature is very important to me."
The decor is delightful. It has a cottagey cosiness - lots of panelling, a country-style kitchen - yet, there is a strong sense of space and flow; the ceilings are higher than normal, and the doorways are wider.
The colour scheme is low-key and restful, with pops of colour. "Somebody came in and said, 'I love all your whites'. I don't have any whites, just all neutrals, but you can lift them all with cushions and a splash of colour," she says.
And of course, her own paintings, hung everywhere, add colour and vibrancy to all the rooms. "I move them all the time, and I encourage my clients to move theirs. If you don't, you stop seeing them after a while."
There are lots of funky touches, such as the mezzanine from her studio, which looks over the sitting room, complete with baby grand piano. "I used to play all the time, not so much any more, but Dave plays whenever we have a party. We open all the doors, light all the candles and fires, and you're away."
Brenda's studio itself is a late addition to the house. "I had no notion of putting a studio in the attic, but planning permission was turned down for one in the garden, and of course now I'm thrilled with it," she says.
It runs the width of the house and with its ample skylights, it's full of light and has amazing views. Brenda says her work has changed for the better since she started painting up there. "My work is more intuitive now. I'm still doing landscapes, but they're freer - I have no notion what's going to happen," she says happily.
Brenda and David are 15 years now in Ardmore, and are so happy that they came here. A lovely twist is that their children have followed them south. Not, Brenda hastens to add, that they have moved back home - as is so common with 30-somethings these days - but they loved coming to visit Brenda and Dave so much that they found work nearby.
Greg, who is married with one child, had been the head chef in the Fern House Cafe in Kilmacanogue, and is now head chef in 360 Cookhouse in Dungarvan, while Jenny, an animal behaviour therapist, is also based in Dungarvan.
Needless to mention, Jenny didn't lick the animal-loving gene from a stone - Brenda and Dave are big fans too, and their house is home to the enormous and cuddly Bo and Milo - both newfie/collie blends. So plenty of dog day afternoons in the lovely town of Ardmore for this dynamic artist - "I feel really, really lucky," she says happily.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine