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My Favourite Room: 'I liked the location, I liked the light, I liked the proportions'

It isn’t always easy moving house when you’ve established yourself in one place over several decades, but artist Bernadette Madden looked on her move as a wonderful adventure, and she is thrilled with the result

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Artist Bernadette Madden in the dining area of her double receptions rooms at first-floor level. The dining table is actaully a sheet of chipboard on a metal base - Bernadette likes to entertain, and it can seat up to 12. The floor here and in the bedroom is plywood. Photo: David Conachy

Artist Bernadette Madden in the dining area of her double receptions rooms at first-floor level. The dining table is actaully a sheet of chipboard on a metal base - Bernadette likes to entertain, and it can seat up to 12. The floor here and in the bedroom is plywood. Photo: David Conachy

The new kitchen in Bernadette Madden's period home is on the first return and is full of light, thanks to the skylight and the double doors to the faux balcony. The flooring comprises baked ceramic tiles

The new kitchen in Bernadette Madden's period home is on the first return and is full of light, thanks to the skylight and the double doors to the faux balcony. The flooring comprises baked ceramic tiles

The one and only bedroom which is at the top of the house, in the attic, with its views of Croke Park and the Spire. The woven artwork over the bed is by the man who was considered a master of the genre, the late Peter Collingwood. "When I die, no one will know what it is" Bernadette laughs

The one and only bedroom which is at the top of the house, in the attic, with its views of Croke Park and the Spire. The woven artwork over the bed is by the man who was considered a master of the genre, the late Peter Collingwood. "When I die, no one will know what it is" Bernadette laughs

Bernadette in her living room with its powerful wood-burning stove which she first saw in interior designer Tash Johnson's house. This is a reconditioned model from Denmark. She has quite a collection of elephants, which started when her late pal Jim Greally gave her one as a gift one Christmas. The large ceramic elephant is by artist Pat Connor

Bernadette in her living room with its powerful wood-burning stove which she first saw in interior designer Tash Johnson's house. This is a reconditioned model from Denmark. She has quite a collection of elephants, which started when her late pal Jim Greally gave her one as a gift one Christmas. The large ceramic elephant is by artist Pat Connor

As her attic bedroom is small, Bernadette uses this marbled-topped antique table on one of the returns to store her extensive collection of costume jewellery.

As her attic bedroom is small, Bernadette uses this marbled-topped antique table on one of the returns to store her extensive collection of costume jewellery.

The view from the hallway up the stairs to the new kitchen. Bernadette finds it impossible to stop buying artworks; many are by graduating students and many are by friends she’s keen to support

The view from the hallway up the stairs to the new kitchen. Bernadette finds it impossible to stop buying artworks; many are by graduating students and many are by friends she’s keen to support

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Artist Bernadette Madden in the dining area of her double receptions rooms at first-floor level. The dining table is actaully a sheet of chipboard on a metal base - Bernadette likes to entertain, and it can seat up to 12. The floor here and in the bedroom is plywood. Photo: David Conachy

When moving house, people of mature years are strongly advised to take into consideration several issues around the onset of age. One is mobility: potential purchasers are strongly encouraged to avoid too many steps and stairs.

Another is the age of house - old houses can be money pits, and people have less earning capacity when they're older. And then there's location - after years of living in one location, they are often advised not to stray too far from friends and familiar places. And all three make sense.

However, when batik artist Bernadette Madden decided to up sticks and move from her large terraced house in leafy Dublin 4, which she had lived in for over 35 years, she eschewed all the received wisdom and opted for a smaller, yet three-storey, terraced house, dating from 1842, this time in Dublin 3.

Bernadette is the cheeriest, calmest person you could hope to meet, but it's obvious she has a core of steel and she decided, despite the contraindications, that this was the house for her.

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The view from the hallway up the stairs to the new kitchen. Bernadette finds it impossible to stop buying artworks; many are by graduating students and many are by friends she’s keen to support

The view from the hallway up the stairs to the new kitchen. Bernadette finds it impossible to stop buying artworks; many are by graduating students and many are by friends she’s keen to support

In fairness, while the move resulted in her crossing the Liffey to live for the first time in nearly half a century, it brought her very close to her roots. "It actually made total sense to me. I'm originally from Dublin 3, so when I started looking for a house in my budget, I was happy to look here.

"I was born at 152 North Strand Road, and lived there until I was four, then the family moved to Artane, Dublin 5," Bernadette reminisces. "My grandfather bought a house there, and he helped my father to buy the house next door - probably not a great idea, in retrospect, to be living next door to the in-laws. The house cost £1,200 in 1952, and after my father died, I found a notebook of his, and he had a handwritten list of payments he had made to his father. A fiver a time."

One of the reasons she wanted this particular house is the fact that there was ample room to create a custom-built studio on the ground floor - being an artist, it was essential that she continue to have a studio.

Bernadette was the first in her family to pursue a career in the field of art. Her father had a haulage business and the only creativity she can attest to in the family is that her mother was good with her hands.

After school, Bernadette got a place in the National College of Art and Design, then located in Kildare Street, and soon after, got her first studio. "What happened was I was studying art during the student riots of 1969 and we were locked out of the college, so I went looking for a studio nearby - I was keen to work - and I got one in Herbert Place," the intrepid Bernadette explains.

When Bernadette was at college, there were few choices - you either painted or sculpted or did graphic design, and none of these appealed. She was in the painting school, however, and a part of the course at the time included two compulsory crafts, and Bernadette chose batik.

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Bernadette in her living room with its powerful wood-burning stove which she first saw in interior designer Tash Johnson's house. This is a reconditioned model from Denmark. She has quite a collection of elephants, which started when her late pal Jim Greally gave her one as a gift one Christmas. The large ceramic elephant is by artist Pat Connor

Bernadette in her living room with its powerful wood-burning stove which she first saw in interior designer Tash Johnson's house. This is a reconditioned model from Denmark. She has quite a collection of elephants, which started when her late pal Jim Greally gave her one as a gift one Christmas. The large ceramic elephant is by artist Pat Connor

"I thought, 'This is something I could sell'. There was a beautiful craft shop in Molesworth Street run by this woman, Hope Sisk, and I went into her and asked her if I made wall hangings, would she sell them. She said: 'Make one and I'll see' - she just took a punt on me," Bernadette says."That made me think I could make a living. I also got a scholarship from Navan Carpets for four years. It made me realise I could make a living on this."

And she did make a living. In the process, her work became virtually synonymous with batik. The batik technique originates from the East and it involves working on textiles with wax and dyes. Using time-honoured techniques, Bernadette created her arresting images - everything from landscapes to still lifes to portraits.

"I like the translucence you can get with batik. It glows; it's a bit like a watercolour. You're working on white linen and you're using dyes and they're transparent; there's a glow coming through them that you don't easily get with paint," she says.

She has received lots of plaudits from the art world, including high praise from the likes of art critic Aidan Dunne who said she "took a medium that was chiefly associated with decorative craft and developed it as a means of artistic expression. In doing so, she has, with exceptional technical virtuosity, both revealed the versatility of batik and exploited its painterly possibilities as never before... she has also immeasurably extended its conventional range of subject matter and its compositional possibilities."

About 20 years ago, Bernadette decided to branch out into screenprints as well. "I love making batiks, but you only make one at a time. When I loved something, I thought it would be nice to make more than one of a thing, to make maybe 10 of them, so I started doing prints. They're very different to the batiks; I have the two running in parallel," she says.

She did a lot of Celtic motifs on the batiks in the early days, but as she developed her skill, she became more creative. She sold in galleries, and her works become known in fine-art circles. "It is essentially painting, but on linen rather than canvas. After a while it didn't matter whether people called it craft or fine art, they knew the work and liked it," she says.

Bernadette adds: "I never thought I wouldn't make a living, but there were tough times. The age-old problem of being self-employed means you don't get paid easily. I rang the bank manager one day and said someone hadn't paid me, and he said, 'Better you ring them than I ring you'. It was good advice - the crying baby gets the bottle"

The toughest times were during the crash, and this prompted Bernadette to make the move. "The recession hit many artists and my commissions dropped off the cliff in 2007 and 2008," she volunteers. "I was struggling to keep the house going. I knew I'd get a good price for my house, that I could get a smaller one, and I'd have money in the bank for my pension. So in 2016, I decided to make a complete new start where I'd finally have a house where I could afford to do everything I wanted to do at once. I'd never had that in my last house. My old house was in good condition but not great condition, and I could see that five years down the line it would need work, and I wouldn't be able to afford it."

She had no problem selling her house, but finding another was more difficult. She saw this house online, but the owner didn't know whether or not he wanted to sell. She offered the full asking price, but he was still slow to accept. Even after he agreed the price, she couldn't get him to complete the sale. But she finally got it, and she was glad. "In all my looking, I never saw a house that I thought was better than this. I liked the location, I liked the light, I liked the proportions. I wanted to be near a main road but not on it, and it has a garden," she says.

"I discovered a painter lived here in the 1840s, Henry P White, and he showed in the academy. I wouldn't have bought it for that reason alone, but I liked that fact. The house had a feel I liked."

The minute she was installed, she brought architects Paul Kearney and Maria Kiernan of Kearney + Kiernan Architects on board, and they reconfigured the downstairs, adding a little to make the various small rooms into one very decent-sized studio.

They made adjustments upstairs too, especially to the room on the return, which is now the kitchen. "They had good ideas, and kept an eye on the money. Paul was great for saying, 'Pull back a bit on this and go for broke on that'," she says. "Lots of the changes are subtle, but you'd notice if they hadn't been done."

When Bernadette bought the house, it had four bedrooms; some of those spaces have been turned into the kitchen and reception areas, and now there's just one bedroom at the top of the house. Her studio is at the bottom where the original kitchen was, and in between are the reception rooms.

With all those stairs in between, she's obviously not planning to lose power in her legs any time soon, but she does concede she has future-proofed the house somewhat. "If you're not infirm, steps are a good idea from an exercise point of view," Bernadette notes sensibly. "Also, I put in a bathroom next to the studio. The studio was three rooms, it could easily be turned back to bedrooms."

Then she adds, with a laugh: "And my carer could live upstairs."

So all sorted then.

See bernadettemadden.ie

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by David Conachy

Sunday Indo Life Magazine


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