As lockdown projects go, SJ Axelby's has been a roaring success. The British artist tells Camilla Frances how she turned a health crisis - and her love of layered, colorful rooms - into a brilliant new career and two successful books.
BY CAMILLA FRANCES | 20 NOVEMBER 2023
From her home in the leafy English countryside, British artist Sarah-Jane Axelby, known as SJ, paints exquisitely detailed watercolors of some of the world's loveliest interiors, including Casa Cabana (Martina Mondadori's family home in Milan) and La Carliere, designer Peter Copping's 16th century manoir in Normandy.
The daughter of an antique ceramic restorer with a highly creative family history - one ancestor taught Queen Victoria's children how to draw, while another designed the penny black stamp - SJ grew up surrounded by antique restoration projects and was taught the art of watercolor by her mother and grandfather. Although she painted from a young age, the interior portraiture for which she is now known - she started Instagram's popular Room Portrait Club during the pandemic - is a recent and serendipitous development, which followed a career in publishing.
It was initially driven by escapism, and her long-standing interest in interiors and decorative arts. "It was something I sort of fell into during lockdown," she admits. "Having been told to shield by my GP [after being admitted to hospital with Crohns Disease], I started to paint the places I admired or longed to be in." It proved so cathartic that she decided to share the practice with other artists and design lovers.
She began to post an image of a favorite interior every week and invited people around the world to interpret it in any medium. The aptly-titled Room Portrait Club quickly became a community, an activity that people looked forward to each week and, for many, a vital lifeline. "I had so many wonderful messages from people saying it was a lifeline...and for my own mother, after the death of my father last year, it’s literally given her purpose and something to focus on besides grief."
SJ's portraits of richly-detailed spaces soon captured the attention of interior designers and publishers, so much so that the majority of SJ's time is now spent "scrutinising and dissecting" interiors before realising them in paint.
With two books and a collection of room portraits for Cabana under her belt - images chosen from the pages of the magazine - it's fair to say the last few years have been busy for SJ, with lows as well as highs. "I would never have imagined last year that my Father wouldn’t be here and I’d be working on my first, let alone my second, book. I am so grateful for the opportunities that have come my way and the series for Cabana is one of those, they were simply exquisite to paint."
SJ's first book, Interior Portraits: An Artist's View of Designer's Living Spaces, is an exuberant celebration of her unique eye and an insight into the soulful, personal living spaces of leading creatives, including Lisa Fine, Nathalie Farman-Farma and Robert Kime. Her second, Painted Travels, takes you on an armchair discovery tour of remarkable places around the world, from museums and shops to gardens and trains.
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SJ AXELBY X CABANA
Interior Portraits and Painted Travels, by SJ Axelby, are published by Harper Collins and available at the Cabana Bookshop.