Meet the Maker

SJ Axelby

Interview by Camilla Frances
Images from SJ Axelby and Harper Collins
Image from oltrepò pavese

The Milan home of Martina Mondadori and Ashley Hicks, painted by SJ Axelby for her first book. 

As lockdown projects go, SJ Axelby's is a roaring success. Read on to discover how the room portrait artist turned a health crisis into a brilliant new career, and peek inside her much anticipated first book.
From her home in the leafy Chiltern countryside, British artist Sarah-Jane Axelby, known as SJ, creates exquisitely detailed watercolors of some of the world's loveliest interiors, including Cabana founder Martina Mondadori's apartment in Milan (pictured above) and designer Peter Copping's 16th century manoir in Normandy.
The daughter of an antique ceramic restorer with an artisic 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 lockdown - 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 joyful and therapeutic that she decided to share the practice with other artists and interior lovers.



An extract from SJ's book, Interior Portraits: An Artist's View of Designer's Living Spaces.

She posted an image of a room, with permission, every week and invited people around the world to interpret it in any medium. It quickly became a community, an activity that people looked forward to each week and, for many, a vital lifeline. "I’ve had so many wonderful messages from people saying it's been 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."
Her beautiful portraits of richly-detailed spaces captured the attention of designers and publishers, and SJ now spends most of her time "scrutinising and dissecting" interiors before realising them in paint. Already working on her second book and with a collection for Cabana under her belt, it's fair to say the last few years have been busy, 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 and I loved every minute."
SJ's first book, Interior Portraits: An Artist's View of Designer's Living Spaces, is both 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 the late Robert Kime. Along with her original watercolors, SJ includes charming interviews (see above), so expect leading designers' favorite cocktails, best advice and how they feed their souls. SJ has allowed Cabana to turn the tables, and now joins their ranks by answering the same questions.


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In Conversation with SJ Axelby


Favourite color combination:
At the moment darkest leaf green, smoke and brass.
What do you collect?
What don’t I!? Art deco fans, vases, jelly moulds, pie funnels, meat platters, chocolate moulds, coloured glass, marbles (I still have the ones from when I was a child and can tell you all their names).
Describe your happy place:
With my husband, under the pine trees in our special place, a gentle breeze, and a glass of something cold.
Favourite bloom:
Variegated salmon pink pelargonium; I grow these in giant tin bath tubs.
Something about you not that many people know:
I used to roller blade around the streets of London; I have done a sky dive but am now afraid of heights; I wear different glasses to match my mood and I light a candle almost every day.
Favourite object in your home:
An antique carved mirror given to me by my grandparents when I was 13 - and my old school blackboard that is used for shopping lists in the kitchen.
How you feed your soul:
Making jam or chutney with things from the garden always makes me feel good (this year's was called “everything jam” as it really was a mix of everything I could find); windy walks and laughter with friends.
Favorite cocktail:
Pomada (Menorcan lemonade and Mahon gin).
Object you use everyday:
My two paintbrushes, they feel like my magic wands. I never use anything else.
Favorite paints:
Japanese watercolours by Choosing Keeping (I have curated a set launching in October, which I can’t wait to see), and my trusty set of Sennelier watercolors that smell of honey (because that’s what they contain).


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Shop SJ Axelby x Cabana

Background image: Diamond Ikat fabric, Cabana x Schumacher collection.

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