The award-winning artist’s career began with recreating Tudor wall paintings, but thanks to her collaborations with designers including Kit Kemp and Zoffany, Melissa White is bringing her fantastical designs to modern homes, says Jessica Jonzen.
Walking into a room decorated with Melissa White’s art is like stepping into a wonderland. Whether it’s her wallpaper and fabric collaborations with Kit Kemp and Andrew Martin, Zoffany or Lewis & Wood , they all share her unique painterly signature and a sense of fantasy. You could spend hours looking at her exquisitely hand painted fabrics and wallpapers and find some new surprising detail you’d not spotted before. Kit Kemp describes Melissa as one of the Firmdale Hotels group’s ‘most treasured artists’, and she has even created artwork for Buckingham Palace.
So, it’s extraordinary to think that Melissa has had no formal training as an artist. When she graduated from the Barber Institute in Birmingham in 1995 with a French and history of art degree she had no idea what to do next. “I’d always been artistic but thought I’d probably end up curating something or teaching,” she says from her home in Hastings on the Sussex coast, where she has lived all her life.
By chance, Melissa’s partner Jo introduced her to the late interior painter David Cutmore and her life took an unexpected turn. “Dave was working in Tudor houses reproducing these Tudor wall paintings and I ended up as an informal apprentice to him and we worked together for about 15 years.”
One of the early projects that Melissa worked on with David was at Shakespeare’s Birthplace museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. “That’s really where I cut my teeth,” she says. “We painted cloths for four rooms in the end, using traditional techniques and designs. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust wanted it to be as authentic as possible so we did it exactly the way it was always done, making the paint from scratch using rabbit skin glue and natural earth pigments. We reproduced surviving paintings that Shakespeare was known to have seen – one of them in Oxford is now behind Perspex in Pizza Express!”
Together, Melissa and David worked on private Tudor houses “painting an awful lot of ceilings between the beams which took its toll after a few years,” but she had found her metier. “The designs from that period are just incredible and people really don’t know about them. That’s what made me fall in love with that genre – it’s very unusual and rare. Studying the surviving paintings, I got obsessed with that certain way of painting – looking at the brush strokes and the energy and spontaneity they’d used. Folk art is not about fine art and one finds one’s own way. I could never paint anything realistic.”
In between, the duo took on more prosaic projects doing paint effects in Whitbread pubs. “That’s how Dave got into Elizabethan wall paintings in the first place – he’d uncover them in these old pubs he was renovating and then researched them and learned the techniques. One minute we’d be working in a pub in Wimbledon doing nicotine-stained anaglypta and rag-rolling and the next we’d be at a grand Tudor house recreating Elizabethan designs.”
In 2007, Melissa applied for an award with the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) – a charity set up by the Queen Mother in 1990 to give funding to craftsmen and makers around the country. “I put myself forward as a ‘painter-stainer’ working in the Elizabethan tradition and I think that niche craft was one they were interested to support and explore,” says Melissa. The money helped to fund research and courses and being a scholar has opened doors to many fruitful introductions. The first of these was when Melissa collaborated with Zoffany on a collection which launched in 2012.
“It was a huge confidence boost that they called the collection ‘Melissa White for Zoffany’ as I was unknown beyond the Elizabethan sphere,” says Melissa. She was still working with David at the time and his expert guidance and brushwork appears in many of the designs but sadly he passed away just as the collection launched so he never saw his protégée’s leap into the world of decorative interiors – or the success of their collection. ‘Verdure’, a lush pastoral landscape based on a late 17th century painted cloth, won the Homes and Gardens Best Printed Fabric award in 2012.
In 2013, Melissa was commissioned along with several other QEST scholars to contribute towards the restoration of the summer house in the grounds of Buckingham Palace to mark The Queen’s Coronation Festival. Melissa painted a huge series of canvases inspired by a painting in the Royal Collection featuring the River Thames. “I had to submit three designs and The Queen chose her favourite; I got to meet her and shake hands with her at the opening. I’m hugely proud of that commission but it was quite different to my usual style.”
Emboldened by her success with Zoffany, Melissa approached Lewis & Wood, and a collection of two designs followed with ‘Bacchus’ winning the Homes & Gardens Best Printed Fabric award in 2014. Then out of the blue, Melissa received an email from Kit Kemp – the designer that surely every craftsman and maker wants to hear from. “She said she’d love to collaborate on a wallpaper for her newly opened hotel in New York, The Whitby – I was absolutely over the moon!”
Kit had already used Melissa’s wallpapers and fabrics for Zoffany and Lewis & Wood in her hotels and wanted Melissa to create a wallpaper incorporating the ‘Mythical Creatures’ design she had created for Wedgwood and Chelsea Textiles. “Kit had this collection of creatures which were quite bonkers which she’d found in Indian stitch work,” says Melissa. Together, they conjured up the ‘Mythical Land’ design, a pastoral scene featuring pears and trees and otherworldly animals, inspired by naïve American folk art. “You often see strange creatures in Tudor wall paintings and manuscripts and they’ve now become a bit of a signature of mine.”
When Andrew Martin approached Kit to collaborate on a fabric and wallpaper collection, Kit went straight to Melissa to realise her ideas. “Meetings with Kit are always great fun and she knows what she likes and doesn’t like. She’ll give me references and I’ll interpret them through my hand – we’re on the same wavelength.” The collection for Andrew Martin launched in 2017 and consists of six fabrics and five wallpapers, including ‘Mythical Land’.
Melissa and Kit have since collaborated on the Kit Kemp pop-up at Turnell & Gigon’s showroom at Chelsea Harbour, and at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Melissa even painstakingly hand painted a shepherd’s hut in Kit’s garden in the New Forest. “Kit has opened so many doors for me, she’s a great supporter of craftsmen and makers. She has an incredible eye for putting things together and makes it look effortless but it’s a real art – I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Which brings us to Melissa’s own home, which couldn’t be more different to her creative style. “We’ve got a 1920’s semi-detached house without any beautiful fixtures and fittings.” she says. “It’s not really where I express my creativity – I’ve got a big studio five minutes from the house and if I wanted to show someone what’s going on in my head I’d take them to my studio not my home.”
In fact, Melissa’s home is an antidote to the riot of colour, pattern and historical references of her work. “My studio is all colour and pattern and happy chaos and my house is a sanctuary where I come to escape from it all!” she says. “It’s quite mid-century modern here and I’m a bit obsessed with things being really streamlined and minimal in my environment because there’s so much clutter in my work life. When I see interior designers doing incredible things with my designs and putting my wallpapers in a house I think ‘how do you put these things together and make them look amazing?’ In my own house I’m just trying to declutter – it’s all about de-stressing, and living near the sea is brilliant for that.”
As well as working on a host of private commissions, Melissa has new collection of designs in the pipeline for Surface View, who reproduce as wallpaper artworks held by the V&A, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and more. Modern technology and digital printing are helping Melissa to bring designs to a contemporary audience that would otherwise be lost, and a sense of wonder and whimsy into modern homes. And couldn’t we all do with some of that?