Kate Chidley didn’t want “a proper job” … so she followed in the family tradition and became an artist. By Fanny Charles
When you arrive at Kate Chidley’s Old Chapel studio in West Coker, the first thing that you notice is the big colourful “Egg box” by the red door. And the first thing you see inside, once you have taken in the height and scale of the 1839 former Wesleyan Methodist chapel, is the elegant mannequin stretching her legs from one of the high window sills.
There are other mannequins around the big space, which Kate describes as ‘chaos’ but which looks like the busy studio of a prolific artist, with piles of prints and paintings, books, sculptures and general ‘stuff’. She found some of the life-size figures at a car-boot sale and she bought others on Facebook – a few were originally costume models from the V&A in London.
She bought The Old Chapel in 2015, and had a mezzanine constructed, which is reached by a metal spiral staircase that she found at an old blacksmiths at Frome.
Cows jumping over the moon
Kate’s art fits comfortably into this eclectic setting – she has an eye for the quirky and the unusual, with hints of folklore and magic, country tales and curious characters, ancient sites and historic buildings, cows in fields or jumping over the moon … In fact her farmer father encouraged her artistic inclinations, suggesting she would be better off painting cows than milking them.
Kate is Somerset and Dorset born and bred – literally … Higher Halstock, where the men in her family have farmed for generations, has farmland in Dorset and woods in Somerset. Her mother and grandmother were both artists and her great-grandmother, sculptor Maggie Mitchell Richardson, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts – a rare woman student in the early 20th century.
‘I never wanted to have a proper job,’ Kate says. Her mother supported her plan to do an art foundation course at Yeovil College followed by a degree in illustration at the University of the West of England at Bristol.
‘Mum was always supportive but she also insisted that I got a job. She said: “You have to know what work is.” So I worked as a cleaner for a year.’
Over the years, Kate has produced colourful pictures that range from rural scenes to cows jumping over the moon, but increasingly she has focussed on her unique maps, which range in theme from Glastonbury Festival to whole counties. She is currently working on Hampshire. It all started when she made a map to show visitors where she was exhibiting and found she loved the process. She also made a map which was on the back cover of the Scotts of Merriott horticultural catalogue – her grandfather, Michael Wallis, owned the famous and historic nursery, which sadly closed in 2009.
She spends weeks researching each county, and asks for suggestions via social media and from anyone who has particular knowledge of her chosen area. Hampshire is full of amazing stories – from the murder of King William Rufus in the New Forest to Henry VIII’s Mary Rose and Nelson’s Victory at Portsmouth, to the glories of Winchester Cathedral or Highclere House (television’s Downton Abbey). The actual painting takes an intense three weeks – an amazingly short time when you look at the detail in the large and colourful maps.
One of Kate’s most popular designs is her annual map of Glastonbury Festival, where she has two stands every year. Over the last decade these have developed from what was initially just a colourful guide to the sprawling site of the world’s greatest music festival into a unique festival souvenir. She loves to hear from people who have a particular connection with the festival – where a couple got engaged, for example – and will include a little image to record these special personal stories. She also paints colourful little flags which represent people who have got in touch with her about the festival during the year. She loves the way they search for their own little picture or flag!
With the county maps, Kate begins with relatively conventional map-making – towns, villages, famous landmarks or historic buildings. But she also includes more unusual items, folklore and little-known stories about places that are perhaps less known or visited. In her map of Wiltshire, for example, there is a small picture of an extraordinary stone building which is a unique sheep shelter. Clients who buy a map can also ask to have their house or farm included, or some other detail to personalise it.
‘It’s often these little things that people love,’ she says. ‘I love to make someone happy. If people laugh or cry because they love my pictures, it makes me so happy. I feel I am illustrating memories for people.’
Kate has a stall at the Bath Christmas Market, which runs daily to 10th December. She is in the Abbey Yard – appropriate as her Christmas card this year depicts the beautiful
West Front of Bath Abbey. You can see some of her work and read about her various projects on katechidley.com and you can visit her studio by appointment – contact her via the website.