Meet Soho House artist, Tom Howse
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Babington House, we spoke to the man behind the most iconic works in its art collection
Tuesday 23 May 2023 By Anastasiia Fedorova
As Babington House turns 25 this summer, it’s an opportune moment to delve into all the little details that make it our original countryside escape. From the sanctuary of the Cowshed spa and candlelit dinners in the Orangery to the herby scent of the Walled Garden and long walks in the surrounding Somerset countryside, Babington is the perfect destination to unwind. It’s also great for the curious – the Grade II-listed manor is begging for a lengthy exploration, and even after a few visits it feels like there are still rooms, reading nooks and interior details to be seen.
Just like all of our clubs around the world, the art at Babington House is integral to the location – its collection consists of 40 works and is a celebration of local artists in Somerset. It also includes special commissions inspired by the House itself. Among them is a series of drawings by Tom Howse that are witty, mysterious and endlessly provocative for the imagination.
Based in London, Howse primarily works with painting to capture the intricacies of human life: the irony and the joy, the uncanny and the strange, the connections, emotions and environments we move through. Taking inspiration from the interiors of Babington House, he reimagined them with a slightly surreal edge, allowing the viewer to complete their own story of every room they walk into.
To mark the 25th anniversary of our original rural retreat, Howse talks us through the commission, his artistic interests and his practice.
Can you tell us about the series of drawings you did for Babington House and the idea behind them?
‘I went to Babington House for the morning and spent a few hours walking around it. At the time, I’d already started using interiors as a recurring theme in my paintings. I like these really staged, symmetrical-looking rooms. I think they make you feel quite weird, because it’s all very considered and very beautiful. When you sit there and observe, it’s like somebody else has made a lot of decisions to engage with the pottery on the shelves or the artwork on the walls or the colour of the paint.
‘I was going around each room thinking about it, looking at the views. I’ve always painted a lot of plants, and there’s some really nice bits of landscape that have been left to be quite woodland-like around the building, like a really old brick wall that’s covered in ivy and ferns. I guess I just caught areas of the property where they would act as scenes for all of my paintings, as if it was a theatre show or something.’
Which techniques and tools did you use for the drawings?
‘At the time, I was using this method in painting when I would draw on little scraps of canvas. Then, I’d stick them onto the surface of another painting. It would allow you to have this image within an image, a narrative within a narrative. And the way I would do that is I’d make drawings in the first place, and then I’d do scaled-down versions on other bits of paper and stick those on. On one of the drawings from Babington, there is a fireplace that I drew on miniature squares of paper – I drew different pottery and then I stuck those on. So, once I’d designed the room, I was then curating the objects, almost like I was hanging pictures in a picture of a room. I quite like that sort of meta narrative of images within images, within images.’
What are the core themes you’re currently exploring within your practice?
‘My main focus is people. Maybe like five years ago I’d say I was really interested in people, but in an evolutionary sense. What is the meaning of life? Who are we? Where did we come from? It’s the kind of thing that stoned teenagers talk about when they stare at the stars. I still explore this as well, but what I’ve brought into my work in the last three or four years is more about boring present-day situations of human beings. It’s thinking about the ones you see every day sitting on the tube.
‘I also want to project forgiveness and an understanding approach to people in general. That’s why in a lot of my paintings everyone’s smiling or happy, or they’re hugging and being nice to one another. If somebody described that practice to me, I would hate it. And yet that’s what I do. I just want to make paintings where people are being nice to each other.’
Is there an underlying subtext to that niceness?
‘It’s a sort of double negative niceness. Everything seems very calm and pleasant. There’s lots of pretty houseplants or furniture, but still this sense of doubt. I can’t put my finger on it. But when I look at my own paintings, I like them to feel like they’re not real – like there’s something happening that’s not quite right.
‘The ones I made at Babington House are all very weird images, even though they were direct drawings of the interior of certain rooms, with the wooden panelling, the Georgian windows, the certain types of furniture. It’s all correct on one hand, but on the other there’s something about it that’s a bit off; your brain just doesn’t quite believe it, and I like that.’
Tom Howse’s works are currently on display at No.9 Cork Street in London.