A tiled temple that traverses across its creators many lost lives, loves and labours; the House Of Dreams in East Dulwich is a living illumination, birthed and bled from a pair of passionate hearts and minds.
Journey’s Into The Outside is a documentary on ‘Outsider Art’, it is also responsible for the conversion of a three-bedroom Victorian house in London – into a live-in museum, art gallery, and personal record of far-ranging obsessions. The House of Dreams owes its physicality to the late artist Donald Jones and his surviving partner Stephen Wright – who still greets visitors at the entrance today.
The initial aim of the space was to expressively embellish the entirety of the interior and exterior of the home and garden. However, as the project developed it became a shape-shifting chronicle of entangled lives. From childhood, through bereavement, love, and a spiritual relationship with Mexico, each little detail holds special meaning. A motley melange of the near and far, the tremendous and the trivial – Haiti, South America, Europe, figurines, paintings, hairbrushes and toothpaste caps…
Flea-market fanatics: amongst the ubiquitous mosaics are large Spirit sculptures alongside shrines and hand-written memory boards, recording thoughts, feelings and events from the past, present, and future. The artworks are created from a wide range of materials such as dolls with disabilities, false teeth, used wigs, abandoned toys, dirty combs, old wills, letters, and photographs collected from the bric-à-brac markets of Brussels, Budapest, and other cities.
At first glance it looks like a fantastical kitsch folly. But the more time you spend reading and observing, the more moving the house as a work of art becomes, as it invites you to fill in the gaps with your own experiences. Who owned those records, dismembered that doll, why were those photographs thrown away? How relatable is the honesty? How much do we hide behind these walls? And what do we shelter from?
“Everything in this house is here for a reason, I can tell you where it’s from because I’ve brought it in. I do all the junk markets, buy all the crap and make something out of it. I’m careful about how much I spend on something but you only live once, if it speaks to me I buy it.”
Wright believes his home is unique in Britain, where there are few people creating such ‘environments’, as these art houses are now known; although he has several friends doing similar things in France. While he refuses to be drawn on why he thinks there’s no tradition of Outsider Artist Environments in Britain, it’s surely not insignificant that other houses in the neighbourhood routinely sell for more than £1 million.
Wright insists his house is still a home, and not a commodity. Offering transparency on his journey, he bought the residence in the late-Eighties for £49,000. He was renting a “white and boring” flat with his then-wife, when the landlord offered him the chance to buy it out. Gradually he took over the entire property as other tenants moved out, and has since paid off the mortgage. It now functions as a one-bedroom civilisation, inhabited by other areas serving as painting studios, film rooms, exhibition spaces and decorated gardens.
While the private quarters upstairs are slightly toned down (he doesn’t want to “sit with all that barrage in the evening”) Wright says that they follow a similar scheme. No nook and cranny is left untouched, and even the toilets are a work of dreams. Despite the changing demographic of the street, (“less rough-and-ready, more chi-chi”), the neighbours are mostly kind and supportive, even leaving him bags of rubbish (potential materials) outside the gate.
Despite having brought the world to his doorstep, Wright admits to the same recurring fantasies as the rest of us – one day, just packing it all in and leaving everything for good, in the manner of Simon Rodia, who created the legendary Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Dreams aren’t always practical, and the cleaning and upkeep are demands that also seem to grow as time goes on.
Stephen is no amateur, having graduated from Liverpool polytechnic with a degree in printed textiles, as well as a Masters in printed textiles from Manchester University. He spent over 30 years working extensively as an artist and designer through his own company, including a personal stationary brand that distributed designs through the doors of Harvey Nichols, Liberty London, Harrods, Selfridges, and exports to Japan and the USA.
The House of Dreams came from an intrusive disillusionment with reality behind the curtains of the real. Alongside the courage to start over again. Wright’s first love is France – including Picassiette in Chartres, Palais Ideal in Hauterives, and the home of Bodan Litnianski. Places that have left their mark in the form of the spirit and freedom of ‘naïve’ Outsider Art.
One of the most interesting properties that emerges as visitors engage with the property, is the way in which our eyes dart towards the familiar amongst the foreign. For example, Stephen recounts that dentists are often quick to find the toothbrushes, hairdressers comb through every manes appliance, and I noticed every anxiety-inducing monologue.
In contrast to the relatively closed spheres of ‘highbrow’ art, which are just as opaquely priced based on ‘cultural significance’ (politics), Wright’s approach to the creativity shared by our common humanity is unashamedly refreshing. It’s also testimony to an art form that goes beyond the stereotype of paintings, sculpture or cinema, to highlight the accessible elements that instil the every day with flair – motivation, meaning, mindset and magic. The separation of man from machine.
There is usually one Open Day toward the end of every month, and tickets are often sold out months in advance – luckily I also came to find that they occasionally have cancellations on the day. The careful curation of a worldly collection of detritus, combined with deeply personal diamonds from Wright’s own history, act as a mausoleum to thousands of ordinary, and perhaps forgotten footprints.
Alongside the indelible documents of the cacophonous crypt, Wright’s works have been bestowed to the National Trust so that when the decay celebrated in so much of his work catches up with the artist himself, the birth-child of this fluid House of Dreams, and the curiosity it ignites, live on and live long.
“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” – Jean Dubuffet, Place à l’incivisme (1987 – 1988).