The founder of a charity which supports contemporary northern art successfully combines ancient and modern in her charming 17th century home in Ripon. Ruth Campbell pays a visit

What you choose to hang on your wall says so much about you. It reflects not just your taste but something about who you are, what you think, even what you feel.

So says Annette Petchey, whose own charming early 17th century home speaks volumes about her and her husband Robert’s love of contemporary art, architecture and books.

Loading article content

Annette, who works in financial services, is the founder of New Light, the country’s leading biennial open prize dedicated to contemporary art in the North. And yet Annette, who left school at 16 to start work and has an eight-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter, has no formal training in art. “I am from a working class family. I grew up in an environment where you just had to get out and get working. No-one went to university,” she says.

But, having been dragged around art galleries by her driving instructor father from an early age, Annette developed a love of paintings, particularly the sort of modern, abstract art and characterful portraits that hang throughout her historic Grade II-listed Ripon home. “He would bore us rigid, taking us round endless galleries and museums and we would stay far too long. But I remember being stopped in my tracks by things that were either jaw-droppingly beautiful or really ugly, things that were inspiring or disturbing,” she says.

One of the founders of Virgin Life Insurance, Annette started collecting art in her late twenties. “It is a very personal thing. When you start putting things on your walls, you are saying ‘This is me, this is what I like’. That takes a lot of courage. I don’t think I thought as deeply about marrying my husband,” she laughs.

The couple’s home, a former merchant’s house, is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to the early 17th century with a late 17th century extension. The walls, painted in rich, bold period colours, including golds and blues, provide a striking backdrop for Annette’s collection of modern art.

Her taste is eclectic and, nowadays, her collecting is done vicariously, with many of the artists she most admires featuring in the New Light Collection and Prize Exhibitions. Some of her favourite Northern artists include Chloe Holt, Emerson Mayes, Ed Kluz, Anthony Connolly, Diana Armstrong and Simeon Stafford. “I don’t collect expensive masterpieces. I buy from fairly unknown artists. Some fade into obscurity and some go on to be well-known,” she says.

Old fireplaces, ancient gnarled and twisted beams and original 17th century panelling are juxtaposed with bright swirls of abstract colour on large canvases. “Juxtaposition is a word I love,” explains Annette. “I like to combine really modern art with ancient features, an old painting against striking blues and golds. Old and new work well together. I love the clash, the conflict.”

Similarly Annette, who moved to rural North Yorkshire from London with banker Robert ten years ago, enjoys the contrast of city and country. “I love the peace and quieter energy of being in Ripon but also the buzz and vibrancy that’s about when I go into London, Leeds or Newcastle. I enjoy each of them because of the existence of the other.”

Annette and Robert, who is originally from Northumberland, used to have a holiday cottage in Teesdale and love the great outdoors, which is largely what drew them to this part of the country. Their search for a home focused on finding somewhere with period character and enough accessible wall space to accommodate their paintings, as well as Robert’s collection of nearly 20,000 books on art, architecture and Abrahamic faiths.

When they saw this house, the couple, who have a shared enthusiasm for craftsmanship and conservation, immediately fell in love with it, despite the fact it was damp and had death watch beetle.

“We wanted something which didn’t need a lot of work,” laughs Annette, who explains that the house, despite its problems, was impossible to resist. “It’s beautiful, and close to the cathedral, a wonderful place to live, with open country on our doorstep. We can walk into the city and walk out to Fountains Abbey. And there’s a real sense of community here.”

With a large garden and drawing room complete with a grand piano, which they bought from the previous owner, the house is deceptively spacious and the couple, who are big fans of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, love the original features.

From the 17th century staircase to vaulted cellar ceiling and the original enormous iron front door key, the property oozes period character and charm. There are even ‘witch wards’ - circular marks designed to repel witches in ancient times - etched into the old kitchen door.

One of the first things they did was to strip off the 1950s cement render, which was suffocating the building and creating damp. Annette points to the beams in the kitchen, where the death watch beetle, which they are slowly eradicating, live. “They’re like woodworm on steroids, you hear them in mating season, they have a blunt head and bang it against the wood,” she says.

But a major priority was to create a library for their books, which involved reinforcing the floors. Cabinet makers Anthony Nixon Furniture, of Barnard Castle, came up with an ingenious design for double width sliding shelving, which lines the walls of their custom-built library. “We like to support designer makers and the quality is important to us,” says Annette. Anthony Nixon also made the kitchen table, which is topped with fossil-encrusted marble, and a stunning custom-built oak dining table and chairs, which extends to seat up to 20.

Other pieces of furniture, including shutters, fitted kitchen cupboards and intricately constructed pieces designed to fit flush against wonky walls, were made by James Boddy of Ripon, Treske Furniture in Thirsk and Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson in Kilburn. Even the stunning, plush metallic print effect curtains in the magnificent dining hall were made by a local designer, Olivia Bard.

Two large portraits, which Annette bought at auction in York, hang above the fireplace in this room. She imagines they are father and daughter. “I enjoy pictures of people’s faces, they tell a story,” she says. “He looks gaunt; you can see he has worked hard all his life. She has had an easier life and there is a wonderful flash of colour in her scarf.”

The first serious painting she acquired, a vivid still life in oil of a bird of paradise plant by Jackie Philip, has pride of place on the master bedroom wall. “I really had to think about it, because it cost a couple of hundred pounds and that felt like a lot of money. I was on holiday and thought it was beautiful. I wanted to take it home.”

That was Annette’s first step on the road to becoming an art collector. But it wasn’t until she relocated here that she began to nurture talent too. She was on maternity leave when she came up with the idea of providing young northern artists with the sort of financial support, mentoring and exposure they desperately needed after realising they were selling paintings for a fraction of the cost of similar work in the capital.

“I came across amazing young artists I was flabbergasted I had never heard of. At first I thought, ‘Great, I can fill my boots’ but then I realised so many of them could not make a living and a lot gave up on their dream. Some left for London and I thought that was a shame for the region,” she says. “I thought, I can do something about this,” she says.

And so, the New Light art charity, with a first prize of £10,000 funded by Valeria Sykes, was born. And my, how it has grown. Just under 200 artists entered in the first year. Last year there were 2,000. Six years on, New Light is developing a permanent collection for loan outside traditional gallery spaces and has earned a reputation for engaging the sort of noteworthy artists who attract first time buyers and collectors alike.

Annette’s children, who have each selected pieces of original, if inexpensive, art for their bedroom walls, are continuing the family tradition. “I now take my children to galleries, but they’re allowed to whip round,” she laughs. Like Annette, they tend to go for what grabs them: “I don’t really care what the artist means. But any artist who can catch the essence of something and spark a visceral reaction, something you can feel, is amazing.

“Art needs to be accessible to people. The big question is, do you want to look at it every day for years?”

*This year’s New Light show opens at Bowes Museum on November 18. Entries are accepted from May 1.

Visit newlight-art.org for more information.

New Light – which opens for entries for its next Prize Exhibition in May - has helped bring the work of a host of northern artists, including the three below, to the wider public:

*Durham-born artist and printmaker Anja Percival, who specialises in copperplate etching, started out as a scientist before deciding on a radical career change. Shortlisted in the 2015 New Light Prize Exhibition, her work has hung in Durham Cathedral and the House of Lords. She has donated three of her etchings to the New Light Collection.

*From an agricultural background, painter Debbie Loane, who was shortlisted in 2015, studied fine art in Leeds and now lives outside York. Her works acknowledge the romantic splendour of the northern landscape while, at the same time, remaining rooted in the daily practicalities of everyday rural life. Debbie runs a range of courses with professional artists from Lund Studios.

*North Yorkshire-based Anna Poulton’s mixed media picture of figs won the prize for emerging artist in 2015. Her semi-abstract collages, paintings and drawings, created using textured paper and newspaper print, investigate the shapes and structures found in nature. Anna, who also trained as an antique furniture restorer, runs art workshops for children and adults at Old Sleningford Hall, near Ripon.