Why Royal Academy exhibiting artist and Lee resident Jo Oakley splits her time between her retro-styled home in Lee and her vintage beach hut in Whitstable
Words: Nikki Spencer
During the week, painter and printmaker Jo Oakley lives and works in a converted 19th century coach house and stables in Lee. Come the weekend, she heads off to her vintage beach hut on the Kent coast.
‘I was born and brought up in south east London and I love it,’ says Jo, ‘but having somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle and unwind is wonderful. It only takes 45 minutes to get to the beach hut and as soon as I head down the M2 I immediately start to relax.
‘There is definitely a Whitstable influence in my work’, she adds. ‘I often sketch and take photos when I’m at the beach and then use them for reference back at in my studio.’
Jo bought her beach hut about 25 years ago as somewhere to go when her daughters Hannah and Daisy were younger, and it’s still a much loved family bolt-hole.
‘My daughters are grown up now but we all still adore it,’ she says. ‘My favourite time is on a summer’s evening when it is quieter and we sit and eat dinner on the beach, although wrapping up warm and going for a blustery winter walk is great too. I like the food there, especially the fish. Going to the local market is so much better than going to Sainsbury’s.’
Over the years Jo has made many friends in Whitstable, including her partner Ed, who she met 10 years ago. He recently bought her a Patterdale Terrier – Vince – for her 50th birthday, who loves it on the beach too.
Jo bought her Lee Green home 12 years ago as the result of a house ‘swap’. She was looking to downsize after her marriage came to end and the owner of the coach house was looking for somewhere bigger: ‘I fell in love with the place the moment I saw it and it was the perfect solution for both of us.’
Before moving in she made a number of additions, including turning the adjoining garage into a third bedroom to accommodate her and her daughters, and creating space for her printing press. She also added stained-glass panels between the hall and her bedroom to allow more light to seep through.
After studying Fine Art, Jo spent a number of years working as a carpenter and shop fitter, which she says comes in handy: ‘It was seven blokes in a van and me wearing dungarees and a tool belt,’ she recalls. ‘If anything needs fixing or drilling, I can do it!’, she smiles.
‘I like so many different styles and enjoy bringing them all together,’ says Jo, who describes her style as “comfortable” and “eclectic”. ‘I like 50s, 70s, Arts & Crafts, Swedish… I certainly don’t belong to one tribe.’
The heart of Jo’s home is very much her retro kitchen with its cream and red original 1950s fitted units from the English Rose Kitchen Company. Like so many of her possessions, it’s the history as well as the design that appeals. After the end of World War II, aircraft manufacturer CSA decided to use their engineering expertise to create Europe’s first modular kitchens.
‘I’ve always hankered after an English Rose kitchen and I was lucky enough to find one on eBay,’ says Jo.
A pink Smeg fridge and a few rolls of Mini Moderns’ Whitby wallpaper add more character to the kitchen, and a feature wall in Farrow & Ball’s St Giles Blue, just off to the right of the calm, cream living area, adds a flash of colour. Jo also had a wooden studio built in the garden, where she works every day.
Her seascapes and still life pictures, some of which can be seen around her home, sell in galleries around the UK, and this year two of her works were selected for the Royal Academy of Arts’ prestigious Summer Exhibition.
‘I have had work selected before,’ says Jo, ‘but to have two pictures was quite something – they take 14,000 submissions and only choose 200. It’s a lovely thing to be part of and there’s a nice party too,’ she adds.
This month, Jo will be opening up her home and studio to the public as part of Lee Green Open Studios, which she started 16 years ago. Forty-seven local artists will take part, from photographers and sculptors to a bespoke guitar maker.
‘I’d taken part in open studios years ago when I lived in Greenwich, so I thought it would be great to have something similar in this area,’ she says. ‘My mum, who lives nearby, is also an artist so she joined in too and it quickly spread because Lee Green has a big artistic community. It’s a pretty unique event as it’s all within a few streets and people love it because they get to see art on display in a real home environment.’