House Portraits

Two weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at being invited to exhibit at the Carinus Art Centre at this year’s National Arts Festival and hinted that I was working on another series of small works. Here are the first three:

Portraits of houses in historic Grahamstown

For a long time I have been nursing the idea of making a textile portrait of the beautiful stone house in which we live. Our home is architecturally more complicated than the above houses as it has a Victorian upstairs balcony and an extra street level room (that was once a corner shop that sold sweets). So, I never did find the courage to stitch it down, as it were. Then, when this exhibition opportunity came up, I decided to first stitch some of the more simple-shaped and charming old houses in the town.

I began with one of the smallest houses in historic Grahamstown, which is in the grounds of “Old House” (a double-story stone house at 55 New Street) built soon after 1820 and said to be the smallest house in the town (Van der Riet, 34). The cottage was once the “one-day goal” for petty offenders (Randell, [10]). This little house has recently been renovated and the original stone walls exposed. Replicating the stone wall in stitch was a nice free-motion stitch challenge. There is now a high fence in front of the house, but I chose to copy the low white wall and picket fence gate depicted in both the books referenced above.

An in process (left) and completed view of the small house at 55a New Street. 33 x 25 cm.

Now for a quick paragraph on the technical details. I first made blanks for the backgrounds to the houses, by joining strips of hand-dyed Amafu fabrics in dove grey and charcoal grey. I cut these into equal A4 sized blocks in both portrait and landscape formats. I drafted the house shape by taking a photograph and then tracing the outline of the house from my computer screen. I am much better at measuring and copying the details from a photograph than I am at drawing freehand. And, using this method, means that the end result is in proportion. The next step was to applique the house parts onto the background and to machine stitch the details and finishing edges of the house. I luckily have a good stash of plain fabrics, many of them from the Amafu range. I used matching colours from my stash of threads to outline the windows and add details to the doors in either satin or straight machine stitch. Finally, I hand quilted the background and, in this case, the front fence, again using different coloured quilting cotton to achieve the effects I wanted. Once more, I was surprised and delighted by how the hand stitching changes the appearance of the piece.

Next in line was a gracious old home called Merriman House in Market Street. The nearby Market Square was surveyed in 1824 and became a residential area for officers. This house was originally two semi-detached houses with gable ends and one of these military residences. It was later occupied by Bishop Merriman, hence its name. About 50 years ago the house was combined into one residence and the balconies removed to expose the simple proportions of the old settler house (Reynolds, 67).

A set of photographs to show the different stages of the construction of House Portrait #2, Merriman House in Market Street. 25 x 33 cm.

The next house portrait is of a more modest settler cottage at 17 Bartholomew Street. It is near to Artificers Square and perpendicular to Cross Street, one of the oldest parts of town. The houses of artisans and workpeople were built in this area in the 1820s and 30s (Randell, [41]).

The making of House Portrait #3. 34 x 24 cm.

It struck me when I put these three finished pieces together for the group photograph that they are not all the same size, even though I started off with ‘blanks’ of equal measurements. I have decided that this, along with the slightly skew binding, adds to their charm. Ha!

There is two weeks until the National Arts Festival opens, so there is time to make a few more of these portraits. Maybe I will even get to stitching our own house quite soon.

Meanwhile, below is another version of House Portrait #3. (Don’t you think it’s brave to display one’s stitching in this enlarged format!)


Randell, Dorothy. Grahamstown Magic: Exploring with a Sketchbook. [Self-published. ca 1980]

Reynolds, Rex and Barbara. Grahamstown from Cottage to Villa. Cape Town: David Philip Publisher, 1974.

23 thoughts on “House Portraits

  1. These Grahamstown houses are just gorgeous Mariss!
    Makes me feel quite nostalgic πŸ’™
    The close up section of one of your houses works really well for your β€˜flyer’/ digital ad.
    Good luck with the work ahead for your show πŸ’Ž


    1. Stitching them has also made me feel nostalgic. These historic houses are almost other worldly. And of course I wish you still lived here. Thanks for your praise and good wishes dear Ast


  2. Not brave at all when one has confidence in ones stitching abilities… I look forward to seeing them exhibited.


  3. I enjoyed seeing your house portraits, along with the history behind them. How wonderful that the buildings are still in use. Your stitching is lovely, so I think it looks wonderful in that enlarged photo!


  4. These are lovely Mariss. It’s amazing how these relatively simply buildings are so aesthetically pleasing and you have captured this in the quilts.
    It seems that the third wave and associated restrictions will impact on the Arts Festival. What sad times we are going through.


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