Interview: Henry Van Der Vijver

Interview: Henry Van Der Vijver

1. How did you end up turning your talent as an artist to becoming a craftsman and specialist decorator?

At the age of 15 I was preparing to leave school that summer and had been accepted on a college course for jewellery design. I was in a slight quandary though as I had been working on two huge graffiti art murals with friends from school for a charity that was dear to us as we had lost a school friend due to leukaemia. The murals were really fun to paint and caused a stir with even the local newspapers running articles about us (although not always favourable especially the one that was headed -‘talented local teenagers create colourful mess’!) I loved these commissions and had expressed to a career teacher at school that I was not sure that the path I had chosen was practical enough for me. He explained that he had a colleague who due to his bad back was no longer able to work and had decided to teach a very practical trade at college which had an artistic flavour and he thought this might be the ideal career for me. I very much liked this careers teacher, so I booked to go and see Mr Barry Barnes at the local college and was surprised to learn that he was teaching ‘painting and decorating!
He said that if I was prepared to learn painting and decorating then he would take me further and teach me ‘specialist finishes’. I had never heard of these finishes but it sounded very ‘Special’. He asked me if I liked natural products like wood and marble, ‘Very much so’ I replied. With that he handed me a large slab of marble. ‘What do you think of that?’ …’wow’ I remarked, looking at the green, black and white veined marble. ‘What’s your opinion of that?’ he said “…well I thought it was going to be cold and heavy, but in fact it’s actually very light and not cold at all!”. “It would have been” he said “if it was truly marble, but this is a faux marble finish which I painted by hand on chip board”. He then showed me his portfolio of all the works he had completed in the most beautiful houses, hotels and palaces all over the world. I was totally hooked and signed up for the course. The one point that he was most keen to emphasise was that I should be ‘a craftsman first before being an artist’ as my practical skills would prove invaluable for creating all manner of finishes, for restoration works, traditional decoration and as practical grounding for ‘any of those fancy designs that you are so keen on creating’. He has really been proved right. I loved my practical roots in the trade and it really has given me great foundation.

2. Why do you think that the more traditional methods of artistry or decorating, such as trompe l’oeil and gilding are starting to making a comeback?

I have not noticed a lull in this as we always have a very balanced book between classical and contemporary finishes, but it now appears to be growing more popular. I was once told by famous mural artist Graham Rust that “it has all been done before Henry – it’s how we will do it today”. I have often found this to be very true.

3. How do you keep your ideas fresh and interesting?

I am always searching for fresh and interesting ideas and must have every book that is published relating to interiors. I also like to use alchemy to create new designs and finishes as well as adapting the classics to become the contemporary. Also the wide variety of designers and Architects who commission us grows our design sample library with their bespoke requests.

4. Which artists have influenced your work?

I worked with muralist Graham Rust and Rui Paes for many years whose work I greatly admire I was trained together with all my peers at that time to paint in oil but Graham and Rui changed that for me. I happened to be working on a project with them in Beirut when Graham confessed that my oil-based paints and glazes had been “rather a chore send”. I was horrified as we had 10 large columns and 30 panels of faux marble to paint within the murals. I was then told that instead we would be able to reference our marble designs and use water-based artist colours ‘to paint what we see’. It was like starting all over again, but I found I loved this method and have only painted with water-based mediums ever since, and that was nearly 20 years’ ago.

5. What has been your favourite project to date?

It is very difficult to pick a favourite project as there have been so many. From our first trip to Africa to embellish the Ugandan statehouse in preparation for the visit by Queen Elizabeth II, to tromp l’oeil motifs and faux marble columns, to this year working on some very special finishes on a private residence in the Seychelles and restoration projects on board the Cunard cruise liners; Elizabeth, Victoria and Queen Mary II.

6. Do you use the computer for any part of the process?

I use the computer to update and furnish our website which has become my new portfolio. Long gone are the days of developing photos which entailed black backing card, mounting stickers and endless clear sleeves to make giant albums. The computer has changed my method of working completely. Before this I would spend hours displaying my portfolio to potential clients and explaining them about what we could do for them. Now the clients can access the website and see the designs and finishes before I visit them. My wife enjoys the social media scene as before coming to live in London she worked for Emirates in Dubai and this was an ideal way to keep in touch with her family and friends. She now runs our social media channels and it has opened up an interesting world for us. I also think the way we can send and receive images as a business is amazingly useful. The amount of work we now accomplish in a day and most of it computer based compared with 10 years’ ago is incredible.

7. What is your favourite tool or material to use and why?

My favourite tool is my 5-in-1. I have even had a special pocket made in my apron for it to be near at hand. I have a big box of bespoke fitches made every year by AS Handover these are my most used tools. I love Mixol to tint everything. French stippling brushes and omega brushes are used for a great deal of our designs. We still use the traditional tools as well like the good old badger hair softener. I still use was the one given to me as an apprentice in 1986.

8. You’ve been buying from Handover for a long time, what kept you coming back?

I’m a great fan of AS Handover as I love to browse around the treasure trove-like shelves full of intriguing and enticing products. I only wish I had more time to spend in there and more finance as there is never enough for all the brushes, tools, tapes, metallic, varnish, leaf, glazes etc. It is also very handy to have Jacksons Art shop upstairs for all my artist materials. I have a good relationship with owner Michael (and Adam his son when he is not touring the world’s theatres.) It is very useful for me to have him in the wings to help with the odd request ( like stock piling gold for a client concerned that the price was to rapidly increase, and I suppose the amount he required who could blame him!)

9. What would be your dream project?

I could never have dreamed of some of the projects I have already been commissioned to do, and look forward to more of these in the future. My quote has always been ‘Have brushes will travel’.

10. Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to try their hand at specialist decorating or gilding?

My advice would be the same as my teacher Mr. Barnes gave to me in 1985, and that was to passionately learn the practical, research the classical, and continually practice, and along the way with luck you will meet like-minded craftsmen. I have had the most amazing life following this career and would highly recommend it. I appreciate every commission, the people I have met, clients and team, the beautiful interiors I have been part of creating and places I have been commissioned to work in.
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