Emma, Issy & Stella Tennant
Stella Tennant at the boathouse on Loch Roughley, near her parents’ farm.
Issy (left) and Stella Tennant outside their studio.
Two generations of one of England’s most celebrated families — Emma, Issy and Stella Tennant — make beautiful, unusual and deeply personal art that draws from the natural world.
Driving from Stella Tennant’s Georgian manor house to the 19th-century hill farm where her mother, Emma Tennant, lives, you pass through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Scottish Borders, from the gently rolling farmland of coastal Berwickshire to the more remote Roxburghshire moorland. Standing in her yard in a white coverall boiler suit, Emma makes a formidable first impression, but her warmth is such that one is soon captivated by her and her surroundings. Emma, a botanical artist, is the daughter of Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, youngest and sole survivor of the Mitford sisters, and she learned to garden at the age of 6, hanging about the potting shed with her family’s gardener, Mr. Chester, and later in Joseph Paxton’s greenhouses at Chatsworth, the legendary Devonshire house. “I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in both gardening and painting,” she says. “I must have been born with a trowel in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.”
Her delicate watercolors, full of both charm and character, are usually framed by her daughter Issy, a gilder for 30 years. Two years ago, Issy and Stella, her top-model sister, went into business together, working on a handmade collection of gilded lamps, mirrors and carved flowers. The three Tennants make a remarkable triumvirate of independent women, gifted with both talent and innate style. “Part of this new incarnation of my business,” Issy says, “was really influenced by the Chatsworth attic sale, where I saw the carved flowers and thought how marvelous they would be to use. Visually, Chatsworth is an extraordinary place, including the garden.” One of England’s most splendid houses, Chatsworth is notable not only for its garden but also, fittingly, for its gilding, which adorns the rooms and even the window frames on the outside of the house. For this family, it seems, it’s all in the genes.
Emma Tennant’s walled garden is luxuriant, wild and quintessentially British. Fat drunken bees nuzzle in the flowers, and the fava beans hang in abundance off the canes. Everything is bursting with life and color, a flourishing haven amid the surrounding heathery hills. Emma draws and paints what she grows. “Because I am really interested in gardening, I do really interesting plants, not even always flowers,” she says. “And because I have grown them, I really know them like friends.” But she is not confined by her garden: “I paint everything from exotic orchids to rosehips growing wild in a hedge. They just have to speak to me.” This is apparent in her pictures, which are full of charm and joy — “botanical accuracy with a free line,” as she puts it — unlike the rather strict illustrations favored by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Her studio looks out onto the garden, its walls paneled in varnished wainscoting and crowded with framed watercolors and pinned sketches, postcards, notes, flowers hanging to dry and the odd picture of Stella torn from a magazine. Emma studied history at Oxford and intended to be a teacher; it was not until she was 40 that she made painting her career. Her first show was in her friends’ flat in Warwick Square; they took down all their pictures and put Emma’s up in their place. Her most recent exhibition was held at Chatsworth this year, hosted by her brother Stoker, the current Duke of Devonshire, to celebrate Emma’s 70th birthday. In New York she has shown at the Ursus bookshop at the Carlyle Hotel, and in Japan the Yamada family exhibited her work in the gallery at the Barakura English Garden. “I have been strongly influenced by Japan, and I even work on Japanese paper,” Emma says. “Japanese painting is not done to fit a page; they paint on screens and scrolls so they flow in a way that is not possible on a rectangle.”
“I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in both gardening and painting,” she says. “I must have been born with a trowel in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.”
A portrait of Stella at 11 and a painting by Issy at age 8 of her pony, in a guest bedroom at Shaws Farm, their childhood home.
A series of panels hang on the wall of the studio.
Emma in her studio
A geometric mirror, with a pattern taken from a 19th-century Japanese kimono, is fronted by a trio of Tennant and Tennant lamps.
“Aline Chastel just loves Issy’s gilding,” Kennedy says. “Issy used to bring me these exquisite mirrors in the car, wrapped up in old dog blankets.”
Gilded treasures line the mantel in Issy’s sitting room.
It’s easy to see how this free-spirited artist would not want to be boxed in by a piece of paper. After working all morning in her studio, Emma changes from her boiler suit into a skirt and blouse, with a string of pearls around her neck and a pair of 18th-century paste buckles on her shoes. She hops into an ancient Audi with a box of vegetables from the garden and off she and her husband drive, south to England.
Half an hour away, in a gentler landscape near the headwaters of the River Tweed, the Tennant and Tennant studio of the sisters is a very different scene. The stark, alabaster-white room, tucked away at the back of Issy’s house, is strewn with reference books and many of their gilded pieces — lamps, mirrors, skulls, even a branch picked up by Stella’s dog, Freud, hanging from the ceiling like a mobile.
Issy, 49, studied her craft at the City & Guilds of London Art School, but it was her childhood visits to Wilsford Manor, the theatrically decorated house of her uncle Stephen Tennant (one of the Bright Young People of the 1920s), that really inspired her. “I love the process,” she says. “That has never changed since it began. If you go around Renaissance and Byzantine churches it is all the same.” For the past six years she has been gilding mirrors for the designer Marianna Kennedy, who shows at Aline Chastel’s gallery in Paris. “Aline Chastel just loves Issy’s gilding,” Kennedy says. “Issy used to bring me these exquisite mirrors in the car, wrapped up in old dog blankets.”
Stella, 42, claims responsibility for “getting Issy off the wall” and thinking beyond frames, after she saw some sample boards in Issy’s kitchen and suggested she use them to make lamps. “Next thing, Stella arrives with a sample lamp she got a local carpenter to make. She’s really good at 3-D!” Issy says. “I like getting things made,” Stella says. “Going to the foundry and seeing how we are going to make a branch for a chandelier, seeing how these things come into being.”
In their Roxburghshire studio, it is the sisters themselves who bring things into being. With their shared love of taxidermy — like children, they don’t take much prodding to remember seeing their father butchering lambs on the kitchen table — they are both drawn to the darker side of the mystical art of gilding, whose very tools sound like an incantation: rabbit-skin glue, squirrel-hair brush, whiting, clay color, methylated spirit, water, gold. “Everything has to be heated up,” Issy says. “Everything needs to be blood temperature,” Stella adds, before her sister finishes the thought: “It is alchemy, really.”
Emma’s paintings and a photo of Stella from a magazine.
Stella (left) and Issy in their studio at Issy’s house.
Rhodanthe manglesii hung to dry.