In 1998, artist Stephen Wright watched a BBC programme called Journeys Into the Outside presented by Jarvis Cocker.
He was in his three-bedroom Victorian house in East Dulwich at the time but so inspired was he by his discovery of outsider art that he went straight over to France to visit some of the featured environments with his then-partner Donald.
As soon as the couple returned, they installed a mosaic face on the floor of Wright’s house, kicking off a decades-long project now known as the House of Dreams.
“We wanted to make something that we were going to leave behind,” says Wright. “Little did I know that Donald would pass away only a few years later. Then my parents passed away.
“A lot of my angst went into the House of Dreams, it was therapy. I started to make comfort sculptures out of my parents’ clothes, which I used to hold and hug because I didn’t have a family, it was just me. Then I started to write about personal things as a way of dealing with loss.”
The first of these written murals is in the entrance hall and was painted the night Donald died. On the facing wall is a passage about being bullied as a child “for being fat and gay”, while others talk about Brexit or Covid, or about visits to Wright’s favourite places, including India and Mexico.
These intensely personal, diary-like panels are interspersed with an assemblage of sculptures, paintings, mosaics, collage, old photographs, found objects and flea-market gems.
At first glance it looks like a fantastical kitsch folly. But the more time you spend reading and looking, the more moving the house as a work of art becomes. Who owned those records, dismembered that doll, why were those photographs thrown away?
The careful curation of other people’s junk, combined with the deeply personal elements from Wright’s own history, act as a memorial to thousands of ordinary, perhaps forgotten, lives.
“Everything in this house is here for a reason, I can tell you where it’s from because I’ve brought it in. Nearly everything’s from other countries, from Haiti, South America, Brussels and a lot from Paris. I do all the junk markets, buy all the crap and make something out of it. I’m careful about how much I spend on something but you only live once, if it speaks to me I buy it.”
The house has been opened to the public for the past eight years, with monthly open days run by Wright and his current partner Michael. Wright has also bequeathed the House of Dreams to the National Trust.
He believes his home is unique in Britain, where there are few people creating “environments”, as these art houses are known, although he has several friends doing similar things in France.
Although he refuses to be drawn on why he thinks there’s no tradition of outsider artist environments in Britain, it’s surely not insignificant that houses on Wright’s street routinely sell for more than £1 million.
I’m not decorating the house to make money out of it. It’s a home, it’s not a commodity
Wright bought his home in the late-Eighties for £49,000. He was renting a “white and boring” flat with his then-wife when the landlord offered him the chance to buy the house. Gradually he took over the entire property as other tenants moved out. He has since paid off the mortgage. It now functions as a one-bedroom house, with other rooms serving as painting studios, a film room, the ground floor exhibition rooms and front and back gardens, both also decorated.
While the upstairs rooms are slightly toned down — mainly for Michael’s benefit, “he doesn’t want to sit with that barrage in the evening” — Wright says they follow a similar scheme.
Even the loo has mosaic work on the walls. “I’m not decorating the house to make money out of it. It’s a home, it’s not a commodity.”
Despite the changing demographic of the street, “less rough-and-ready, more chi-chi”, Wright says the neighbours are all kind and supportive and even leave him bags of potential materials outside the gate.
“People understand me here, they understand the vision but England doesn’t inspire me. Certainly at the moment with Brexit, I’ve just written on a sign ‘I’m in mourning for my country.’ It makes me feel very uncomfortable, it’s so inward-looking, but what can you do about it? I’ve been working on this house for such a long time I can’t move it somewhere else.”
That said, the artist does have a recurring fantasy of packing his bags and leaving the house for good in the manner of Simon Rodia, who created the legendary Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
“The house is quite demanding, I have a love-hate relationship with it,” Wright says. “I never thought of the upkeep when I started, the outside crumbles and I’ve never got round to getting a cleaner so I do half a day before our open days.” But hard work is in the blood for Wright, who grew up in rural Cheshire, where the family would rise early to work on the fruit orchards. The family home was a simple 1741 cottage, a far cry from the visual overload of the House of Dreams, although Wright’s father was a keen collector, “he’d find things on the road”.
Could Wright have created the House of Dreams in Cheshire? “I need to be in London because it’s a major city, people come from all over the world, but I live here for work. I live behind a high wall because I don’t particularly like what’s going on outside. I want to live in a space that’s a sort of safety womb, somewhere to hide in that feels safe from the world.”