'At Home with Emma Tooth' interview in the Derbyshire Magazine 2011

Emma Tooth's art is as spellbinding as the woman herself. Lynne Dixon meets one of Derbyshire's most eccentric characters at her Derbyshire home.

From the outside, the property looks like any other conventional 1930s semi, but when the lady of the house answers the door, clad from head to toe in a dramatic black lace Victorian gown, complete with satin corset and bustle, it's clear this is no ordinary household. For this seemingly predictable house in Duffield is the home of the extraordinarily-talented portrait painter Emma Tooth, and her film-maker husband, Owen.

At home with Emma Tooth

Quirky is a totally inadequate way to describe this hugely creative couple and their beloved home. For the pair, both originally from Cambridge but now firmly rooted in their adopted village of Duffield, are simply beyond quirky.

Emma greets me warmly as I arrive on her doorstep. With her impossibly slender 19-inch waist and gorgeous Victorian-style gown, which she has inevitably run up herself, she looks utterly stunning. Her jet black hair flowing down to her waist, her make-up pale, her eyes smoky with liberal use of eyeliner and her perfectly outlined lips stained scarlet, Emma could have stepped straight from the film set of a Hollywood costume drama.

Emma and Lady Clarice

Emma is the centre of her own costume drama every day of her life and the people of Duffield have become used to seeing her going to the shops in various fantastic outfits. "I've been known to wear this dress to Sainsbury's," she smiles, as if it's the most normal thing in the world to do. Which, of course, to the fabulous Emma, it is. "When I'm in the shops in Duffield I get lots of compliments about my outfits. People say: 'Sorry to disturb you but I love your dress and where did you find that hat?'"

It's for this reason that she loves Planet Duffield, as she and Owen affectionately call it. "The people are so friendly and polite. They're educated, too, so they don't throw stones at me, burn me as a witch or bray out of their windows at me," Emma says with a mischievous grin. "They have more sense than to be silly like that."

In her late 20s, Emma is increasingly making a name for herself for her extraordinary portraits of ordinary people. Her recent series of paintings was called Concilium Plebis and Emma was invited to exhibit them last year alongside a collection of Joseph Wright paintings at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. "As far as I know this was the first time any artist has had their paintings displayed among Joseph Wright paintings in over 200 years," she says proudly.

The reason the two artists were exhibited side by side, and indeed intermingled, was because Emma paints in similar style to the Derby-born 18th-century artist, using the chiaroscuro lighting technique which emphasises the contrast of light and dark. "This technique was originally used to great effect by the early 17th-century Italian artist, Caravaggio," she explains. Like Wright of Derby, Emma paints portraits of local people in oils. For her Concilium Plebis collection she scoured the streets for suitable subjects – including teenagers and young mums. "Then I set to work in my studio at home presenting them in the style of a Renaissance painting, which I display in antique-looking gilt frames."

At Home with Emma Tooth

Emma's stunningly dramatic style and technical excellence has caused quite a storm in the art world, winning her heaps of praise from critics. She shows her work not only in the UK – she's had exhibitions recently at the Lazarides Gallery and The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle – but also abroad. "I'll be exhibiting in the USA in February," she confides. "My show will be in California at the Thinkspace Gallery in Culver City. I love that name, it sounds so like a cowboy ghost town!"

She was also recently commissioned by Derby Museum and Art Gallery to paint a portrait based on a Joseph Wright painting. "They asked me to create a piece responding directly to their Wright collection and I have chosen his painting The Captive. "I will do a modern take on it, examining the way I perceive people now are held captive by the media and TV. We don't have culture now, we have advertising. Culture is in a very sorry state, as I see it!"

The finished work will be unveiled in Derby early next year at the newly-refurbished Joseph Wright Gallery, as part of the Joseph Wright Enlightenment Festival. Explains Emma: "The festival will be held to raise awareness of Wright's cultural significance here in fair Derby. My painting will become part of the gallery's collection."

Emma not only paints at her three-bedroomed home in Duffield, she also spends hours and days making wonderful period-style clothes, usually Victorian or in the magnificently elaborate 18th-century French style of Marie Antoinette, always with matching accessories like parasols and hats. "I usually choose one of these outfits to wear for the opening of my exhibitions," she says in the sure knowledge that she is always going to be the star of her own productions.

To go with her outfits, Emma ensures that her make-up looks perfect too. She favours the pale skin, dark eyes and bright red lips of the Geisha. "I adore that look, I'm a bit of a Japanophile," she admits. "I've visited Japan twice and absolutely love it. I had a geisha makeover while I was there." Emma also proudly shows me a fabulous red, gold and cream embroidered full-length bridal kimono in her collection. Explaining her fascination with the Japanese geisha culture, she adds: "It means a 'woman of art' and hence I feel a great kinship with them – and not only because they wear mostly black gowns, lots of hair ornaments and have pale complexions!"

Lady Clarice's teaparty

Emma and Owen have decorated their home to reflect their unique artistic tastes. What most people would call their sitting room is the couple's Victorian-style "winter parlour", furnished with red and gold velvet, darkly rich red walls and accessories like a brooding taxidermied rook – an object d'art that Owen's mother discovered at a car boot sale! "We decided to give the rook a respectful home here with us," Emma smiles. On one wall hangs an atmospheric "Old Master" by Emma, depicting husband Owen dressed all in black, complete with top hat, holding a pocket watch.

Walking through to their "bijou" dining room, she shows me her sewing table, proudly accommodating her brand new state-of-the-art sewing machine. "I sit and sew in here for hours', on a large oak 'throne', which I think must have originally come from a Welsh chapel as it has 'Praise the Lord' carved on it in Welsh! "I'm on a major sewing kick at the moment; there's no stopping me, I make clothes as a hobby to relax from my work." The focal point of the room is a magnificently ornate beaded and sequined black dress in the Marie Antoinette style, with a huge four-feet-wide skirt. "The dress has a matching hat and parasol and I wore it to an exhibition opening a while back."

A large white French-style armoire also dominates the room, housing many of Emma's treasures, including some of her antique Victorian and Japanese clothes and jewellery, and a beautiful black mask on a stick which she has made especially for a masked ball she and Owen will be attending at the Venice carnival next February.

In bed with my hen

A glamorous black glass chandelier and a pretty white fireplace complete the décor. "We rescued the fireplace from a scrap yard." she tells me. Emma shows me her conservatory next, where Owen's two cats, Mrs. Norris and Inspector Miaow, recline elegantly on the sofas. Suddenly Emma scoots out into the garden to the little "Swiss chalet" to bring her three pet hens in to meet me. They're called Mana (after a Japanese rock star), Lady Cora and Lady Clarice. Unashamedly eccentric, she informs me with a smile: "In the summer they sleep in their chicken house and, in winter, they sleep in our kitchen. My hens are all extremely friendly. They come into the conservatory to lay their eggs on the sofa. In the evenings they come inside and sit on my shoulder or my lap while I read or sew."

Emma points out an oil painting of her very first hen, now sadly deceased, called Linda. "She used to live in the house and sleep in our bed. She'd go on holiday with us and even went to university with me."

Emma and Owen moved from their home city of Cambridge around ten years ago to study at the University of Derby. Owen did film studies and Emma fine art, although she eventually completed her degree at Loughborough University. Owen now runs his own successful film company, Toothpix, making documentaries, art films, TV commercials, corporate films, music videos and even horror movies. His work has been shown extensively at Quad in Derby, as well as on the Big Screen in Derby Market Place. They are also regularly shown at international film festivals.

She and Owen arrived in Duffield four years ago from their previous home in the centre of Derby. "It was a dingy terraced house and I hated it. We wanted to move and considered going abroad to live. We thought of Australia, New Zealand, Romania or Japan. But then we discovered Planet Duffield just outside Derby and we fell for this house because of its beautiful view over rolling hills and countryside. We can see cows from our bedroom window and can even get our milk fresh from the dairy across the road. We really love living here. We have a wonderful view that is everything to me. We can watch the sunrise and the sunset, the sky is a huge canvas. It's spectacular, a real picture. That's why we fell in love with this house and we intend to stay here for ever and ever!"

Photos: Kate Burnett

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