Living with Art: Hungry for More


Interior designer Tamsin Johnson in her Sydney beach-side home. 

“I remember exactly where I saw it,” interior designer Tamsin Johnson enthuses, nodding at the chunky yellow plaster piece hanging on the living room wall.

The work was retrieved from the back of a glass cabinet on the last day of an antique fair in Italy by a stallholder who handled it with gloved hands as if it were a treasured artefact in a Christie’s showroom. Now it jostles for attention amidst an eclectic cluster of abstract art by enigmatic French and Italian artists from the 1930s (or thereabouts).

The wall of riches is an idiosyncratic counterpoint in the room with a view that’s a delicious Sydney cliché: a wide ocean stretching along the horizon from a bungalow above Tamarama Beach.

“I just had to have it,” remembers the celebrated interior designer. “These kinds of prized curiosities are much more obtainable overseas in the markets. I love the unexpected element of surprise, being somewhere you’ve never been before, and finding something that you’ve never thought that you would see.”

The mystery remains then?

“Well, of course, I would really like to know the provenance,” Tamsin admits, endorsing her lifelong education as the daughter of Melbourne antiques dealer, Ed Clark, who taught her that good pieces will always be good.

“I wonder: were these just one-offs or did the artists have a real career? The one up above on top left is just extraordinary. It’s almost a piece of engineering in brass and wood. I think it might be a stencil of some kind, but what exactly?”

There are more unanswered questions about the all-white unsigned artwork in the playful style of Jean Arp bought in southern France. “Imagine if it was an original Arp?” muses Tamsin.

The pedigree of a painting in neutral tones above the fireplace is a certainty. It’s New Zealand artist Kirsty Budge. “She’s got a very 1950s aesthetic which I love. Sometimes it’s quite obvious what her subject matter is but, other times, it’s not at all. You don’t really know what’s going on with her.”

There’s a nice balancing act in the corner with an autumnal landscape by Luke Sciberras.

From left: Bronze and timber work circa 1920s France; white painting unknown, red wall work by Lucion Fontata; gold wall sculpture by Monique Lacey; vase collection by Daum.

Theatre and intrigue like this is a part of life for Tamsin and her husband, Patrick Johnson, who founded a bespoke tailoring business over a decade ago. Their private art collection shifts in and out of P.Johnson’s showrooms in London, New York, Melbourne and Sydney where buying a bespoke suit is more like “shopping in a museum or an art gallery”.

“We’ve collected art so slowly over quite a long period of time and we’re always on an art ban, but we kinda break it every year,” Tamsin laughs.

This year’s Christmas present from Patrick to Tamsin was Hair Flick – an ambiguous photographic work by Trent Parke – and last year’s gift from Tamsin to Patrick was a kaleidoscopic collage by Lillian O’Neil — but the portrait by Daniel Boyd hanging above the staircase is the real favourite. At least, that’s until Tamsin walks into the spare room and spots the piece by Coen Young. Then there’s Lucy Culliton’s cockerel in the kitchen. And the electric blue twisting ribbons of Pino Manos in the hallway. It’s impossible to decide.

There’s no rhyme or reason to this collection. “If you buy what you love, it’ll always work, to do otherwise would be pretty insincere and it’s likely your love will fade. For me, there’s not one thing that I would buy without knowing that I would want to have it forever.”

From left: a painting by Luke Sciberras hangs next to a pair of works by Kate Tucker. Above the fireplace hangs a Kirsty Budge.

Hanging sculpture on left by Brendan Huntley, painting on back wall by Daniel Boyd.

Cockerel overlooking the kitchen painted by Lucy Culliton.

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