Teresa Robertson: unique house painter

28 Mar

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Illustrator Teresa Robertson, 53, moved to Islington when she was just eight months old.  She’s a trustee of the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, runs occasional art workshops and is increasingly well-known for her colourful portraits of Islington families outside their home. So far she’s painted 101. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Teresa Robertson: "my house pictures are usually gifts."

Teresa Robertson: “my house pictures are usually gifts.”

“My parents were the  theatre designers Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe,” says Teresa pointing to a portrait she did of her father pinned to the fridge and then to a framed costume design done by her mother.

“My dad had been trained as an architect – that’s why he bought a double fronted Georgian house on Hamilton Park West for £4,000.  The builder said ‘Rip it down’ – the porch had been blown off in World War Two when a bomb landed on the other side of the road. It had been empty for 10 years so there were ropes of dry rot. My mother said it was ‘like walking into a tropical rainforest’. But my father saw the shell of a good house and it became our family base for 50 years (rented out for nine years while working in Nottingham).”

“All my family and school friends are here. I’ve got friends from my nursery school, and Canonbury Road* Primary, and Camden School for Girls too. I went to art college at Hornsey – the foundation year was in Crouch End – and the fine art was taught at Alexandra Palace. There are all the people I know because my children went to St John’s Highbury Vale Primary School and then there’s Christ Church, Highbury where I taught art to 95 children a week for 10 years. My New Zealand friend says next time we go on a dog walk together she’s going to put a bag over my head as so many people stop to talk,” says Teresa trying to be understanding. “I’d never leave! Islington’s my village.”

Teresa Robertson's studio is the heart of the kitchen.

Teresa Robertson’s studio is the heart of the kitchen, just by the oven.

Strangely about half the commissions Teresa gets to paint portraits of houses come from people who have sold up and are just about to leave the borough. Most of the rest are commissioned as surprise gifts for significant birthdays and even retirement.

So far she’s painted more than 101 Islington properties (and many others elsewhere) in her characteristically colourful style, usually with the owners posed outside, sometimes with pets or treasured possessions. She remembers how excited her son Leo was when she was asked to do a portrait of a Pagani Zonda sportscar.  Take a close look at one of her pictures and you’ll find special toys, terriers, hens, Blackberries, whatever home owners feel they can’t live without.

“When I was 28 my twin brother Adam died in a motorbike crash. We’d done everything together,” explains Teresa. “I just thought on a visceral level he’s been taken to heaven. I’d never have thought of that until the moment I heard he’d died. I thought, ‘I’m still here. I can see every leaf that comes out and every tree. I’m seeing every flower, and he’s not’. His death made me notice everything – and made me think I could go tomorrow.”

Already an artist, this heightened way of seeing the world led Teresa to Christ Church. More than 25 years later it’s almost a second home: she’s helped out as the administrator and taught art classes with her friend Berrin Bates. She still runs the youth club and buys the sausages and bacon for the breakfast shift for the church’s night shelter for the homeless from Godfrey’s (who support the shelter by providing the meat with a generous discount). Back in the ‘90s she also worked as a fund raiser for the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants when it was based at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, Holloway Road. When the centre moved to the Baptist Church on Cross Street she became a trustee. “We have 130 learners for ESOL (English as a Second Language).” There are also art and knitting classes, well attended by (mostly) Turkish Kurds, Eritreans and Congolese. “We don’t advertise, it’s all word of mouth,” explains Teresa.


Intricate decoupage for Teresa’s tea table in the garden shed.

Parties, pictures and punk
Teresa starts her gorgeous paintings with a photo shoot. She then goes back to her desk, nestled beside the oven, and does a pencil version. After checking this is the view – and hairstyle – the client wants she then paints a final version sometimes moving into her home’s extension which has more natural light and boasts a screen printing area, another computer work space and a table for eating. Above all this are washing lines which she uses to dry her own greeting cards. There’s also a posh, and pretty, garden shed where she keeps a sewing machine on a decoupaged table adapted from bunk beds by her husband John Dodgson.

“John and I were at the same parties for 10 years before we met: I was 27 when we got together. I was always dancing and he was talking intellectually in the kitchen,” she says making a mug of lapsang tea. “In the ‘70s Camden School was so liberal you only went to lessons when you wanted to. It was bohemian chaos. Looking back I think there was lots of neglect – rich families were not there for their kids, so the kids took every drug going. Going to church was the biggest rebellion I could do! It was an incredible time to be a teenager – my haunt was the Hope & Anchor pub, Upper Street, famous for punk bands. I saw Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Dr Feelgood and then there was the Sex Pistols’ and messy parties in squats in Lonsdale Square. Islington wasn’t stockbrokers at all then – it was the poorer cousin of Hampstead.”

Teresa loves our local landmarks. All our available as greeting cards.

Teresa loves our local landmarks. All are available as greeting cards.

Nowadays she enjoys different parts of Islington. When her work as a book illustrator is slack she uses the time to paint local landmarks including Christ Church, Islington Town Hall, St Mary’s church on Upper Street and the grand café  in Clissold Park. “I think the next building I’ll paint will be the main Post Office by the King’s Head pub. If you look you can see it’s got beautiful statues outside,” she says.

Places to go

Despite her busy life and a studio seeming to over-run the kitchen Teresa loves cooking at home. “I like to tempt family and friends back with fish pie and stews. Every Sunday there’s a big meal here and if people don’t come then John and I will eat it for the rest of the week.”  At times the house is crowded – her 95-year-old mum was a regular visitor until recently having to go to a nursing home. There are also their three boys, Callum, 24, Leo, 21 and Lawrence, 19, (she also has two step children Tamsin and Matthew, who’ve made her a step-grandmother), 15 well-loved cousins, favourite builders and all those friends…  who occasionally tempt her away from her paintbrushes and casserole dishes to nearby Pizzadelique and the Bank of Friendship.

Given her day job, Teresa is the person to ask about art supplies. “I love Fish & Cook. Raj is our family therapist – he knows what colour pencils and art materials we like, he even knows that my son Lawrence does stand up. Then I go to Galaxy – it’s so well hidden I didn’t find it for 20 years – for paper and printing cartridges. Atlantis  in the East End is the biggest and the best, but I do go to CassArt occasionally if I’m at the Angel, because it’s close to my biggest wardrobe weakness, the White Stuff.

Highlights of Teresa’s year often include running a stall at a local event or cooking for neighbours. “The street party in May is good fun, so is the church’s summer fete and their fireworks night. But Gillespie Festival is the best. It’s where Gathering Moss asked me to supply them with my greeting cards. It got me started. I now have cards at Louis Farouk, Concertina Works and a select number of other shops in London.”

Many of us make our homes cosy or sleek inside – yet forget to take snaps of the exterior. Teresa Robertson’s pictures save us. They offer not just a peek at our neighbours’ lifestyles, but a colourful keepsake of our own.





Find out more
Atlantis Art Supplies, Britannia House, 68-80 Hanbury Street, E1 5JL, tel: 020 7377 8855

Bank of Friendship pub, Highbury N5

Canonbury Primary School, used to be called Canonbury Road School – see the fascinating history about the school (which opened in 1877) and the area (including Booth’s poverty maps) here

Concertina Works, 158 Liverpool Road, London N1 1LA,

Fish & Cook, 3 Blackstock Road, N4

Galaxy, 15-19 Benwell Road,

Gathering Moss, 193 Blackstock Road, N5, tel; 020 7354 3034

Gillespie Festival 2013 is on Sunday 8 September

Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Cross Street Baptist Church, 16-18 Cross Street, N1,

Louis Farouk, 113 Highbury Park, N5, tel: 0208 288 0259

Pizzadelique (Mexican food and Italian pizza), 1-3 Chatterton Road, N4 tel. 020 7226 3838

White Stuff, 12-14 Essex Road, N1,

Over to you

What made you get involved in Islington life – do you find it a way to make friends or something to be proud about doing?  By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.


6 Responses to “Teresa Robertson: unique house painter”

  1. Nicolette Jones March 28, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    My children benefited from Teresa’s art classes some ten years ago – and one of them, at 17, now has a place on a foundation art course next year. Thanks to Teresa for that. She is valued too as both artist and friend.

    • homemadekids March 28, 2013 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks Nicolette. It’s lovely to hear how inspiring Teresa has been to so many people in Islington, even if it makes her a slow walking companion when she’s out locally! Nicola

  2. Pete May March 28, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Teresa did a great picture of our house. And really interesting to read a portrait of the artist behind the brickwork…

    • homemadekids March 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      pete! i had no idea you knew how to do the comments box on here. yes she did a fab pic which you gave to me, really lovely of you. Half teresa’s commissions are gifts. nicola

  3. Clem Fergusson May 16, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    The best memento we have of the home we had in Highbury is Teresa’s picture of it and our family there. She is a a very talented artist; she captured the character of the family as well as providing a detailed and accurate image of the house.

    • homemadekids May 30, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      Hi Clem, thanks so much for this lovely feedback (and apologies for my late reply). I agree Teresa creates gorgeous memories of home and family. We are lucky to have her! Nicola

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