Life as art: at home with illustrator Carol Maxwell
It was bucketing down with rain on the morning we visited illustrator Carol Maxwell, whose studio is based at the Forest Hill home that she shares with her fiancé, Tom Whitrow, and their children Max, five, and Milo, two. That said, the minute we stepped inside the house, we totally forgot about the awful weather, our moods instantly lifted by the colourful, art-filled interior that greeted us.
Settling down in Carol’s studio, which is lined with hand-painted works, we find out that she’s gearing up for her busiest period. It’s made more challenging by the fact that Tom’s work as a TV producer takes him away from home a lot, so she often has both boys to look after, too. But, she assures us that things will calm down come January, and that they’ll all have a well-earned family break in Portugal at half term.
“We used to travel a lot before we had the kids, but we haven’t been away on our own for a long time,” she adds. “In fact, I think the last time was before I had Milo. We went to New York with a group of friends and basically just drank cocktails all day because we couldn’t quite believe we were all away without our kids!” Thrilled to find that we were in like-minded company, we looked forward to finding out more about Carol, her work and her home.
What was the house like when you found it?
It really wasn’t too bad, but it was completely white, which isn’t my thing at all. I’ve always been drawn to colour – from my student house in Dublin, where I sponge-painted the walls, to the flat I lived in when I first moved to London. I painted my bedroom a deep, pink-toned red, and the bathroom in a Dulux shade called ‘Sexy Pink’. I like to think my taste has got a little more sophisticated over the years!
Ah yes, the sponge-painting era. Changing Rooms had a lot to answer for. Have you always been creative?
I started drawing and painting from the age of three, and art has always been a huge part of my childhood. I was the odd ball in my family in that respect. Although, my dad was a builder and very creative with his work. He could stay up all night building a stone fireplace that he’d sketched on a bit of paper. And I used to spend hours in my attic bedroom listening to the Cranberries and working on my drawings.
We’re going to have ‘Zombie’ stuck in our heads all day now. When did you decide to pursue a career in art?
I knew I wanted to go to the art college from the age of 12. I went to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin to study fine art, but my tutors encouraged me to move towards printed textiles. I love painting and drawing but, conceptually, I wasn’t a fine art person.
And what did you do after you graduated?
I moved from Dublin to London for a placement with a print studio, which was meant to be for a month, but I never went back. I worked in print studios that supplied textile designs to the high street, then eight years ago, I decided to go freelance. I had one amazing year, then everything crashed.
I think the industry was flooded with people making the transition from hand-painting to digital, and there was so much more work available at a very fast pace. It was a really tough time, I’d always been a top seller and then things declined and I was really broke. Then, I became pregnant with Max, and to be honest, it was a bit of a relief to step away from it for a bit. I’d been working as a textile designer for 15 years by that point, so I was ready for a break.
So how did Max Made Me Do It come about?
Just under a year later, I started freelancing again, working for a high-street fashion brand while doing my own illustrations on the side. I started drawing Max’s toys and making the designs into cards, then when our friends started having babies I began making them letter prints. People started placing orders and it grew organically from there.
And was it difficult juggling two jobs and a baby?
It was hard, but also brilliant. I drew when Max was napping and worked weekends and evenings. And I sold my prints and cards at markets. The first year was a really hard slog, and I certainly never expected the business to become what it is now.
All your hard work certainly paid off. Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
I love to create drawings that tell a story. Normally, I’m inspired by Max and Milo, and what my friends’ kids are into. For example, my new Party Animal collection came from Max’s love of animals and the fact that we’ll use any excuse for get-together in this house.
So you’re a family of party animals?
Yes, absolutely. I think Tom and I are quite good at hosting, and I love fancy dress. For my 30th and Tom’s 35th birthdays, we had a joint Mad Men party at the Dalston Boys Club. Everyone looked so glamorous and made so much effort. To this day, we always think that would have been a really good wedding.
We’d love to have been a fly on the wall. What’s the best party you’ve thrown in this house?
We’ve started a bit of a tradition of having a Christmas party every year, which is always really good fun. I think we might start doing them without children though, as Max was in charge of looking after all the kids last year and they trashed the place. This year, I think we’re going to aim for more of a grown-up cocktail party vibe.
That sounds like a wise decision! What’s your favourite memory from your time here so far?
I think it might be when we brought Milo home from hospital after he was born, the house was decorated for Christmas and looked lovely. And, just everything we’ve achieved here really, from making a home and raising a family to setting up a business, all the while battling health issues. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis after Max was born; I’m now in remission, but it’s made me very ill in the past.
Sounds like you’ve got a lot to be proud of, this beautiful home included. Do you think the interior reflects your personality?
We’ve used a lot of pale mint and soft pink, which often features in my work – the colours have somehow permeated the house! And, there are quite a few hand-me-downs from our parents, particularly Tom’s: his mother works in a gallery and used to run an antiques shop on the King’s Road, and his father was an actor who collected books and art.
Hence the abundance of interesting artwork in the house. Do you think this will be your forever home?
I hope so. The local area is so great. I love our Saturday routine of having breakfast at Aga’s Little Deli on Dartmouth Road, popping to the florist and then to Wild Horses or Farr and Wyde to check out their vintage finds. Tom wants to move to the countryside but I love London. He doesn’t see us staying here forever but I just think: what more could we need? The dream would be to buy a fixer-upper by the sea, then we could have the best of both worlds.
After dedicating a bit more time to exploring Carol’s house (there was a lot to see) we headed back out into the rain, happily clutching a hedgehog print from her Party Animal collection (we couldn’t resist) and bolstered by the thought of the famous toasted cheese sandwiches awaiting us at Aga’s. We’re pleased to report that they exceeded all expectations.
To see more of Carol’s work, head to Max Made Me Do It