It’s a Bristol thing….. (those colourful houses)

It’s not hard to understand why colour lovers enjoy living in Bristol. Is there a more colourful city anywhere else in the UK?

Since the mid-1960s, there’s been a growing number of brightly painted houses lighting up the urban landscape, something which has grown in popularity in recent years. I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoyed a new appreciation for these uplifting views during the months of lockdown.

When the bursts of colour from our daily walks started to find their way into my handwoven designs, I decided to do some research into the history of these picturesque houses. To help with this I approached architects Stride Treglown and Jess Siggers, as I was already aware that in 2017 they launched the Bristol Colour Capital initiative, to promote Bristol as the most colourful city in the UK. They collated and presented research from residents at a seminar, where the scheme to link re-painting homes with utilising home energy improvement grants was discussed. Head of sustainability, Rob Delius, kindly shared these findings to enable me to continue the colour part of the conversation.

How did it all begin?

Rumour has it that George Ferguson, (architect, entrepreneur, and politician), may have been the first to paint his newly acquired home in Cliftonwood. I caught up with George recently and established that he did indeed paint his dull grey house a terracotta red in 1966, using Sandtex masonry paint. (If you know any from before this date please do let me know). His pal up the road painted his a rich blue shade at the same time, and this is how one of the most colourful and photogenic streets in the city started.

Ambrose Road, Cliftonwood. Where it all started?

It was interesting to discover from George that these terraces were previously earmarked for demolition, with the proposal of three blocks of flats to replace them. This u-turn in planning enabled savvy investors to buy the run-down properties cheaply, and it gave them the opportunity to make their mark on the city. The views of these houses from the docks are almost as photographed as the suspension bridge. George cites the influence of 1960’s psychedelia, Glastonbury, and the general feeling of freedom at the time for his, and his friend’s decision to paint the depressing grey facing on their homes. And with so many of Bristol’s terraced houses being rendered, it’s easy to see how this idea gathered momentum.

Another rumour is that this trend started in Totterdown, where a local decorator offered cheap house painting to make use of the free coloured paints he’d acquired. The stunning aerial photo by Josh Perrett (below) shows that the painters have been pretty busy since these first few daring homeowners started the ball rolling. I’d really like to know more about these houses, so if you know any other interesting stories please do drop me a line and I can update things.

Aerial view of Totterdown
Photo: Josh Perrett

Obviously, painted houses aren’t exclusive to Bristol, but the difference in this city is that the trend was led by the residents, rather than artist initiatives or planners. That said, Bristol is home to thousands of artists and creatives, so it’s hardly a surprise the residents here take every opportunity to express themselves through bold combinations of house colour and front doors. It seems that once one person takes the plunge, the rest of the street gradually follows.

Clifton wood.
Photo: Vicky White Photography

Many locals agree that the hilly landscape in the city lends itself to the aesthetic, with one respondent to the Stride Treglown (ST) survey pointing out how much they love spotting their home from the opposite side of the city. Over the past decade, things have gathered pace, with reasons including a love of colour, the influence of travel, and simply wanting to join in with what many see as ‘a Bristol thing’. Colour choices are very personal, but according to ST report, most respondents were considerate of their neighbours when selecting colours that compliment the rest of their street.

I’ve yet to have a conversation with anyone who has a negative reaction to the houses, and everyone I’ve asked finds the views uplifting and cheerful. And as a designer, I feel incredibly fortunate to have such joyful and inspiring blocks of colour to feast my eyes on, every time I walk out of my house.

There is so much more that I want to find out, and I see this blog post as the start of an ongoing dialogue. Does living in a colourful neighbourhood make people happier? Can colour really improve health and well-being? Does Bristol have more coloured houses than any other UK City?

This final question led to a spin-off blog post investigating colourful neighbourhoods around the globe which you can read here.

A handwoven rug in the studio.

It’s no surprise that designing a new collection of textiles based on these houses was a joyful experience for me, with the biggest challenge being the limit on the number of colours I could use when working with my local mill. The final designs are intended to bring uplifting pops of colour into the homes of those who love these inspiring views as much as I do, and I’m delighted to share them with you ahead of schedule. Find out more here, and head to my online shop to check out the new collection.

In the studio
Photo: Alice Hendy Photography

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer, and colourist, based at BV Studios in Bedminster. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990s and started her textile practice in 2014. Her latest collection of handwoven designs and small-batch-produced textiles are available in her online shop. Subscribers to her newsletter are the first to see new designs and also get access to special offers and exhibition news. Sign up here to keep in the loop.


The most colourful neighbourhoods on the planet

Why are some neighbourhoods more colourful than others? Is it by luck or design? And does living in a colourful neighbourhood make you happier?

My research into the history of brightly coloured houses in Bristol for my latest woven textile collection led me on a journey around the world from the comfort of my sofa, where I discovered some seriously eye-popping colour and equally colourful facts. Come and discover my new favourite places on earth, without clocking up the air miles.

How can you not have a spring in your step when you walk along these joyful Totterdown streets?
Photo: Josh Perrett

For obvious reasons, I’ll start with my adopted home City of Bristol. It’s hardly a surprise that Bristol is considered by many to be the UK’s colour capital. Between the ever increasing number of colourful houses and Europe’s largest urban graffiti festival, UPFEST, the City boasts an ever changing source of colourful inspiration to resident artists and designers alike, and amazing photogenic views for residents and visitors.

The cities eclectic mix of creative homeowners is one of the reasons why the trend for painting houses in such bright contrasting colours has snowballed. I’ve managed to date one of the first coloured house back to 1966, and if you know otherwise I’d love to hear from you. This was the year that Bristol’s ex-mayor and architect George Ferguson painted his home, and it was nothing more than a way to brighten up the ugly grey render of his terrace property. Research by Architects Stride Treglown shows that residents feel a stronger sense of community and local pride in the streets where there are lots of painted houses, and while this will be based on more factors than the colour you paint your home, it certainly plays a role. There’s a lot more on the Bristol story here.

Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter. Cape Town. South Africa.
Photo: Tatyana Soares (Shutterstock)

Bo Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa is my next destination and it’s clear to see why a colour lover like me would be attracted to this neighbourhood. Formally known as the Malay Quater, the white wash houses were leased to immigrant slaves. As slavery was abolished, the houses were bought by their occupants who expressed their new freedom and happiness in the bright colours they repainted their homes. Interestingly, many of the inhabitants were craft makers, and like Bristol, we see a link between creative communities and colourful neighbourhoods.

Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter. Cape Town. South Africa.
Photo: Janice Pama (Shutterstock)

Fishing and lacemaking are the primary occupations of the residents of Burano Island near Venice, once again linking craft and colourful houses. The story here is that the fronts of the houses were painted different colours so that the fishermen could find their way home in heavy fog. I’m tempted to put it out there, that it might be more to do with finding the right house after a few too many beers at the end of the day!

Burano Island. Near Venice, Italy. 8
Photo: Olga Gavrilova (Shutterstock)

Heading over to the Caribbean, I next discovered Willemstrad in Curacao. The Dutch claimed this land in the 1630’s and under the intense sunlight, the lime-plastered buildings became a dazzling white. A former governor complained that this bright white caused him headaches and set out a mandate that the buildings could be painted any colour, except white, to ease his suffering. However, the plot thickened when it transpired that he was also a shareholder in the islands only paint shop. Fortunately, by this stage the residents had already embraced the charm of seeing the Dutch and Spanish style colonial architecture in the new brighter palette.

Willemstad, Curacao.
Photo:SirimasB (Shutterstock)

I just had to include Cinque Terre in this piece, as it must surely be one of the most picturesque groups of villages in the world. A victim of it’s own beauty, the area is now inundated with tourists and has recently taken measures to limit the number of visitors each year. I’m obviously writing this at a time when travel isn’t top of my agenda, and am thankful to the photographers who’ve shared their exquisite images of these places. The cliffs of Manarola in this photo show the pastel coloured houses which as the story goes, were painted by fishermen so they could spot their homes whilst out at sea.

Manarola. Cinque Terre. Italy.
Photo: Minoli (Shutterstock)
Favela. Rio de Janeiro. Brazil
Photo: Skreidzeleu (Shutterstock)

In complete contrast I next remotely travelled to Rio de Janeiro. The favelas, (slums) are unlikely to be tourist magnets given their notorious reputation for crime and poverty, but artist intervention is helping to change the story using paint and colour. Dutch artists, Dre Urhahn and Jereon Koolhaas, started the Favela Painting Project in 2005 after travelling there to film hip-hop videos. They worked alongside former drug dealers to paint 34 houses and put Vila Cruzero on the map for something other than drug trafficking. Whilst crime hasn’t gone away, the transformation of the area had a positive effect on the locals. Residents and drug dealers have spoken about benefiting from the scheme which showed them that there is another way to live. It would be naive and over ambitious to suggest that artist led initiatives such as these can combat crime and poverty in this complex society, but what this does demonstrate is that art can start to bring about positive change. (A more recent example is Matthew Burrough’s Artist Support Pledge, which promotes a sustainable and equitable economy, but I digress. Any excuse to demonstrate the importance of artists and arts education in society, eh?).

Jalousie. Port-Au-Prince. Haiti
Photo: Sylie Corriveau (Shutterstock)

Another more controversial example of a slum make-over is in Port-Au-Prince in Haiti. This area was devastated in the tragic earthquake of 2010, with many residents forced to move to displacement camps. In 2013 the government rolled out a 1.4 million pound scheme to celebrate the life of Haitian artist Prefete Duffaut, and offered incentives to encourage people to relocate to the newly painted areas. The scheme has received as much criticism as praise. Whilst many of the new residents were proud of their dazzling rainbow neighbourhood, others questioned the decision to focus primarily on the mountainside which is mainly visible to the wealthy residents of Petionville. Was this as much about the views from the posh hotels as it was about helping the slums residents?

Wroclaw. Poland
Photo: Pablo77 (Shutterstock)

At the other end of the financial spectrum, Wroclaw in Poland owes it’s distinctively colourful main square to the prosperous international trading times at the start of the 19th Century. The wealth of the merchants was displayed very openly in the bold colour choices of the buildings. These historical traditions have been upheld in subsequent renovations of the area.

Tobermory. Isle of Mull. Scotland
Photo:TT Photo

My final destination is one of Scotland’s most photographed views. (Yes, I know! All that nature and the coloured buildings take the top spot). Immortalised in the minds of pre-schoolers and parents alike, the row of coloured houses and hotels in Tobermory, will for many of us be synonymous with that ‘catchy’ theme tune for BBC’s Balamory. But this idyllic Scottish village isn’t without it’s own mini-melodrama. The Mishnish Hotel was the first to be painted (bright yellow) by its owner in 1961, and the rest of the waterfront followed suit to create the iconic view which makes Tobermory such a popular tourist destination. However, in 2006, it was painted black, as the yellow paint was high maintenance and faded quickly. Locals were disappointed but powerless to stop the move, but about 10 years ago it was restored to the bright yellow and all is well once more. (Thanks for the up to date photo in my inbox Paul).

So, what is it like to live in a neighbourhood surrounded by colour, and does it make you happier? It turns out that this is too big a question to answer here, but it’s something I want continue to explore and I would love to hear about your experiences and your favorite colourful places. And if you’re interested in seeing how these inspiring neighbourhoods inform my woven textile designs then do sign up to my newsletter in this link.

In the studio.
Phoro: Alice Hendy Photography

Angie Parker is a weaver, designer and colourist, based at BV Studios in Bedminster, Bristol. She trained in rug weaving in the 1990s and started her textile practice 5 years ago. Her latest collection of handwoven designs and small batch produced textiles will be launched in October 2020. Subscribers to her newsletter will be the first to see the finished designs and will access the early bird pre-order special offers. Sign up here to keep in the loop.