The Daily Telegraph
Decorative painter, artist and architectural historian with a flair for colour and trompe l’oeil
JOHN SUTCLIFFE, who has died aged 78, was a talented specialist decorative painter, artist and architectural historian; his ability to mix paints and distemper, glaze or drag the walls of a room, paint trompe l’oeil panels and murals, and match colours, was extraordinary.
Despite his artistic skills, taste and knowledge he was charmingly modest, underestimating his own talents. These were made use of by such institutions as the National Trust, as well as private clients and top interior designers.
John Sutcliffe was born on July 7 1944, one of two sons. His father, Holman, from a Lincolnshire shipping family, was a ship broker; his mother, Sheila, an historian. Holman Sutcliffe was himself a talented amateur artist and encouraged John to draw and paint.
Sutcliffe was educated at Winchester College, where he was further encouraged by the drawing master, Graham Drew. He went on to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he initially studied Architecture but later changed to Fine Art.
Friends and fellow students included Germaine Greer, the journalist and writer, and his fellow Wykehamist Jon Harris, the colourful Cambridge artist, illustrator and calligrapher.
John Sutcliffe’s first job was teaching art at a college in Lincoln, but he then went on to become the National Trust’s historic building representative for East Anglia. This allowed him to live, with his first wife Henrietta “Harry” Day, in a flat at Blickling Hall, Norfolk and he would skilfully restore the 18th century Chinese painted wallpaper at nearby Felbrigg Hall.
Following his marriage to his second wife, the violin player Gabrielle Carter, he moved to Manor House Farm at Itteringham where, in return for restoring the house, he paid a peppercorn rent to the National Trust.
They later moved to Cambridge, Gabrielle’s home town, where they lived in a modest terraced house which he decorated with delightfully tongue- in-cheek grandeur, much of it skilfully painted to deceive the eye. The lavatory, however, was real, with a comfortable, broad mahogany seat, pull-up plunger flush and decorated porcelain pan.
In later years there were several moves in Cambridge, but wherever the Sutcliffes lived John managed to make the interior look like a palazzo. The interiors of all his houses have been featured in magazines such as The World of Interiors.
Sutcliffe’s talents went beyond decorative painting and he published several books. The first was Decorating Magic, a hand book on the application of decorative finishes both from the interior design point of view and the historical. It included advice on how to mix and apply such finishes as distemper and scumble glaze, and on techniques such as dragging, flogging, stippling, spattering, rag rolling, graining and tortoiseshelling.
He also published Paint, about environmentally friendly water-based applications.
His most important work, however, was The Colours of Rome – an examination of the use of colour on the facades of buildings in the Italian capital, with historical and other notes, and a selection of colours copied on site. Handsomely produced and bound in a limited edition, this comprised essays tracing the history of Rome’s colours together with real hand-painted brush outs. The de-luxe edition even held a solander box of powdered colours in small glass phials from L Cornelissen & Son.
His last book, The Lost Colours of the Cyclades was inspired by frequent trips to Greece where he worked for a Greek shipping family repainting their residences. His expertise in paints led Sutcliffe to devise and mix a number of colours such as “Sutcliffe Green” for his great friend Tom Helme, who had previously worked for the interior decorator David Mlinaric, and had propelled the paint manufacturer Farrow and Ball into one of the best-known suppliers of interesting and stylish paint colours.
John Sutcliffe travelled widely in Europe studying and noting the local colours. He was also a good cook but eschewed fiery chili and puddings. He illustrated his Christmas cards with Pulchinello and his chums making fools of themselves. He was an eccentric dresser and spurned modern means of communication such as e-mails and mobile telephones.
His is survived by his wife Gabrielle, by their two sons and by a son and daughter from his first marriage.
John Sutcliffe, born July 7 1944, died September 1 2022