Isabelle Brent is an artist and illustrator who has exhibited worldwide – from Paris to Tokyo, from New York to London – including the prestigious Royal Academy of Art at just 23 years old. Her work is held in private collections globally and she has written and illustrated many books including The Christmas Story and All Creatures Great and Small and a prestigious version of Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tales in which Isabelle’s glorious, full colour, lavish illustrations have made this a must-have edition.
Isabelle is a specialist in the use of gold leaf in her illustrations, an ancient technique not widely practiced these days as it requires painstaking attention to detail, a painting on vellum can take up to 140 hours, the
average being about 80 hours to complete even a small artwork. Her exquisite and often whimsical work in this genre is acknowledged to be masterful.
The Good Life France visited Isabelle at her home and gallery in Caumont, the Seven Valleys region of Pas-de-Calais.
We asked Isabelle how she became an artist…
“For as long as I can remember I have painted. My earliest recollection is aged three with a small colouring book and some crayons at nursery school. Nothing pleased me more than a box of paints, paper, notebooks and my tin of precious crayons and pencils which I would often tidy. Actually, it never occurred to me that I would do anything other than be an artist. Aged six I changed schools and my new headmistress asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My reply…. ‘A famous artist’, ‘”You will have to learn to read and write first’ she said.
‘I already can!’ I retorted.
I have never looked back…”
The medium of gold leaf on vellum for which Isabelle is famous is an unusual choice for artists these days and we wanted to know how Isabelle discovered that this was the way she wanted to go art-wise. She told us that as a child, her parents had a book of mediaeval manuscripts in their bookcase – it was a great favourite with the young Isabelle. She would spend hours gazing at the pictures and many more hours reading the history books her parents had and she was fascinated by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“My pictures were always detailed and my exercise books for history were embellished by my own decorated borders. Maths was another subject which could lend itself to my artistic interpretation, particularly geometry. Any subject that required a diagram or picture lent itself to colourful illustration”.
Isabelle liked to draw like Holbein “his portraits drawings of the family of Thomas More are exquisite”. At the age of 14 she discovered the drawings of Pisanello, a Renaissance artist and she became intrigued by the work of illustrator Edmund Dulac. She found that these older artists started to influence her work and her outlook on art more than her teachers or peers.
Her career started at a young age with several important exhibitions before her mid-twenties and she became hugely successful as an exhibitor, illustrator and designer, her designs of cards, gift wrap and bags for US publisher of fine statioery Papyrus are well known.
So, we asked – how came an international artist to be living in the tiny village of Caumont which as Isabelle laughingly admits is a village of 180 people and 600 cows!
In 2004, Isabelle, married to a sculptor had a dream to move to France and her late husband who was older and sadly in poor health wanted to make her dream come true. The plan was to move to Brittany but both decided that being able to reach London easily was critical so they changed their search to the Pas-de-Calais (35 minutes from France to England by car on Eurotunnel). They had sold their home in the UK, the decision was irrevocable and both worried that switching the destination at this stage would be an issue. However as soon as Isabelle saw the house in Caumont she knew that it was the one.
The house used to be a café, a cinema and a grocery store. Isabelle says that one of the locals recalled learning how to make a telephone call with her classmates. The public telephone was in what is now her studio-study. The neighbour who lives in the house opposite told Isabelle her son, now in his 60’s saw his first film in Isabelle’s sitting room and many villagers had known her kitchen when it was a local café. The cellar is the oldest part of the house dating back some 400 years with the rest of the house evolving through subsequent centuries. Isabelle and her charming husband Régis have transformed the garden of this beautiful house from a weed infested mess to a gorgeous, stylish park style garden complete with sculptures and glorious views over the hilly countryside. Inside is clearly the home of an artist, fabulous colours, lots of paintings and drawings by Isabelle, beautiful furniture and accessories.
Isabelle and Régis are ideally suited despite their different nationalities. She tells us that the pair almost didn’t meet; they’d both been invited to an aperitif at the home of a mutual friend – Isabelle was late, Régis had to leave early and was planning to go away for two months. Their paths crossed very briefly but Regis phoned her two days later and said he wanted to view her work. The following week he invited her to his home and she recalls being amazed by his organisation skills! He, it turns out, was not only impressed by her art.
Isabelle says she told her mother how she’d like to meet someone new and described Régis to her mother soon after they met. Her mother told her she’d “never meet anyone like that in the middle of nowhere in France”.
Seven months later Isabelle and Régis were married in a small ceremony witnessed by her best friends from Dorset and his best friend, a local doctor and his wife. Isabelle says “I have been so fortunate in that Régis has devoted himself to me and my work, he is also my manager, my secretary and my best friend. In return I devote myself to him, seeking only to make him happy. If there is a heaven on earth then I have found it here with Régis in Caumont”.
Isabelle finds the tranquillity of life in France helps her to be creative – she is trying new styles in her fabulous studio and when we ask her what her favourite piece is so far she says “Illustrating Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ was a milestone and a privilege, it being one of my best loved books when I was young. It was reprinted several times. My first book “The Christmas Story” was a success and my last book “Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Stories” for Readers Digest was translated into twelve languages. As for my best work or favourite piece, I have not done it yet!”
More beautiful pictures from Isabelle:
Isabelle collects rocking horses – this one in her gallery is much loved by children who visit and ride on him!