Life & Style

Welcome to the home of Newcastle artist Sue Atkinson.

Newcastle locals may recognise the magnificent entrance to this Cooks Hill home. The double arched doors and adjacent laneway, lovingly named “Our Beautiful Lane” by its four owners, are Instagram staples for many a local and visitors alike.

What lies behind the façade of this late 1800’s Victorian terrace is the home of Newcastle artist, Sue Atkinson. Originally constructed by Newcastle businessman Walter Manning in 1884, a cobblestone carriageway with double coach doors dividing the two dwellings was built to give him necessary access to his factory and Darby Street shop at the rear.

With a rich and colourful history, 92 Railway Street has since been somewhat of a magnet to the creative folk of Newcastle. Some may remember it as Cloisters Café back in the 80’s, the brainchild of sculptor Pierre Beckers, who created a space where poets and folk performers could gather and feast on eclectic fare.

Sue explains, “When we bought the house fifteen years ago there was still a commercial kitchen from the days it was a café. People have dropped off newspaper clippings with cherished memories of going there. Somewhere I have an original program of poets doing readings out the back.”

There is a truly beautiful spiritual connection between Sue and her beloved home. When I asked her about her journey that led her to buying it, she explained,

“I was living in Ebenezer with my husband and kids when I came to visit my brother who was living in Mayfield at the time. I decided then and there that I was going to live in Newcastle. I got the paper out and I found this house so I cut out the ad and put it on the fridge at home. I even drew stick figures of us all out the front and said this is the house where we’re going to live. I brought my Mum to the open house and sat on an old stone bench under a 40yr old grapefruit tree in the courtyard and said to Mum, “Well everyone may as well go home because this is what we’re going to buy. We’re going to live here”.

“When we were successful in purchasing it, I was like a little kid who had all my Christmas presents just arrive and that feeling has never left me. The grand children love it. They take the house as something curious and interesting. It has a magical quality,” she says as she gazes towards the vintage rocking horse in what once would have been the carriageway.

What state was the house in when you bought it Sue?

“It was a home to uni students and had lots of smaller rooms which were being used as bedrooms. To the right of the carriageway were three small rooms that we knocked through to make one large open plan living area, leading through to the salvaged kitchen.”

Sue is the perfect custodian of this historical home. With plans afoot for further renovations, under the watchful eye of local architect, Steele Olney from Studio Dot, Sue is steadfast in her pursuit to retain the history and charm of her home.

Sue explains, “I love to repurpose materials where possible and to source salvaged pieces that I can bring new life to. Sustainability is really important to me.”

The downstairs bathroom floor and the courtyard are paved with bricks from the internal walls that were knocked down. Two antique Balinese pillars, sourced from a gallery in Burringbar, north-west of Mullumbimby stand harmoniously in the open plan living area separating the old carriageway from the living and dining areas. If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume they had always been there.

“One is serving a structural role so had to be cut in half and have steel reinforcement added to the centre of it,” explains Sue.

The laundry is home to an enormous double trough that Sue salvaged from a paddock and a timber table which her eagle eye spotted in the long grass at a salvage yard in Sydney. Beyond the laundry is a bathroom which Sue believes used to be a shed. The shower frame was handmade by local metalwork artist @tomireland_design, bringing Sue’s vision to life. It resembles a woven grape vine, minus its leaves and fruit.

“I just wanted everything to be salvaged. The wall tiles and pedestal basin came from Cons 2nd Hand Building Materials at Carrington. The new design will incorporate the functionality of some new items, with the history of my salvaged pieces.” 

In juxtaposition to the old, a new white steel, curved staircase will replace the existing timber staircase connecting the two levels. At its base will be a stone plinth.

In a case of deja vu from the days of Cloisters Café where some of the rooms were used as gallery space for burgeoning artists, Sue has recently converted one of her street-front rooms into a light filled gallery to showcase her art. Standing in the middle of the room is a magnificent antique cedar table also purchased from Burringbar Gallery.

“We brought it back on the trailer and needed the help of our wonderful neighbours to help carry it in. I wanted something where people could rest or walk around.”

As Sue describes where she gets her inspiration from for her art, I can’t help but see parallels in her approach to interior design. 

“I start with one line and then it just all transpires into something. I start with a general idea but it’s never laid out as a structured plan. Even with colour, I don’t adopt proper theory. I just go with what works. I add layer upon layer to give my work depth.”

Her home is a brilliant example of this. Pieces collected over the years from salvage yards, second hand shops and sentimental treasures culminate in a space that Sue describes as one that embraces her each time she walks through the front door.

Did you have a big plan for your conversion at the beginning or has it evolved as you’ve gone?

“It’s probably evolved over the last fifteen years. I think I’ve got a bigger plan now that I’ve got Steele onboard. We’ve done the major work and I’m happy with the interior and the walls and layout. I’m now ready for Steele to come in with his beautiful ideas.”

Your home is filled with so many unique pieces. Do you have a favourite?

“My Mum’s old china cabinet. It holds a great deal of sentimental value and I continually add things that I love and mean something to me. I try to curate it so that my grandchildren want to get in there and explore. My Aunt’s artwork is in the back; I have vintage European soup bowls from Fossil Vintage that I plan for my whole family to eat from one day; some delicate little ceramic pieces from Melt in Hunter Street Mall; and a felt bracelet I bought many years ago from artists’ markets in Laman Street.”

A wonderfully striking focal point in her living area is a wall Sue has wallpapered with vintage maps. It’s a great example of her design approach of layering and letting her work evolve organically.

“I used to go into Centennial Antiques each week and buy maps that they’d have in boxes for a couple of dollars. I’d bring them home and dip them in tea and coffee before gluing them onto the wall with a binder medium and sealing with shellac. Maps are like pieces of art. I love the detail and the intricacy and how we don’t use them anymore. I just love the grid and the paper. They’re amazing…to me they’re just art.”

Sue’s easel is set up adjacent to the custom-made steel and glass bi-fold doors that lead out to the courtyard. Flooded with an abundance of natural light and with the ambient noise of laughter and babies cooing from Goldberg’s Café next door, this is Sue’s favourite spot in the house.

“The plan is to replace these doors with white French doors and to move my art studio out the back. The new doors will add a softness to the space which I’m really excited about.”

Upstairs are three bedrooms and a partially renovated sunken bathroom. Sue has replaced the original black and white bathroom tiles with opulent grey marble. The grey tones complement the striking timber the ceiling has been lined with that came from a salvage store in Balmain. The jaw dropping piece in this divine little sanctuary, is the free standing brass bathtub that Sue purchased from Baths of Antiquity in Melbourne.

The enormous master bedroom with French doors leading onto a succulent filled verandah, is the result of knocking down an existing wall to extend the space. Sue also has plans to add to her upstairs outdoor terrace at the rear of her property, connecting what are currently three separate spaces to make one large outdoor space.

“It’s a beautiful sun trap, particularly in Winter. It’s ever so charming.”

When I ask Sue what she loves most about living in Cooks Hill, she doesn’t hesitate in her response…

“The community. The melting pot of people. It’s not generic, it’s all cultures and I love that.”

Sue and her neighbours also own and maintain the laneway garden that runs along her property, down to Goldbergs Cafe.

“I started with two friends of mine, Chris Brown and Adam maybe ten years ago. We put some pots in the laneway and gradually added plants. Then we dug up some of the cement and built a garden. When we knocked down our internal walls, my husband Joe used some of the bricks to pave the footpath.

“The Laneway is shared by four of us. If you maintain a laneway for 12 years, you own it. Since we’ve beautified and cared for it,  we’ve managed to stop anti-social behaviour. We put up lights and I did all the ribbon work. People love it and it’s a popular spot for people to come and photograph for social media. We call it ‘Our Beautiful Lane’. We’re now thinking of putting speakers out there to have music filtering down. People really respect the laneway now.”

I feel as though I’ve had a sneak peek into a little bit of Newcastle’s rich tapestry of history by exploring Sue’s home. As it continues to evolve under her care and guidance, it’s safe to assume it’s heritage will be both honoured and celebrated.

Sue’s art will be on exhibition at The Owens Collective in Islington for the month of March, after which, Sue will be opening her gallery at home. Follow Sue’s Instagram to keep up to date: @sueatkinsonartist