Poetry in Pastels



   

With her bowerbird instincts and a fantastic eye for colour, Beth Newton has transformed a modest worker’s cottage.

A winding ascent along a road lined with towering gums leads to a little village of worker’s cottages, built in the 1890s and early 1900s for employees of the Mount Crosby water scheme that had been set up nearby to provide for Brisbane’s growing population.

Mt Crosby_001
It’s a world apart from the CBD 20-odd kilometres away, with the kind of quaint general store that still exists under corrugated iron awnings over cracking concrete footpaths in Australia’s old towns and enclaves too small to warrant a second look by developers working for the big three.

The cottages were likely never meant to be forever homes, built quickly and cheaply and often not quite square, but to the lucky few who live behind the neatly modest picket fences, they’re cherished for every imperfection.

“Timber and tin, what more could we ask for of our new Australian home,” says Beth Newton, who moved into one of the cottages after migrating from Africa in the mid-’90s with her husband, Wal, and two growing children. “I knew instantly what l could do with it.”

What she’s done with it is nothing short of enchanting, with treasures and trinkets at every turn. Vintage china plates hang in clusters on crisp white VJ walls; vases, glassware and old books are grouped effortlessly together creating vignettes popping with pastels; and every mismatched piece of crockery in her cute-as-can-be kitchen is used. She pulls teabags from one, sugar from another, dishwasher tabs are hidden under the clinking lid of an old cookie jar. “Everything has its purpose,” Beth says.

Her inspiration for decorating hasn’t come from the pages of haughty home magazines or stuffy antique shops — almost all her possessions are second-hand. “I grew up in a seaside town in England,” Beth explains in an accent that evokes images of Beatrix Potter bedtime stories. “One of my first memories is of my Mum and Dad taking me to junk shops, yes that is what they called them. That was it, l was hooked — the treasures, the possibilities.”

What she’s done with it is nothing short of enchanting, with treasures and trinkets at every turn. Vintage china plates hang in clusters on crisp white VJ walls; vases, glassware and old books are grouped effortlessly together creating vignettes popping with pastels; and every mismatched piece of crockery in her cute-as-can-be kitchen is used. She pulls teabags from one, sugar from another, dishwasher tabs are hidden under the clinking lid of an old cookie jar. “Everything has its purpose,” Beth says.

Her inspiration for decorating hasn’t come from the pages of haughty home magazines or stuffy antique shops — almost all her possessions are second-hand. “I grew up in a seaside town in England,” Beth explains in an accent that evokes images of Beatrix Potter bedtime stories. “One of my first memories is of my Mum and Dad taking me to junk shops, yes that is what they called them. That was it, l was hooked — the treasures, the possibilities.”

Nothing large or bulky came with them, meaning they were essentially starting all over again when they touched down on a new life in Australia. That never bothered Beth, as their little cottage in Mount Crosby became a beautiful canvas for her curated collection that made the cut in the relocation. “l have never felt the need for top-of-the-range or new things,” she says. “I knew this would be the perfect stage for all our stuff. I’ve always been very content with what we could have, but always wanted to make the best and the most of it. Nothing of real value in life costs a lot of money.”

Nowadays, Wal has shifted gears on his career and works as a dairy technician. His spirit of adventure is satiated by weekend rides around south-east Queensland on his Italian motorcycle, with Beth on the back, forever on the lookout for little thrift shops in country towns.

“An ideal getaway would see Beth pack the weekend panniers for us to set off early in the morning, and then head out for the delights of country Queensland,” Wal says. “Beth’s decorating is always a constant adventure for me as well, as I rarely come home to find the house as I may have left it in the morning. Things are moved, repositioned, relocated and often hidden, but I have always admired her ability to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear! I know that it was very early in our relationship that I recognised my vision to be one-dimensional, while she has this innate aptitude to see the finished product.”

Beth freely admits that her quirky decor ideas have sometimes raised eyebrows, but she’s never been one to worry about that, especially since her children have always encouraged her. “They’ve always said, ‘go for it Mum, don’t be like everybody else, don’t follow the trends’,” she says.

Any visitor to their little worker’s cottage is inclined to notice they’re in for something delightfully different as soon as they spot the rows of china plates lining the garden beds. Beth says she has too many to keep in the kitchen and decided to display them outside, and she’s found a serendipitous bonus. “The snails hate them, they’re too slippery and they can’t get into my garden,” she explains.

“I love using things for another purpose than what they were made for. I also like to take the inside out, like the dressing table.”

Her daughter’s childhood dresser is now brimming with greenery in the backyard, a few steps from a second-hand easel displaying a framed oil painting under the shade of a tree. At the side of the cottage an old concrete sink is overflowing with plants and plates. Life at this worker’s cottage has never been so colourful. “Every day we wake up so grateful to be here,” says Beth with a twinkle in her eye that makes you wonder just what she might dream up next.

The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 20.3. Click here to subscribe to our magazine.

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Words Tamara Simoneau
Photography Anastasia Kariofylldis

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