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Paint your wagon Suffolk style

PUBLISHED: 11:29 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013

Paint your wagon Suffolk style

Paint your wagon Suffolk style

Chris Hill moved to Suffolk in the 1970s, when he traded a highly successful career in advertising for a simple life devoted to the loving restoration of gypsy caravans. Laura Vincent reports

Chris Hill moved to Suffolk in the 1970s, when he traded a highly successful career in advertising for a simple life devoted to the loving restoration of gypsy caravans. Laura Vincent reports

Clad casually in an outfit of jeans, shirt and braces, topped with a jaunty trilby lending him a pleasingly eccentric air Chris Hill is as relaxed and charming as the Suffolk countryside surrounding his quaint cottage home.
And as for the gypsy caravans he restores... well, they are simply gorgeous.
Lovingly repaired and refurbished, they have been resurrected from near dereliction and stand outside his home as testament to his outstanding craftsmanship. Without his passion, skill and create rather than destruct philosophy, these wonderful wagons would have deteriorated beyond repair.
As a youngster growing up in west London, Chris spent a lot of time with Romany gypsies due to family connections and developed a real passion for old gypsy caravans.
But this passion was put on the back burner as he married, moved to Sussex and forged a highly successful advertising career in Swinging Sixties London.
However, in spite of his enviable lifestyle, something appeared to be missing. I always felt there was something that I hadnt found- that was until I went to Brighton in about 1970. I visited an antique yard and there I found an old gypsy caravan covered in gold leaf which I hadnt seen since I was about 12. And that was it. I told myself the advertising art director job had to go and this is what I was going to do. And with that, he moved to Suffolk.
Gypsy caravans have been in use for at least 150 years, reaching their peak in Victorian times. It wasnt until the 1940s and 1950s, when petrol-engined horseless-carriages were introduced, that the number of caravans started to decline and gypsies began to sell them to non-gypsy folk, as decorative objects for their gardens. Over the years, many deteriorated into an appalling condition of disrepair. Others were ritually burned with other possessions when their gypsy owners died.

Without his passion, skill and create rather than destruct philosophy, these wonderful wagons would have deteriorated beyond repair.

However, the advent of the 1980s saw a resurgence in interest in gypsy caravans with many being restored to their original state, something that Chris had been doing since late 1960s.
You could still find old caravans in gardens rotting away. It was lovely to find them, put them back together and restore them, as opposed to Mother Nature taking her toll and destroying them, said Chris.
You can reverse the process and bring it back to life again, which is a lovely thing to do, and it is a joy to see people using them as they were originally meant to be used.
Caravans come to Chris in various states, often requiring much structural work, for which Chris often sources parts from other similar vehicles. For example, in one of his latest works, the original caravan only had a back and ironworks so the under work such as wheels, springs and axels were sourced from a similar French carriage.
Once the basic structure of the van has been restored, the more intricate work can begin. Using a blowlamp, Chris strips away layers of paint from the caravans to reveal the original paintwork and colour scheme. Colours are typically intensely vivid, with the use of gold leaf adding to the lavish exterior.
Carved or painted motifs are commonly found on gypsy caravans and are skillfully restored to the original design. As all furniture is custom-built, layout is the decisive consideration in a vans interior, with each containing a stove and working electricity.
Chris is currently completing two caravans. The larger of the two, bought around 1987, was acquired from a lord and lady who used it as a changing room for their swimming pool, leaving it to deteriorate into a poor condition. It has now been beautifully restored and is ready for a new home.
The other smaller van is equally as charming and also just waiting for a new owner to meander down windy Suffolk country lanes.
Chriss work is sold through word of mouth, but anyone who is interested is welcome to go and have a look at the caravans. Prices for the current models range from 25,000 to 35,000.

Contact Chris Hill on 01728 685229.


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