Country houses for sale

Paper houses: The Somerset artists turning books into model country homes

Each of us has treasured memories of our home, past or present. Catriona Gray meets artist Ele Grafton, who captures these individual stories using vintage books and documents.

Many of us have a house that we hold close to our hearts. Perhaps it’s the one you grew up in, the place that formed the backdrop to your childhood, or it could be it’s the property you’re sitting in right now that’s etched into the fabric of your being, the building that you’ve furnished and loved and lived in — the place that you call home.

It’s this deep emotional connection to where we live that inspires artist Ele Grafton, who creates intricate models of country houses out of old books, sheet music and maps, all of which have a meaningful connection to the client. Mounted in elegant box frames, the tiny windows illuminated from within, they evoke a sense of wonder in all who set eyes on them.

‘I’ve always been drawn to the buildings that surround us in our daily lives, but especially our homes,’ she admits. ‘Every person has a unique relationship with the building they live in or might have lived in as a child. It’s that individual story that I work really hard to capture.’

From her home studio in rural Somerset, Mrs Grafton spends her days printing, cutting and assembling her fantastical creations, re-creating miniature versions of country properties from all around the UK and beyond. Having studied fine art, she began her career in London, working firstly for the Art Fund, a charity that acquires art for museums and public galleries, and then as an art consultant, helping artists to get their work into international banks and law firms. ‘I loved my job, but there was always something in me that knew I really wanted to be making things — although, then, I didn’t have the confidence to jump ship,’ she recalls. However, after her two children were born, she decided to embrace a change in career and began taking on illustration commissions, instead of returning to the office.

A cut above: Ele Grafton goes to painstaking lengths to capture the character and proportions of every country house she re-creates.

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Her husband was longing to leave London and move to the countryside, whereas she was keen to stay in the city for a little while longer: ‘I made him a model of a little country cottage — for some reason, I thought it might buy me some more time.’ A friend spotted the piece and asked if she could make him a model of his pub in Hampshire. Mrs Grafton obliged, creating a simple structure made out of a map of the area and, once it was finished, it was put on display in the pub. People were intrigued and started to get in touch with her, asking if she could make similar copies of their own homes.

‘We would have these amazing conversations about the houses they grew up in and the homes that perhaps their parents were having to move out of and how much those places meant to them. It was the combination of a building that had so much connection to someone and then talking about the different things that we could use to make the model from, that captured the story of those houses in such a meaningful and personal way.’

One client, who was commissioning a piece for his wife, wanted the entire model to be made out of pages from her favourite book. His wife was a pilot and as a child she had loved the ‘Biggles’ novels, which chronicled the many exploits of the pilot and adventurer. Another client wanted the house to be made entirely out of Thelwell cartoons. One family chose to use a grandfather’s old log books and flight maps from the Second World War, in a touching tribute to him.

The process begins with Mrs Grafton either going to visit the house to take photographs and meet with the client or, if it’s too far to travel, as is often the case, the client sends her pictures, together with any estate agents’ photographs, drone footage and anything else that might help her to piece together a three-dimensional picture of the property.

‘I go through all of those photographs really forensically,’ she explains. ‘If I can’t get any good angles or drone images, my brain has to go into overdrive to turn what I have into a series of plans that show the house from all sides. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into making sure that each part of the structure is proportionally correct when I make it.’

From there, she creates what are commonly known in maths as ‘nets’ — flattened-out versions of three-dimensional shapes — which are then assembled into each section of the building. Scans are made of the documents that the client has chosen — she avoids cutting up original material wherever possible — and these are then printed out on high-quality archival paper at a suitable scale. Then, at last, she starts to construct the house, which is stuck onto a base made from an old book, which has again been personalised with more meaningful documents affixed to the open pages.

The artist also pays attention to the wider setting of the house. ‘Trees hold such importance to my clients, whether they remember climbing them as a child or the picnics they had under them,’ she reflects. ‘I really try to capture their individual shape and quality, and put that across in the trees that go next to the finished buildings.’

The final creation is then placed in a box frame and wired up with a light, so that the windows of the house can be lit up in the evening if desired, imbuing it with a particularly magical quality at night.

Note paper: a Caribbean villa crafted with sheet music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

‘It’s so simple and minimal, but it becomes a wonderful keepsake,’ she believes. ‘Because they’re often commissioned as gifts, I get sent these amazing photographs of when they are given to husbands or parents or siblings. Pretty much everyone who’s received a piece has cried, because it’s so personal.’

Mrs Grafton has some wonderful stories to share, from adult children who moved back in with their parents during lockdown and commissioned pieces as a thank-you present, crafted from books and music that evoked memories of that shared time spent together, to people downsizing from a much-loved home and wanting a tangible reminder of the happy years spent living there. No wonder that these remarkable paper houses are destined to become family heirlooms, treasured for generations to come.

Commissions from £1,400. Ele Grafton Studio (