First Encounters: Bernadette Madden and Peter Johnson

‘Dublin gave us opportunity . . . it was a fantastic time to be around’


Bernadette Madden is a painter and print-maker. She shows regularly in Dublin, where she was born, as well as in the US, Australia, Norway and Germany. Her work has been presented to two popes on behalf of the State. She lives and works on Haddington Road, Dublin 4.

A long time ago I had a flat and studio in Herbert Place. The house I lived in, together with three others, was owned by the same landlady who, one day, asked if I would be the caretaker. So I became the caretaker of about 30 flats and mews. It was a great place to live; Richard Lewis and quite a few other people I still see as friends, lived there.

One of my jobs was to collect 2/- pieces from the electricity meters. Tash (Natasha) Souter lived in a narrow return flat. I rang her bell one midday, got no response and went inside. It was dark, the curtains undrawn. A shape arouse in the bed at the far end of the room. I backed away and let myself out, quickly, not knowing who or what it was.

Tash came to me that night. She was very young, about 18, I was about 25. She hoped I didn’t mind but her boyfriend was studying in England and stayed over occasionally. That was how I first met Peter!

The three of us became friends, and used knock around together. We still do. They got married from Herbert Place in 1977, had a really nice wedding in Calary Bay, Wicklow, where Tash’s mother, Camille Souter, lived. I did the food for the after party, a cold buffet I think. They came back to Herbert Place afterwards.

We’ve shared a lot since then. The day after they married I moved to a house in Ranelagh, the first of the Herbert Place group to buy a house. Pete gave me quite a few bits and pieces; he has the finding of things and is good at passing them on. They had a mirror behind their bed in Herbert Place that is now behind the bed in my spare room and, when I moved here (Haddington Road) Pete gave me a lovely red light I still own.

They had three children pretty quickly and between child rearing and work I didn’t see a lot of them for some years. But we always kept in touch. One day, when the children were of an age not to need minding all the time, Emily (the middle one) said to me: ”How come we were always hearing about you but never saw you until now?”

Pete and I go to the theatre a lot, Tash is often the organiser. When I was judging the Theatre Awards he came to everything with me and claims the record of going to the worst theatre ever in my company. We’ve been to great theatre too.

We share a love cinema and paintings, of old as well as contemporary objects. And we love Dublin and Dublin’s buildings. We keep an eye on them, making sure they’re not being knocked down. I went with him to view their Lombard Street house when they bought it from Ursula Steiger, the Swiss Photographer. They still live there, and have their lovely shop in that street too. I consult Pete on interior design. He’s got a great eye and is terribly good at pulling an interior together with just one object.

Pete’s a really nice, kind person. Very easy going. We have arguments, which are mostly a sharing of beliefs. He’s very supportive, always turns up for my openings and such. He’s very positive too, and remains positive as we get older; a decent, honest guy and really good friend to have.

Peter Johnson has been an interior designer for more than 30 years. He was born in Belfast and studied at Middleborough Art College. He married Natasha (Tash) Souter in 1977. They have their home and design shop on Lombard Street West, Dublin 8.

I’ve got so much admiration for Bernadette, as well as huge friendship. I’m from Belfast and left to come to Dublin aged 19. My mother had an antique shop in Hillsborough so I worked in the old Dandelion Market, amongst other things.

I fell totally in love with Dublin, still am to this day. I knew in my heart this was the place for me. When I was 13 I walked from Stephens Green to Lansdowne Road for a rugby international and couldn’t believe the Georgian buildings. That walk had always stayed with me.

I am also, without doubt, the luckiest guy around. When I realised I wouldn’t hack it as an antiques dealer, I went off to art college in Middlesbrough. I’d already met Tash. We were both very young and when I came back she’d taken a flat in 16, Herbert Place, a townhouse that had once belonged Elizabeth Bowen. Bernadette was caretaking it and two others and Tash asked her if she minded me staying. Bernadette may have come in and seen me in the bed. That was the start of our love affair!

Bernadette was fantastic to us. Her basement studio was great, in the style of that time, when Dublin was starting to become trendy and fashionable. She was an eye-opener for me, to this day some of her creative ideas influence me. She has a very good eye, just has ‘it’. Richard Lewis and various other arty types lived in the Herbert Place houses, it was a real hotbed of creativity. Dublin gave us opportunity: we were protesting, marching, it was a fantastic time to be around.

Before I got work, Bernadette would give me jobs to do, like painting. I made coffee tables too; friends bought them. The friendship has endured and is very, very strong.

We started our business in 1981. If Herbert Place was a cauldron of things happening then so was Lombard Street West, where we ended up. Still is. We had no fear, when we started, no fear at all. It just seemed the natural thing to do. We began in an 8ft by 8 ft room in the house, then bought the shop on the street. We’re still there.

During the middle years, when our children were young, we didn’t see a lot of Bernadette. My kids have never forgiven me for not making her a godmother. She’s the best and most generous of godmothers! She’s hugely talented and it’s wonderful how she single-handedly keeps going. She’s a great one for the theatre, takes me along to everything.

Three years ago I was involved with work on the Charles Institute for UCD and was able to commission four large pieces from Bernadette. So things came full circle at last.

It was nice to be able to do it. I love the idea of things coming full circle.