House portraits have long been the province of the upper crust, but interest among middle-income Americans is creating a growth industry for artists and designers.
Today, dwellings ranging from mansions to mobile homes are being memorialized in oils, acrylics or water colors, in pen and ink drawings, sepia photographs, needlepoint wall hangings, hooked rugs, wood models and miniature shadow-box constructions.
Cost is often determined by the degree of the artist's involvement--from copying a mailed photograph to making a personal visit and conducting extensive interviews with a family and its friends.
By mail order, a photo of your home can be reproduced on an eight-inch oval ceramic plaque for $38.95, including postage. You can opt for a custom hooked rug of your home and grounds--for $75 a square foot. An electrified dollhouse set in an antique printer's type tray starts at $3,500, and a house portrait by a recognized artist is in the $12,000-to-$25,000 range.
Patricia Shiland of New York, who does what she calls miniature lifestyle portraits in dollhouse form, can spend up to 120 hours on one of her constructions. She does exhaustive studies of the home's history and the owner's interests and lifestyle before she begins her portraits.
The special appeal of these pieces is the personal aspect, says David Bradstreet Wiggins of Tilton, N.H. Wiggins, a painter, decorator and antiques dealer, travels from state to state painting murals incorporating exterior views of a home on interior walls. He will also depict a home on a fireplace accessory known as a fire board.
"People want their family history and their property exterior in the picture," he says. "They want their children included and lots of romantic allusions--sunsets and secrets, allegorical things which are not apparent to the casual viewer."
Kathy Jakobsen, who is represented by Jay Johnson America's Folk Heritage Gallery in New York, has immortalized her clients' pets, their hobbies, their ancestors and their tractors in commissioned portraits.
The Ruggery of Old Brookville, N.Y., makes memory rugs. The process starts with a photo of the house and a list of extras requested by the client. A watercolor is then made, showing such details as favorite pets and the surrounding landscape. Once the watercolor is to the client's liking, the rug is hooked.
After a mention in Country Living magazine, G. Willikers, a gift shop in Locust Valley, N.Y., received mail orders from all over the country for the ceramic plaques it sells for $38.95.
"You rarely get a superb house," says Barbara Goldstone, the shop's co-owner. "In fact, we just did somebody's trailer. So it is not that it's a special house, but that it is their house."