London Art Spot: Lucy McDonald


It takes guts to quit the 9-5 world and follow your creative passions, especially in a city like London, but Lucy dove in and took the opportunity when it arose. So exists The Story House. She illustrates wedding invitations, creates fabulously personalised cards and paper crafts from vintage paper, sheet music and maps. It’s called The Story House because all of the work tells the story of the person or people who will receive it or share it. Lucy gets to know her clients and how they met or what quirky activities they may have enjoyed that brought them together. Each order she fulfils is different. 

Read on to find out the biggest challenges Lucy faced when deciding to make a go of it on her own, her earliest memories of this city and a few of her favourite London discoveries like swimming in ponds and Indian sweets.

LLO: Where are you from originally, how long have you been in London and what brought you here?
Originally I’m from the sticks, or the shire – whatever you want to call it – the most rural county in England.

I used to visit London quite regularly with my parents who lived there when they were younger, and got to love it then. I knew I wanted to live here, so I came to Queen Mary University in East London, and loved it. Apart from a year in Mexico, I haven’t lived anywhere else since – although I have defected to West London!


LLO: Tell us about your first experience of London? Did you like it?
I visited regularly with my parents, and I remember loving the tube, with all its random cold and warm winds, and the fact they could just walk around or pop on a bus knowing where things were – that was a bit mind boggling. I couldn’t work out how they knew (they had lived here). I remember being really chuffed when someone on a bus asked me where it was going. Obviously I had no idea, but the fact they asked meant I looked like I lived here!

We used to see as much as possible over a weekend – multiple films, multiple exhibitions and amazing tasty Indian and Asian food we couldn’t get out in the sticks.


LLO: Tell us a bit about your own small business, The Story House.
I have been running a creative business in London for a couple of years, but it only became ‘The Story House’ in October. ‘The Story House’ specialises in bespoke illustration for wedding stationery, any other event stationery and single page illustrations as gifts for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, christenings, or any other reason – even just for you! I also sell paper roses as bouquets, buttonholes and corsages. They are all handmade to order. I use map, sheet music, and literature for my roses, and some brides or gift-givers love to choose their own paper. I currently have a sheet of wedding photographs and first dance lyrics waiting to be made into a wedding anniversary gift.


LLO: What so far has been your favourite project to complete and why?
This is a really difficult question! I’m often working on many different things at one time. I think recently I’ve most enjoyed working on my single page bespoke illustrations for gifts. I have completed them for wedding gifts, anniversary gifts, and I know one is being given at a Christening this weekend! I like these because I know they’re a surprise. I work with someone who knows and loves the couple/the person/the family who will receive it to produce something really special. I like to imagine the illustration becoming one of those familiar pictures of the wall for the family – something that will move with them to every new house.


LLO: What are you working on now?
I have just launched some personalised wedding stationery ranges, where you can pick your design, and have all your practical details hand-written into the design. They look bespoke, but are more a more affordable and quicker choice.

I am really happy with the way the designs have turned out – my favourite changes on a daily basis.

I want to add another two or three ranges to the personalised ranges, and I’m currently developing some illustrated greetings cards to sell locally. Plus, I have my regular work of bespoke illustration commissions and roses to work on. It sounds like a lot when you set it all out!


LLO: What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced setting up your own business in London? Any advice for others who wish to do the same?
 I think the main difficulty is making the decision to do it – which I happily bypassed by doing creative things on the side until they actively took over. I also bypassed the difficulties of this decision by not earning huge amounts before I started (i.e. not coping with a massive pay cut), and living with someone, which eased the financial pressure of doing it. However, after the first decision to do it, there are many and frequent decisions to carry on and to adapt. The one decision business is a myth!

Beyond that, it’s challenging to price yourself and your services what they are worth. You need to take into account all your costs, including overheads, taxes and a salary, and remind yourself of your own capabilities and the service that you are offering. Make sure you are charging enough for this.

Finally, if you cannot afford a studio workspace, or you live in West London where they are few and far between, do not underestimate the challenge of working alone. It’s difficult – both in terms of the number of hours I spend working from home without any human contact (Twitter anyone?), and without a team around you to take responsibility for different aspects of the business. You don’t get to tick something off the ‘to-do’ list until it’s in the clients’ hands.


LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery from your time in East London?
So I spent the first 5-6 years in East London and my discoveries there are:

  • The East London Thrift Store. Ignore Brick Lane vintage shops and head here for a huge range. If you can go during one of their jumble sales, where they charge per bag of clothes, even better.
  • Indian Sweets. There are lots of different shops in the East End, including several stores of ‘Rajmahal Sweets’. It’s definitely worth trying something. Excuse me if I get the names wrong, but there are amazing sweet blocks that are like a combination of cheesecake and fudge called Barfi, and syrup soaked little doughnuts, like mini steamed puddings, called Gulab Jamun. Yum!
  • Columbia Road Flower Market. Hardly a discovery, and I’m not claiming it, but honestly, one Sunday start at Brick Lane, grab some bagels, and walk up to Columbia Road, get a pint and watch the band outside the pub, and grab armfuls of amazing tulips for under a fiver.


LLO: What are your favourite recent London discoveries?
Here’s a few:

  • Canal Café Theatre. A theatre in a room above a pub – jovial, friendly, it feels like a community and shows extremely funny sketch satire with the News Revue and has touching storytelling with Spark.
  • Hampstead Heath Ponds – My absolute favourite thing to do in London is swim in the ponds. It’s cold and murky, and sometimes you’re joined by ducks or geese, but it’s so good! If you’re hot and uncomfortable on a sunny day, jumping into cold water is the best feeling in the world. And again, like all my favourites, the atmosphere is always jovial and friendly. Unless you’re an adult trying to bring in a baby or child to swim, when the lifeguards give amusingly short shrift. For those concerned about health – despite being murky, the water is regularly tested, and, despite appearances, it is actually flowing. In winter, sledge instead. When you’ve done that, go and eat homemade cake at the Buttery café at Burgh House.


LLO: Where are your favourite places to buy art and craft materials in London?
Having a creative business does give you license to buy lots of good things. I haven’t found a replacement for Atlantis Art, Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane. It has an amazing range of materials and very knowledgeable staff. There is a beautiful shop of art supplies near the British Museum, which is like going back in time. Cass Art offers great value for money.


LLO: How do you find out what’s going on in London? (apart from the Little London Observationist of course!)
 Twitter is great – @secret_london is great to follow and ask for recommendations. I follow my favourite venues and businesses in my area who promote their events. If you’re using Time Out, get the magazine as the website is a bit of a nightmare – overly reliant on big commercial things, rather than little interesting events. Ian Visits is my favourite listings site though. It’s brilliant.


Thanks Lucy!

For more from Lucy, check out her website:

Listen to a Londoner: Lucy McDonald

Listen to a Londoner. This is a weekly post where people who live (or have lived for a while) in London answer a few questions about the Big Smoke. If you fit the bill and want to be interviewed, give me a shout at Always looking for new victims volunteers….

Lucy McDonaldLucy McDonald, 25
(Usually, it’s 10 questions, but Lucy likes questions, so she answered 30. Bonus.)

Lucy is from the most rural county in England but her soul is a Londoner. She likes tea, merry-go-rounds, walking along the Thames, lists, the radio, food and getting dressed several times a day. She works as an admin monkey at a language school in Bloomsbury.

LLO: How long have you lived in London?
I accidentally say I’ve lived here for five years, despite the fact a year of that was spent in Mexico. Actually I similarly used to answer ‘?Donde vives?’ in Mexico with ‘Londres’ for an irrationally long number of months. I’ve known I wanted to live here since I was eleven.

LLO: Where are you from originally?
The shire, the middle of nowhere, where England meets Wales, the green and pleasant and beautiful land, the most rural county in England – Herefordshire.

LLO: Best thing about London?
It’s still possible for me to get excited about the little things – being able to jump on the tube and end up in a place that looks and feels completely different to the one I’m in now, popping and seeing the Houses of Parliament and all the sites tourists come to see. The many and glorious parks, the way people dress, the interests people have – a general and indescribable Londonness that is strongest I think at Sunday brunch time, when Saturday revellers are in recovering in cafes, wandering the streets and dressed in their most interesting togs.

LLO: Worst thing about London?
Being ground down by the insularity and commuting. The fact that travelling from one side to another – east to west, north to south – seems like an epic challenge worthy of Tolkein. Light pollution and other grubbiness. The 25 bus, expense, Victoria Coach Station. Being from elsewhere in England, it can be irritating that people from the South East don’t believe in any realistic sense that the rest of the country exists. Most bad things in London are the same in the big metropolitan cities and the mindset that puts you in. The best-worst thing about it, London is a difficult place to leave.

LLO: North, south, east or west?
LM: East. No question. 

LLO: Best restaurant?

LLO: Best shop?
Atlantis Art Materials, Hanbury Street. I like to peer in the windows of the rope shop and the umbrella shop in Bloomsbury, and Blade Rubber Stamps.

LLO: Best place to escape the city?
Hampstead Heath or the top of Senate House Library, depending if you need glorious openness or protective dusty rooms and books.

LLO: 2012 Olympics – stay or go?
I don’t know and can’t decide. Is that significant?

LLO: How do you spend your time on the tube?
Reading. If I can find another participant I like playing tube chicken, empty tube platforms allowing.

LLO: Most random thing you’ve seen in London.
Somebody stopping to help a stranger – tee hee – gallows humour.

LLO: Best place to catch a gig?
The Union Chapel, Islington

LLO: Best local band?
The Correspondents

LLO: Favourite book, song or film about London?
1599 by James Shapiro. 

LLO: Favourite London discovery?
Signing up to go and see free recordings of radio and TV programmes, Sam Smiths Pubs and the many retro nights.

LLO: Best place to spend a Sunday afternoon?
Ah, I’m too predictable – Brick Lane.

LLO: Best museum or gallery?
Tate Modern during the week, otherwise The Museum of Childhood. It’s not my favourite, but if you haven’t been you should go to The John Soane Museum. I like to sit in the big leather chairs in the National Gallery to read.

LLO: Favourite market?
Predictability reigns, Brick Lane Sunday – the Upmarket, Spitalfields and everyone along the edge of the lane.

LLO: Give us a funny London story.
I’ll cheat and copy and paste from previous writing –
Waiting on the platform at Leicester Square for the train to come, and a drunken suit, pink shirt, grabs my hand and begins to twirl me around the platform, asks what my dance would be, if I could dance any, here on the platform, between the yellow line and the commuters and the couples. I decline. He presses my hand to his heart and asks my name. I guess his instead. It’s not Charles and it’s not Jim. He takes my hand, asks my name, asks if I’ve seen the most recent exhibition at the British Museum. He tells me the last exhibition was a disappointment. Not enough artefacts. Central London has a different class of drunk.

LLO: Most influential Londoner?
Can’t think of one person.

LLO: Best London magazine, newspaper or website?
C’mon – the national British media is solely a London set of magazines and newspapers – so the Observer on Sunday.

LLO: If you were to dress up as one of the tube station names for a costume party, which would you be?
High Barnet. My hair loves a good backcomb.

LLO: Best time of year in London?
Impossible question – Autumn on Hampstead Heath, Christmas in Covent Garden, Summer in Russell Square. 

LLO: Best place for a first date?
Dates? In London? Don’t people just get drunk and fall on each other inappropriately?

LLO: First place to take a visitor?
To St Pauls, across the wobbly bridge, to South bank and along to the London Eye. Or a trip to The Globe.

LLO: Favourite place to be on a Saturday night?
The George Tavern, Commercial Road. And as far as possible from Leicester Square.

LLO: Best and worst things about tourists?
Worst thing – they get in the way and behave as if the place you live has been placed there for their own enjoyment, loud voices, big bags and not getting out of the way on the tube. Best thing – they talk loudly and think they can’t be understood so always good for an eavesdrop.

LLO: Boris is…
…a muppet.

LLO: What would you change about the city if you had the power to do so?
Not sure – I want to say make it smaller and cleaner and cheaper, but it wouldn’t be London anymore. I would take the violence out of it, and (sorry for the nod to Boris) I do hate the bendy buses.

LLO: Most interesting recent news story.
Anything told to me by John Humphrys as I drink my first cup of tea in the morning.

 Thanks Lucy!

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