ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Climbing Back from Catastrophe

This summer, illustrator Suzanna Hubbard lost everything in a devastating art studio fire. Here she talks about the loss, and how she's moving on since the tragedy.

Nothing ever prepares you for loss in whatever form. Grief is certainly not new to me. I know sorrow from my path travelled, but, growing from loss, I live with an equal balance of joy in my life for all I have. Loss can feel like an endurance test, a test of sanity and inner reserve to cope with all that life throws at you and to be able to get back up when life appears to be mowing you down. Nothing however prepared me, or my illustrator husband Paul Blow, for losing years worth of work in a studio fire.

I had just come to the end of two weeks work on some book spreads. The UK at the time was experiencing its hottest summer on record since '76, that week culminated in a sudden temperature surge of 30 degrees. On Friday evening of the 6th of July, we locked the door to our studio, our wonderful light and airy space in an old rope-making warehouse in Bridport that we had been sharing together for 13 years.

My old work space destroyed in the fire.

We had spent the previous month giving the studio a refit. An elderly friend of ours had moved back home to work due to prevailing ill health, so we found ourselves with plenty of room to expand. We have always loved being part of a studio-collective of artists and makers, enjoying the connection we have to the arts community in the town we live in, which has a wonderful creative energy. Paul and I have helped with and participated in the Bridport Open Studios, which has run for many a successful year from our studios and the surrounding area. Separating work from home life has always worked favourably for us, less distractions, and just the very fact of being able to leave home and go to work! Over the years we have made some wonderful like-minded friends.

That evening, tired and a little heat frazzled from an intensely hot week at work, we headed home full of weekend plans. Unprepared that the next day our life would shatter into a thousand pieces. We had just been enjoying a beautiful summer’s day out in Devon, swimming with our two kids when the nightmare unfolded. On our way back from Devon urgent frantic calls were coming in…

“So sorry Paul and Suzanna….” Were the words of a fellow studio friend.

We arrived home to 12 fire engines and a crew of roughly 20 odd firefighters from Dorset and Wiltshire Fire Service, and an inferno like nothing we had ever seen, raging through the central upstairs of the building like a ravenous angry monster. Nothing ever prepares you for how voracious or cruel fire is, biblical in its proportion, spreading fast, destroying everything, brutally, murderously, in a matter of seconds. The air was torrid that night, putrid with the suffocating smell of smoke. I remember willing myself to wake up and it would all be a terrible dream, instead we had to face a new landscape of loss. (here's the Dorset Echo news report)

I worked on these last two images just before the fire for a story written by me.

What will always stay with me is how supported we felt by our local community. We were not alone but were facing this ordeal with some of the kindest people. Everyone felt the magnitude of what we were going through, which affected 6 studios in total in our building alone. The artist Debbie George set up a fund campaign on Instagram on our behalf, and from her brilliant plea of help and rational initiative, the support within the online community was astonishing. So many artists and makers, feeling our plight, generously auctioned their work on our behalf to raise money to help us start again. I don’t think we will forget the kindness and generosity of others in our grief at this time.

Sketchbook Journals, many sadly and greatly lost.

Days later the report came through from the Fire Investigation Service. The fire’s cause was determined as heat refraction from a skylight window against combustible materials in the middle upstairs studio. Our studio was separated by a gabled-end wall, the fire spread rapidly into our space destroying all our equipment, furniture, a lifetime collection of books and many files of work. The one stroke of fortune was that it didn’t burn out through the other side of our room, so we were able to salvage what we could from our archive, a remaining plan chest of work and some portfolios of work. Nothing will account for the many sketchbooks lost, going back years, periodicals, and some of our most recent work including the very pieces I had been working on prior to the fire. And perhaps the most personal loss for me was a really special photo album of black and white photographs of my parents, my grandparents, and relations. I would give up everything to be able to see those very special pictures again that are etched only in memory.

Loss is also a very physical feeling, at the time I felt as if the fire has burned through me and made me hollow. I often wonder what it would be like to enter our old studio as it was, everything untouched. I can’t account for all that was in the room except to say it was near enough 20 years of our life together.

Me in the writing room of our new studio! We have two rooms. This was the brightest shot for today!

Three months on and life is moving on, we now have a lovely new self-contained studio to ourselves. It is quiet and has a peaceful view across the rooftops towards the woodlands. One has to dig very deep to find the good in any tragedy. Fire can feel like a sudden death, even though Paul and I are still here to tell the tale. In darkness comes transformation, light, and change, knowing that life will always be unpredictable and fragile makes us both live more richly in the present. The wonderful thing about the creative spirit is that it is restorative, and looks forward not back.

(Header photo © Russ Snedker, other photos courtesy Suzanna Hubbard)


Bridport-based member Suzanna Hubbard is a widely published illustrator for magazines and children's books.
She's represented by Caroline Walsh at the David Higham agency. Follow Suzanna on Instagram here.


  1. Oh my, I am devastated for you and cannot imagine what it must have been like. I can only send you hugs and I'm hoping that you and your husband are able to create again. Nothing will bring what you lost back but I wish you both much inspiration and joy for the future.

  2. It is painful reading this and imagining something of the tragedy. Sending loads of wishes for you to see you through the times when the loss leads to low feelings. As it will from time to time. I am so glad you can both create, even this article. It's a refusal to give in. A lesson for me too. And people will benefit from the new beautiful work you produce.

  3. This is every creative person's nightmare! Although so much of our work now exists digitally, it is often the things we make physically, with our own two hands, that mean the most to us. So sorry this happened and I hope you both continue to bounce back from tragedy.

  4. I'm immensely grateful to Suzanna for putting this together so soon after the event, it must have been difficult to go over the details, she tells me it was "very cathartic to write". Well done Suzanna, and the best of luck with the new studio!


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