Commissions for Christmas: A Flurry of Nevalyashkas by Illustrator Cathy Van Hoppe

For each of our designer makers there is that special something that inspires them. For Cathy Van Hoppe, the illustrious illustrator behind The Old Burrow, it is the landscape that surrounds her studio and the inhabitants she imagines she shares the landscape with…

“Amidst wishing trees and fairy hills, upstream from a beautiful bridge where two rivers meet lies The Old Burrow. A troll nestles snugly beneath the bridge.”

Cathy promises that one day she will draw him.

One day, perhaps. For now, she seems far too busy hand-painting her enchanting Nevalyashkas: the elusive cousins of the famous Russian Matryoshka dolls.

Like Matryoshka dolls, each Nevalyashka tells its own story and while some might seem similar, no two are alike. From a distance, Nevalyashka and Matryoshka dolls might be indistinguishable, but up close there is a vital difference. Nevalyashkas do not come apart. Nevalyashkas prefer to hide their mysteries deep inside, merely hinting at them with the gentle chiming of their bell-hearts, which resonate through their Lime-wood bodies.

Drawn to all things ‘Northern and folktale-ish, places like Iceland and Norway and across through Finland to northern Russia’ despite her sunny Australian origins, Nevalyashkas provide Cathy with the perfect marriage of these elements with her unique illustration, in a 3D format that is ‘very tactile and quite charming’. They also provide a fantastic basis for customisation, or even the possibility of being commissioned from scratch.

Cathy’s designs, the faces she conjures and creatures she teases into existence spring out of ‘nowhere’ or gather, waiting to be found, in her labyrinthine imagination, ‘like a walk in the woods, you never know what you might find’.

However, commissioning is often also a source of unexpected inspiration, a ‘delightful process’ that always brings new challenges.

Recently Cathy was commissioned to produce one of her Nevalyashka trees, but with the addition of a – very specific – cat, peeking out through the branches. For a family that makes a tradition of acquiring one special Christmas ornament each year, what could be more unique, more appropriate, than their very own cat incorporated into the narrative, hand-painted with the charm and hygge-ness of Cathy’s brush?

‘I have another beautiful commission in the pipeline for a couple who live in a neighbouring valley. They are renovating a very old house. Underneath the floorboards they found an old note handwritten by a child that said “Would somebody please tell me what happened to the Crystal bird?” When they asked me if I would like to paint a picture to enhance the story I couldn’t stop grinning.’

Cathy’s painting practice has always subscribed to ‘slow’ values, honouring her materials and giving free-rein to her imagination, delighting in ‘the slow appearance of a picture growing on a once-blank surface.’

Commissions, communication with her customers, and engaging with craft communities is very much at the heart of what Cathy does. She was very excited to learn recently that her own village wished to become a Slow Village. Emerging briefly from her media-free, magic-steeped Old Burrow, Cathy found that the Slow Movement was a far greater presence than she had realised, but one she wholeheartedly supports.

The ‘slow’ nature of Cathy’s work also enables the commissioner to share in the experience, the excitement and the wonder of ‘creating a mechanism for story-telling.’ And from ‘slow’ creation to ‘slow’ buying, the enjoyment and respect due to these pieces and their creators should not end with a transaction, but last infinitely.

‘Slow-buying does this by honouring the time taken to produce a piece, which can only enhance the enjoyment of the piece.’

Experience slow-buying from start to finish: see the work as it progresses, as it grows around your story and then treasure it forever.


The only thing left to decide is what story you would like to tell…