Career change in France: From financial advisor to botanical artist

Kate Churchwell explains quitting the ‘rat race’ in the City to pursue her passion for plants and art

Botanical artist Kate Churchwell

Around 28 years ago, I was running my own business when my memory suddenly started to fail. 

I went to the doctor, but it took a few months before I received the right diagnosis – hydrocephalus. In 1997, I underwent life-saving surgery and was fit enough to return to work. 

Hearing that an old boss from the then Midland Bank was hiring, I applied and got a job as his PA. Over time, I rose through the ranks, took financial exams and eventually began to work in financial services and portfolio management. However, although successful, I did not feel fulfilled by my role. 

My husband Chris, 59, is a carpenter and enjoyed renovating properties. In 1999, having finished our current property we were looking for something new. Disillusioned by the UK property market, we visited the Earls Court property show and decided to find a property in France. 

Renovation project

We spent the summer of 2000 racing around with French estate agents looking at properties – nothing seemed quite right. Then, on the last day of our holiday, we found what we were looking for – a stone house in Haute Bretagne that was ripe for renovation, but not derelict or dilapidated.

Originally, we had intended it to be a project for Chris and an eventual holiday home for us and our family. But the more time we spent in France, the more we realised there was life outside of the rat race. 

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By then we had two children, Finn, one, and Rupert, two, and knew it would be a great place to raise them. Eventually we made a permanent move in 2006.

Chris had intended to set up as a carpenter in France, but we realised it was more sensible and lucrative for him to commute to the UK, two weeks on, two weeks off. He could work on projects as part of a team, rather than as a sole trader and it suited him better.

In 2014, we invested in the property opposite our house, too. We had intended to use it as a gîte, but as my mother was getting on in years and needed care, we decided to ask her to move in so we could spend time together and keep an eye on her.

Joy outdoors

It was a busy time, and my focus was on caring for mum and raising my boys – but I always kept my hand in with gardening. I love spending time outdoors – it gives me so much pleasure. I used to create art, too, experimenting with different techniques and eventually developing my own style.

Over the years, I created art to give to friends – always with a botanical theme. Rather than paint floral scenes, I use pressed or dried flowers. As the boys grew and needed me less, I decided to branch out and become a professional botanical artist.

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In 2019, I approached my local botanical gardens and asked if they’d be interested in taking some of my work on a sale or return business. I registered through the micro-entrepreneur scheme and have never looked back. I joined an online network on Facebook with other female business owners and through there made contact with the Château de la Ruche in Teillé, and was able to feature in their online shop. I’ve now also opened my own shop on Etsy.

In 2021 my local chateau, Château du Rocher Portail, in Brittany, decided to create a Harry Potter theme for their guests, and they contacted me to make all the banqueting food for the display out of plaster. In 2021, the Hotel Shangri-La in Hong Kong commissioned me to create 16 plaques for them and I recently picked up a large commission for the Pulitzer hotel in Amsterdam to create 105 large plaques. And I have recently discovered my work is soon to be featured in British Vogue.

Developing skills

Chris continues to work in carpentry, commuting to the UK, and with the boys now off at uni, I have got time to experiment and develop my craft.

When I worked in banking, life was fast-paced and full-on – I would roll out of bed to sit in traffic for an hour, work through my lunch break, and sometimes attend client dinners before dropping into bed and repeating it all the following day.

Now mornings are almost always looking at plants, what I might pick, what I could cast, which plants I could press. There, I am really in my element. Afternoons I create artwork, or sometimes run classes. It is a world away from my life back in the city, but so much more fulfilling.