Published: 02 Dec 2021
How would you describe your art in one sentence?
I make wood engravings and printed collages, the subject matter of which essentially pulls in two directions: one body of work is essentially topographical but sometimes subject to metamorphoses and relates to the slow passage of time and its cycles of construction and decay, while the other body of work is intuitive and imaginary, concerned with urban myths, architectural fantasies and histories of urban destruction and regeneration, aiming to suggest the timeless solidity, beauty, human aspiration, humour, hubris and folly that architectural forms can convey as well as their impermanence, fragility and the effects of changing light and weather.
Anne Desmet, Brookyln Bridge
What inspires and influences you?
At school I was very interested in Latin, especially in the Ancient Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” with its fantastic stories of nymphs turning into trees or sea-monsters... I was also interested, at that time, in the fantastical/mathematical metamorphoses of Dutch artist M C Escher (1898-1972) – I had a poster of one of his woodcuts on my bedroom wall. I began to make drawings and later, at art school, prints that usually involved images of people – often friends or family – metamorphosing in some way that seemed to suggest something of their character and also, I hoped, embodied an idea of the passage of time. After I’d graduated from Oxford and, later, from London’s Central School of Art (where I did a postgraduate year), I was awarded a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking, which gave me a year to live and work as an artist in Rome (1989-90). I spent a lot of time there walking and sketching. Rome was a complete revelation. I’d never been there before. I was struck by the multi-layered nature of it – the fact that you can be walking down an ancient Roman road that sits on top of Etruscan tombs and you can walk into a church from Roman times that may have medieval remodelling and a Baroque dome and, above all that, you can see TV aerials and satellite dishes of the 20th and 21st centuries. It felt like everywhere I looked I could see a span of over 2,000 years with all those centuries of change and metamorphosis all co-existing in our times. I found that really exhilarating. The dramatic light and shade of the sunlight on Rome’s buildings was also hugely inspirational. Its drama and theatricality really seemed to suit the wood engraving medium, which I love. It didn’t take long before nearly all my prints were inspired by my sketchbook drawings of buildings and landscape in Rome and elsewhere – all places that seemed to encompass a sense of a vast span of time or timelessness within a single vista. So, in my mind, they are actually still about metamorphosis. Since then, my subject matter has expanded to encompass wider architectural themes from Italy, London, New York and elsewhere as well as invented structures.
Are there any recurring themes in your work that are vital to your practice?
A sense of lost civilisations of the past and the vulnerability and preciousness of our lives and urban cultures today – whether from war, terrorism, earthquake, volcano or weather events related to climate change – are ongoing underlying themes and underpin the thought processes behind most of my prints and printed collages. I hope my works may communicate some of these thoughts to the viewer and with increased urgency in these times of climate crisis. However, I’ve actually never wanted to be too prescriptive about the messaging in my works because often viewers see surprising and thought-provoking things in them that I hadn’t consciously considered or intended – and that’s fine too.
Can you describe your studio setup and your approach to creating?
I live in a tall, narrow, terraced house in east London with my husband and (grown up) children. My main studio is a large, first floor, front room in my home. This is where I engrave my wood blocks and create my collages. My husband (who is also an artist) and I share another smaller studio at the back of our house, which houses our printing press - an Albion Relief Printing Press dating from 1859 - just a bit older than the house. I print all my relief prints on that press. I have a disability of one of my legs, which is much worse in cold weather, so I have always worked in a home-studio which I can keep well heated and comfortable for my needs. I also tend to work on quite small-scale pieces, which I can make while sitting down at a desk or table. I don’t often make large works as they tend to involve my standing up for long periods to create them, which is difficult for me.
Engraving on and printing from small pieces of polished boxwood is my particular passion. There’s a particular graphic clarity about the medium that I find peculiarly satisfying. There’s a sense of resolution and decision-making about it. I find, for best results, that I have to plan a composition fairly carefully in advance so as not to make errors in the engraving. But there’s a fine balance between excessive planning and allowing the print to take on its own life to become something different from and more dynamic than its preparatory drawings/photos – of which there are always quite a few. If the print is successful, then it’s that sense of strength and dynamism in it that strongly appeals to me. I’ve never been drawn to painting – except for watercolour or ink wash drawings in my sketchbooks. Oil painting, in particular, never suited me because it doesn’t facilitate the graphic clarity of printmaking and it involves a very different mindset. With oil painting, there’s endless potential to change your mind and repeatedly change any part of a work at virtually any point. I like the fact that, with a wood engraving, once you start engraving the wood, you can’t erase anything you’ve done so there is a definite direction of travel from the very first marks you make! It feels very satisfying to engrave into a beautiful piece of polished boxwood. The natural shapes of some of the blocks – especially roundels – can suggest compositions in ways that rectangular etching plates or screen-printing frames might not. So, the wood itself can be inspiring. But also, in wood engraving there’s the wonderful creative joy of engraving light out of darkness – all the marks you make in the block being the parts that will be white paper in the print and all the uncut parts being those that will be rolled with ink and printed. It’s inexpressibly exciting to bring that light image out of darkness and to play with the wonderful potential for highly contrasted tones. My better drawings have always been those with highly contrasted areas of light and shade and wood engraving lends itself especially well to such effects, so I was immediately enthralled by it.
Wood engraving has actually become a more important urge in my life, over the years, than drawing – though the two are quite intertwined and I can’t actually do engraving without drawing. Wood engraving, for me, is actually an extended form of drawing. However, much as I love engraving, I’m not a speedy engraver and often feel a sense of frustration at how long each block takes me to engrave – which can be months sometimes. When I went to Rome, I had rather a sensory overload – there were suddenly so many potential ideas and images in my head that I’d need multiple lifetimes to engrave them all! I needed an additional creative outlet which would enable me to express some visual ideas more speedily. I had taken a small self-portrait engraving block, with which I wasn’t happy, to Rome. I’d printed it in a rust hue in London and, while finding my feet in Rome, had planned to reprint it in black to see if it worked better. I printed it but was still dissatisfied and so I tore up all the prints and went out drawing. When I came back to my room later, I was struck by the torn strips of black and red-brown engravings and found their random forms unexpectedly intriguing. I quickly shaped them into my first collage, a “Self-Portrait (Tower)”. It opened a door to the creation of all my subsequent collages. Although observational drawing remains a fundamental part of my practice, collage has become of equal importance and just as satisfying. The boundaries of my day-to-day life and my practice are blurred because I have a home-studio and am something of a workaholic. Drawing, engraving (which I consider another form of drawing) and collage-making all figure strongly.
For nearly a decade, all my collages were on paper or card but, when my two children were born 20-odd years ago, some 8-years of annual drawing trips (usually to Italy) were succeeded by UK family-holidays, usually at the beach, I couldn’t do much sketchbook-drawing as I’d be playing with the children instead. Initially I found it quite frustrating that having small children meant, to a large extent, that my drawing had to be put on hold, but then I started to notice items on the beach: razor-clam and oyster shells and interesting pebbles which seemed to suggest themselves as surfaces on which to collage. Some razor shells have orange and purple hues on their inner surfaces that look like expansive sunsets. I began picking them up and bringing them home to collage fragments of my prints onto them. Much like unusual-shaped engraving blocks, organic forms like seashells often suggest their own compositional ideas. These collages in their turn suggested other possibilities so I have subsequently collaged on ceramic tiles and bits of pottery, shards of roofing slate, mirror fragments and the convex glass of clock faces. Each substrate is selected because it has some relationship with my subject matter. But it’s incredibly satisfying working with a combination of printmaking on paper and a range of unexpected found objects. I hope it brings something new and different to the wood engraving medium. I find cutting up, tearing and reassembling details of my prints into new collaged compositions a process not unlike drawing but reliant much more on intuition than direct observation.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
It’s difficult to pick just one! Getting through and recovering from major and repeated leg surgeries has felt like a massive achievement over the years. I’m also really proud of my two children who are wonderful young adults now. As an artist, however, I was hugely proud to win a prize in a Printmakers’ Council exhibition at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the late 1980s. It was the first prize of my career and gave me the confidence to believe that I could perhaps make a career as an artist. Much more recently, being elected a Royal Academician in 2011 was a huge surprise and still feels like a tremendous honour, of which I am hugely proud. There have actually been a fair few members in the RA’s history who have made wood engravings but only Charles Tunnicliffe (1901-79), Gertrude Hermes (1901-83) and I who have been elected specifically as engravers, on the strength specifically of our wood engravings. These are big shoes to fill – especially those of Hermes who I think may be the greatest engraver who has ever lived.
What are you currently working on?
Most of my seriously focused drawing for the last 30-odd years has taken place mostly on trips to Italy, Greece or around the UK. In fact, the RA published two facsimile sketchbooks of many of my Italian and Greek sketches in 2016 and 2019 respectively (available to buy from all good bookshops!). Obviously, the pandemic made such sketching trips either impossible or, for me, too stressful to contemplate. So I have taken to looking at what I have around me in my home-studio rather than to looking so much for inspiration to the world outside. This has led me to begin a sequence of large new wood engravings that create illusions of assorted towers but these are towers made from household objects assembled into unusual still-life formations on a table in my studio. I have been photographing these in different light conditions and then developing the imagery into new wood engravings. I think it may mark a significant change of direction for my work.
What is next for you and how can people follow what you are up to?
I have various exhibitions in the pipeline including a major retrospective in London in April-May 2022. People can best follow me on Instagram where I make daily posts about my work and my latest exhibitions. For the last 18 months I have also related an item of history or current news, #onthisday, to a different piece of my work each day on Instagram. I hope to make a book on this theme at some point in the future. My website is also updated regularly and features an almost complete gallery of my works from throughout my career. As a Royal Academician, my work also features regularly on the RA website and I have the honour of showing my latest works every year in the RA Summer Exhibition. I also curated a major Ashmolean Museum exhibition: “Scene through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving” shown at the Ashmolean in 2020. That show will be touring to the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester; and the Heath Robinson Museum, Middlesex, in 2022; and the St Barbe Museum in Lymington, Hampshire, in 2023.
Which living artists do you most admire?
I tend to look for inspiration more to the artists of the past - Durer, van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Bruegel and many others - rather more than to contemporary artists. However, I very much admire the work of living artists including Emily Allchurch, Emma Stibbon RA, Hughie O’Donoghue RA, and innumerable others, not least the works of my husband, Roy Willingham!
If you could get a studio tour from any artist throughout history, who would it be?
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a genius copper engraver and woodcut artist - the earliest enormously successful printmaker whose renown was not limited to his home country. I’d love to see his studio and his printing processes, which were so accomplished and sophisticated and yet still so very new and innovative in Europe in the era when he lived.
What work of art, from either a public or private collection, would you love to have in your life?
I’d love to have the "Arnolfini Marriage" portrait by Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441). It’s a tiny, immensely detailed, oil painting on an oak panel. It glows like a jewel and demonstrates more than perhaps any other painting how a tiny work can have enormous presence, power and mystery. It's a star piece in the National Gallery, London.
Available in the Art UK Print Collection here.