It is very nice to have had your work here at ROSL, but this is not the first time you have exhibited with us, when was it you first came here in a creative capacity?
I submitted a collage for the ROSL’s annual open art competition: ‘A View of the New’ back in 1991 and was delighted to have it not only selected for exhibition but also to win a cash prize. That was a significant moment very early in my career. The ROSL’s annual open exhibition was a prestigious, highly competitive event on the annual London art calendar, so it was a thrill to be included in that show and even more so to win a prize. The exhibition was held in what is now the ROSL’s concert hall. Roderick Lakin, the ROSL’s Creative Director, kept in touch with the progress of my career and I was delighted when he invited me back to the ROSL to plan a solo exhibition. The only sorrow was that he himself passed away before that exhibition took place.
We were very happy to launch your book documenting your Italian Journey here at ROSL, it is apparent that this time allowed you to find your focus, tell us more about your time there and was there ever a temptation to move to Italy after this initial period of inspiration?
I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking back in 1989. This gave me a year of living at the British School at Rome where I was provided with bed and board and a studio. The scholarship included a travel grant to enable scholars to explore Italy as well as Rome itself. To have a whole year with no financial pressures and the distance from ‘everyday life’ in which to reassess one’s working practice and discover new sources of inspiration was an incredible privilege and an unforgettable formative experience. Living in Rome entirely changed the way I thought about my work and it radically changed its subject matter too.
Prior to that time, much of my work involved portraits of friends and family – representational yet often subject to Escher-like metamorphoses. While living in Rome, my work became totally absorbed in studying, drawing and trying to express via engraving the overwhelming sense of living history that is Italy (and especially Rome) – towns and cities in which ancient Roman (and older) ruins co-exist with medieval, Renaissance and Baroque churches and 20th and 21st century apartment blocks, TV aerials and satellite dishes – a kind of urban metamorphosis involving construction, deconstruction, demolition and regeneration all occurring simultaneously. This sense of an ongoing cycle of life through the buildings and landscapes that humans construct – a sense of the passing of immense spans of time yet also of timelessness – of hints of past, present and future civilizations – became the fixed focus of my work and remains so to this day – though the form those works take has evolved.
Drawing in sketchbooks has long been an essential part of my creative process and my year in Italy was an especial joy in that regard. Unfortunately, three days before the end of my scholarship year, my bag was snatched while I was having a picnic in Rome with friends and I lost my entire year’s drawings in one full sketchbook. The frequent return trips I made, with my partner, were times to make many new drawings, partly to make up for the huge loss of the stolen sketchbook and also because I developed such a love for Italy that I was keen to explore far more of it than a one-year scholarship would permit. Highlights from sketchbooks made over the subsequent 25 years are featured in ‘Anne Desmet: An Italian Journey’ – the facsimile sketchbook published by the RA last year which provided the focus for my recent exhibition at the ROSL.
Much as I love Italy, I was never tempted to make the rest of my life there. I have always been too attached to family and friends in the UK ever to consider emigrating. Also, not living in Italy means that, every time I visit, there is always a thrill of novelty, even when I revisit familiar haunts. There is never a danger of it losing its magic for me, but, every time I’m there, I regard it as a special time for exploring and for drawing – a moment away from my ‘real’ life but which feeds into my life constantly and creatively.
The works that sat alongside the book launch were a fantastic array of prints that demonstrate your practice in all its scales and mediums, what do you think led you to working in this multimedia way?
I was born with a severe abnormality of one of my hips and had to spend long periods of my childhood in hospital undergoing many operations. During those long years, I spent much time making drawings of everything and anything within the sightline of my hospital bed. The drawings were usually small in scale (as it wasn’t practical to work larger) and, often, intensely detailed since I had plenty of time to devote to them. When I went to art school (the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University) in 1983, a wonderful tutor there, Jean Lodge, introduced me to diverse printmaking techniques which she felt would expand the range of my drawing skills. An added benefit was that, as a print can be editioned, I could lavish as many weeks on each image as I wanted and yet, by virtue of being able to print a limited edition, I could still (as a working artist) price my images at sums that would be affordable to would-be collectors.
I was particularly drawn to the rigorous technique of wood engraving, partly because of the beauty of the specialist, end-grain wood and the traditional tools it requires, but also because it enables me to draw in light. When you ink and print a wood block, you apply printing ink to the block’s uncut smooth surface and it is those parts that create the printed image on paper. The areas you engrave are the parts of the image that will be white (or paper-coloured) in the final printing. So, when you engrave, you are actually creating images in light out of darkness – a beautiful concept and a hugely rewarding way of working. Linocutting follows the same principles but facilitates working at a larger scale than is possible on specialist engraving wood. So, for some years, my practice largely involved the production of highly detailed, labour-intensive, linocuts and wood engravings printed in limited editions.
However, while living in Rome, I began to experiment with printed collage as a means of creating images more spontaneously and at different scales: from postage-stamp-size to four-foot-square pieces and, later, using different materials and surfaces to collage on – including seashells, stones, roofing slate, ceramic tiles, broken pottery, mirror shards and wood panels painted with a gesso ground. I found that, often, small elements cut out from proofs of my prints on paper: a Pompeiian archway or a collection of Doric columns, might provide inspiration for an entirely new image made by collaging these specific elements into new compositions suggested by but, ultimately, very different from, the engravings that inspired them. Collage has become a vital creative outlet in my work enabling me to realize many ideas relatively speedily alongside the slower, more laborious processes of engraving and linocutting. The construction of my collages involves a similar level of surgical precision as does engraving. Unlike engraving, however, where there is no means of correcting any errors so compositions need careful advance planning, with collage there is a freedom to work spontaneously or intuitively (much like the flexibility of oil painting) in that you can change your mind and re-order compositions almost endlessly – as nothing is fixed until it is glued down.
Most recently I have been working with a fine lithographer in Newcastle – Lee Turner of Hole Editions – to create prints in plate and stone lithography – techniques I used frequently as a student but have only recently taken up again. I enjoy exploring the many possibilities of printmaking including recent developments in laser-cutting. I hope it keeps my work fresh for the viewer but, certainly, using mixed and multi-media approaches keeps me fresh too. I can’t imagine a much worse fate for an artist than being bored by your own work or by the techniques you use to make it.
You are not just any printmaker and wood engraver but the third wood engraver ever to be elected to membership at the Royal Academy in 2011. How did it feel to be presented this honour?
I was tremendously excited and felt it a great honour to be elected by one’s fellow-artists to such a historic institution and it is a great testament to the wide range of artistic tastes and judgements within the RA’s membership. It came as a surprise since, when I was elected, there had been a prevailing trend of elections of, primarily, older male painters, sculptors and architects, or of Tate-approved famous and infamous artists from the YBA group. It seemed incredible that a woman working in the seriously unfashionable, even archaic, medium of wood engraving – would ever be elected an RA in the 21st century. Charles Tunnicliffe was the first engraver elected RA in 1954 and Gertrude Hermes (a huge heroine of mine and an inspiration for my engraving) was the second, elected in 1971. To be only the third engraver elected in the RA’s 249-year history feels both a huge honour and a responsibility. I hope my work continues to live up to that accolade.
A basic question but one I’m sure everyone will find interesting, a wood engraving of around A4 size, how long would this take to develop? I am curious as there must be such a devotion to your practice, do you work on one piece solidly to completion or do you switch between projects?
The time involved varies hugely depending on the complexity of the composition. A tiny 3-inch-square block might take a day to engrave but an A4-sized block could take as much as six or eight weeks. I often make various different editions from the same block at different stages of engraving, however, as I don’t believe there is, necessarily, only one way that the image can be resolved. There may be a series of prints from the same block, all of which might have their own related but significantly different qualities and characteristics. But the intervals of time spent engraving and then printing each variant can vary from days to weeks. A lot of time – several days – goes into planning compositions prior to starting engraving any block. I rely heavily on my sketchbooks and supporting photographs as source material; drawing a very careful outline drawing onto a block, prior to engraving, is an essential – and slow – part of the process. Ideally, I like to have several projects on the go at once – both engravings and collages. It is incredibly difficult to sustain the concentrated focus required to engrave solidly for hours at a time. I find it helpful to switch from one project to another in a different technique if I feel either inspiration or concentration is flagging!
I perceive your work in this day and age as acting like a rebellion against the fast pace and disposable nature of society, the work takes time to make and each element including the block is immensely valuable, how do you feel about your position as a print maker and wood engraver in the 21st century?
That’s a good question! It’s certainly an odd contradiction to work in such a slow-paced, archaic medium in the fast-paced digital age. There is part of me that wonders if I am a living anachronism – born in the wrong century! But there is a stronger part of me that feels a huge passion to preserve and develop this medium because it is, nowadays, so rarely seen yet can produce a quality and character of image unlike anything made by other means. Its small scale, intense detail and historic ‘craft’ make wood engraving an odd curiosity in today’s art scene but I am drawn to its particular jewel-like aesthetic, much as I (along with streams of others from all over the world) am constantly drawn to the miniature marvel that is Van Eyck’s painting of the ‘Arnolfini Marriage’ (1434) in London’s National Gallery. That is a hugely compelling work – both of its time and timeless – characteristics which I would like my own work to share.
I have always been drawn towards ‘drawing’ – again moderately unfashionable these days, though arguably coming back into fashion through the works of the likes of Grayson Perry and Michael Landy – but there is arguably no better medium than printmaking in which to exploit to the full all the great potential and pleasure of drawing. Printmaking itself has long been a poor relation at the feast of art forms because it has been, for centuries, largely perceived as a reproductive art rather than a creative one. However, while it might seem counter-intuitive to pursue such a medium in the teeth of other trends, it offers me means of creativity unlike any other and the fact that prints can be marketed and sold for sums affordable to art lovers with average incomes – rather than being accessible only to the super-rich – makes it even more appealing as it means my work can be disseminated amongst the widest potential audience.
I think there is still a place in this world for work made, intentionally, to last a long time, to give pleasure and food for thought to generations beyond my lifetime, for work made (in my case) with the direct aim of trying to depict the fragility and vulnerable beauty of the world that we live in now – with its looming dangers of climate change, environmental damage and destruction and political turmoil – all of which threaten the fabric of the world and its historic structures, both natural and manmade. By depicting some still-present or relatively new marvels (such as Rome’s coliseum or London’s Olympic buildings) to historic re-envisionings (such as the Tower of Babel) - as well as invented imagery reflecting aspects of art across centuries – from Pompeiian frescoes to early Renaissance altarpieces, to Impressionist paintings to 20th and 21st century printmaking – I hope to imbue the viewer with a positive sense that, in the teeth of prevailing art trends and doom-laden news, there are things worth preserving, worth spending time on, things worth doing with love.
Within your practice spaces such as Italy, for me make sense being depicted in print but it is the juxtaposition between the traditional medium and contemporary that is an interesting strand of your work, an example of this is the work Olympic Shadows, 2011, where do you see your art practice going in the future? Is there anything you are particularly interested in depicting?
I live near London’s Olympic site and made a large body of work based on the developing and changing site over several years. That subject matter, while seemingly more ‘modern’ than some of my Italian works, is still concerned with the same themes: the evolutionary nature of a place – its sense of decay and renewal; of time and change and aspirational, well-intentioned, human endeavour; the fragility and hubris of some of those endeavours – within which lie their beauty.
I had an exhibition in New York three years ago and so went there for the first time in my life. It was February, with heavy snow, and the experience led to a series of mixed-media prints of Brooklyn Bridge in all weathers – somewhat inspired by Monet’s various paintings of Rouen cathedral under different skies – and also by the great etchings of Brooklyn Bridge by the likes of C R Nevinson. I am currently working on a related new suite of engravings of the Manhattan skyline under changing skies, which will be shown, for the first time, at a solo exhibition: ‘Anne Desmet RA: Under Changing Skies’ at the Holburne Museum in Bath from 11th March until 4th June, www.holburne.org . The idea of depictions of the same place in different weathers or at different times of day increasingly interests me as, collectively, such imagery creates its own sense of time and transition.
Last year I was artist-in-residence at Eton for a couple of months. I made new prints there inspired by the wildly decorative Tudor chimney pots and other architectural curiosities the college buildings had to offer. Some of those works will be shown by Long & Ryle gallery (which represents me www.longandryle.com ) at the London Original Print Fair at the RA (4th – 7th May www.londonprintfair.com ) or in the RA Summer Exhibition (June – August www.royalacademy.org.uk ).
In my collage works I am just embarking on a brand new series in which I’m studying the surprising visual effects of looking at the world through a child’s toy kaleidoscope and how its mechanism breaks up the most ‘dull’ view into a geometric honeycomb with repeated fragments that take on a new excitement and rhythm as though seen for the very first time with compound eyes!
Is there an artist who has inspired your creative practice?
There are many but those I look to most are the Italian Early-Renaissance Masters: Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Bellini; and the Northern Renaissance Greats: Van Eyck, Bosch, Bruegel, Durer. I also admire the 18th century Italian etchings of Piranesi; the early 20th century engravings of M C Escher, Edward Wadsworth and Gertrude Hermes; the contemporary photo-collages of Emily Allchurch; and Grayson Perry’s wonderful exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago. But these are just a few of many artists I find inspirational.
I know you worked on the publication Printmaking Today and have worked on three printmaking books but is there a book that has particularly influenced your own thinking, creative or otherwise? A book you would recommend everyone read?
Very difficult question as what inspires me might be anathema to someone else! When I was at school studying for Art ‘A’ level, the set textbook was ‘A Concise History of Painting - From Giotto to Cézanne’ by Michael Levey (first published in 1962). The reproductions were small and not great quality (I imagine that has improved in its many reprints) but it was eminently readable and a fully digestible account of the history of Western Art from the Italian Early Renaissance to the French Post-Impressionists. There are plenty of developments in Western Art earlier and later than the period it covers but I always felt that that one book gave me an overall understanding of key artists and ways of thinking about art over this significant span of European civilization and it was full of detail of many of Europe’s greatest artists and the contexts in which their creativity flourished. My daughter will be taking art GCSE this summer and my experience of her course is that the art syllabus today deals in a largely hit-and-miss fashion with mostly contemporary artists and their various means of working, but fails to give any overview of the history of art and what has led up to the philosophies, aesthetics and prevailing trends in Western art today. ‘From Giotto to Cézanne’ should, in my view, still be essential reading for every British teenager with an interest in art.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists today? And any further advice for those focusing on printmaking?
I think it’s important to follow where your heart leads, whether that be to printmaking or other means: to make art that compels you to make it; to try to make art that feels true to you and doesn’t try to jump on the latest bandwagon (unless that is the way your own personal aesthetic leads you of course). I think, too, that there has been too much art made in the last quarter century that relies too much on its accompanying storyboard to give it context and meaning. I’d like to think there will be a major return to visual art that moves the viewer without the need for any supporting text. I guess that, if I had any advice for an aspiring artist, it might be that I’d ask them to imagine a piece of their art rediscovered by someone a hundred years into the future and separated from any of its original written contextualizing material. I’d want the artist to ask him- or herself whether the work might have any meaning or emotional resonance for a fellow human of the future, without the written storyboard to explain it. If the answer to that question is ‘no’ then I’d advise him/her to look again at the visual and emotional strengths and weaknesses of their work and to try to make their art self-sufficient, without any need for a written storyboard. I’d like to see more contemporary art that is exhilarating on its own terms, full of emotional resonance conveyed through its visual content and composition alone - much like the auditory experience of a good piece of music.
Printmaking, for me, has long been quite a solitary experience (often with just Radio 4 for company in my studio) as wood engraving is quite a self-contained discipline. Working as editor of Printmaking Today magazine for 15 years gave me welcome access to many other printmakers and their works and ideas. More recently, working collaboratively on lithographs has proved immensely stimulating and when I teach at print workshops up and down the country I am always conscious that there is much camaraderie and stimulation to be had by working with other artists in a workshop environment as well as endless new techniques to be learned. Art can be a lonely profession so I would advise aspiring printmakers to get involved within a local print workshop for the mutual support network, for exhibiting opportunities and the potential to acquire and develop skills.
Here at ROSL our focus other than the visual arts is music, may I ask do you listen to any music while you work? and if so, anything in particular?
I tend to listen to Radio 4 while I’m engraving – but my brain tunes in and out depending on how hard I’m concentrating. While I’m printing on the press, I prefer to listen to music – often something with a good beat so that I build up a rhythm of printing and don’t notice any muscle aches! Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘I am Kloot’, the Cocteau Twins, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie but I also have classical phases including Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Elgar’s Cello Concerto (played by Jacqueline du Pré) or John Tavener’s Protecting Veil.
Thank you so much for your time and generosity and all the best for 2017.
Anne Desmets work will be back on display at ROSL in our Brabourne Room and signed copies of her book An Italinan Journey are available to purchase from the ROSL Arts team.