Meet the Maker: Anne Desmet RA

I was born in 1964 and brought up in Liverpool. I have BFA and MA degrees in Fine Art from Oxford University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Printmaking from Central School of Art, London, and in 2018 was elected an Honorary Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford University, for ‘distinction in the world of art’. I exhibit my wood engravings, linocuts and printed collages widely, have won 40 national and international awards (including a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking; a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award, USA; and an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Award, Montreal, Canada) and have works in public and private collections worldwide. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, have each purchased significant holdings of my works. Over 30 solo shows include two major museum retrospectives at the Ashmolean (1998) and the Whitworth (2008) respectively: each toured UK museums for two years. I had an earlier retrospective at Moscow’s Ex Libris Museum, Russia (1995); and solo exhibitions at the Holburne Museum, Bath (2017) and Gainsborough’s House Museum, Suffolk (2018). I am author of four printmaking and drawing books and was editor of Printmaking Today magazine from 1998-2013. I am only the third wood engraver ever elected to membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in its 250-year history. I live and work in London.

Last year, I was approached by Westmorland and Parker Harris to sit on the selection panel for a new open art prize: the Westmorland Landscape Prize. The Prize, which is open to all UK-based artists working in any media, aims to stimulate thinking and debate about the way in which we exist alongside, as part of, or sometimes in spite of our landscape. The deadline for submissions in on 17 June and artists will be notified of the results on 28 June: between these two dates, myself and my fellow panellists – Cherie Frederico, Editor of Aesthetica Magazine, and Hazel Stone, Arts Development Manager at Forestry England – will be judging the artwork submitted…

Describe your printmaking process.

I make wood engravings, linocuts, lithographs, monotypes and mixed-media printed collages. I also occasionally make digital prints that are printed either as lithographs or as laser-cuts. My primary printmaking process is, however, wood engraving on end-grain, polished boxwood blocks using fine tools (like copper engravers’ tools) which come to very sharp points so as to cut really clean, crisp lines and marks into the blocks of wood. Boxwood is extremely slow growing so the wood is very hard, but it cuts very easily and cleanly and doesn’t wear out with the pressure of repeated printings. I start out making drawings in small A6-size sketchbooks and I also take photographs for reference. I draw up a chosen image onto a wood block and engrave it with a range of different tools – each of which has a slightly different shape or size of cutting tip so I can make broader or finer marks and lines and marks of assorted different shapes and sizes. When the engraving is complete, I ink up the surface (the engraved marks print as the white of the paper – it is the uncut parts of the block which are inked and printed) and print the block onto fine printing paper using my cast-iron Albion relief printing press which was made in 1859 and is still printing perfectly today.

How and where did you learn to print?

I was taught a wide range of printmaking techniques as part of my Fine Art degree at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University and I developed them further at Central School of Art and Design in London. But printmaking is an ongoing process of learning so I feel I learn something new about it with every new print I make.

Why printmaking?

When I was a child (age six months until 18 years) I spent about 5 years of my life over different periods of weeks and months in hospital, having a lot of surgical procedures to try to fix a developmental abnormality of one of my hips. I spent a lot of that time drawing anything and everything that I could see from my hospital bed: other patients, bowls of fruit, light bulbs, my own hands and feet etc etc. The work was, of necessity, in small sketchbooks and single sheets of paper and was mostly in pencil or biro. Because I had a lot of time to occupy, my drawings got more and more intense and detailed – and were all in black/grey on white paper. When I started at art school, I knew virtually nothing about printmaking but had a portfolio of very detailed pencil and pen drawings! A tutor in the printmaking department introduced me to wood engraving thinking that it would give me a medium in which I could continue to lavish lots of time and attention to detail but it would have several advantages, long term, over a specialism in drawing in more conventional media, namely:

a) The different tools facilitate the making of a much broader and more interesting range of intricate marks than does a pencil or pen nib.

b) If you ink up a wood engraving block in black ink, without cutting any image, when you print it you will get a solid black shape. So, unlike working with pen on paper, an engraving starts from an idea of an image in darkness being brought out into the light, rather than applying a dark mark to white paper. Everything you engrave on the block will print as the white parts of the image and everything you leave uncut produces the black or coloured areas. As my drawings tended to have an interest in strong contrasts of light and dark – with a lot of darkness in them, wood engraving offered a more logical way to work as the ‘darkness’ is already provided with the uncut block and there is something very beautiful and very thrilling about creating an image in light out of that darkness.

c) Because you can print an edition from a wood block, the medium offered me the potential to continue to spend a lot of hours working on an image in huge detail and intensity, but, ultimately, I’d be able to print an edition from the block and thus have the potential to sell each print at an affordable price for the buyer, relative to the time I’d spent working on it, whereas, if I continued to specialise in very detailed one-off drawings – each drawing could become impossibly expensive to the potential buyer if I charged for, say, 6 weeks of my time spent making it. With an editioned print, that 6 weeks of time gets spread over each print in the edition so that each print is a much more affordable proposition in selling terms.

These same factors apply to my linocutting and other print techniques. My collages, however, arose out of a need and desire to work through ideas more swiftly than is possible with engravings – and to experiment with different surfaces, materials, colours, and to create compositions that were more invented and fantastical than the more specific ‘real place’ subjects of my engravings.

Where do you work?

I work in my home/studios in Hackney, East London. I have one studio where I make my engravings and another in which I print them.

Describe a typical day in your studio.

There isn’t really a ‘typical day’ in my studio. Most days will usually involve correspondence – emails and admin of various sorts that sometimes takes over the day entirely. On engraving days, I like to spend whole days working on a block with as few distractions as possible – other than Radio 4 keeping me company in the background. Printing days are different again as they’re in a different studio in my house and I like to print to music with a decent beat – ‘I am Kloot’ or David Bowie for instance – as it helps to print to the rhythm of music.

How long have you been printmaking?

For 35 years – since first getting hooked on printmaking at art school in 1984.

What inspires you?

My ongoing theme since schooldays has been ‘metamorphosis’ in one form or another. I took a Latin A level and was very into Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ which certainly influenced my art and there are any number of great artists who have made images of Ovid’s subject matter – all of which I was very keen on when I was at school and university. My subject matter then tended to be portraits of my friends that were subjected to metamorphoses in various ways. After a postgrad. course, following my degree, I got a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking which enabled me to spend a year living and working at the British School in Rome. There I got very interested in Italian architecture – partly because of the theatricality of it and the way Italian light creates fantastic dramatic shadows and much stronger tonal contrasts than English light. That Italian light is great for engraving! I also was fascinated by the layers and centuries of history in Italian architecture – from Etruscan tombs through to Roman remains, mediaeval colonnades, High Renaissance and Baroque church spires and modern apartments – all co-existing in the same contemporary time frame. It was a kind of compressed metamorphosis all in plain sight. I also got very interested in the aspirational qualities of tower-building in ancient Rome and medieval Italy – and that sparked an ongoing interest in the idea of the Tower of Babel from the bible and what that story expresses about human aspirations and desires. These all remain ongoing concerns in my work.

Many other artists’ works have influenced me. The key ones are (early Renaissance Flemish/Dutch): Bosch, Bruegel, Van Eyck, Memling. Early Renaissance Italian: Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico. High Renaissance: Da Vinci, Bellini. French Impressionist: Monet (in particular the changing images of Rouen cathedral in different lights). Italian 18th century architect/engraver: Piranesi. 20th century wood engravers: Edward Wadsworth, Gertrude Hermes, Paul Nash and many others.

There is also much autobiographical content in my work in the sense that the scale and intensity of my work has been fashioned to a large extent by my walking disability and the time spent in hospital. The idea of metamorphosis I suspect stems from a teenage psychological desire to be able to change myself and to cure my physical abnormality. That wasn’t possible of course, and is not something I’ve ever lost sleep over – it’s not something that I worry about, but I guess that, deep down, the metamorphosing ideas do stem from a sense of wanting to take flight from my own physical limitations and to explore other worlds of the imagination. The flights of fantasy, even if not directed at self-portraiture in metamorphosing terms, are something I’ve always felt very moved by so, I guess, in that sense, it is autobiographical. The places I make engravings of are always places I’ve been to as I have to feel I have some sense of intimacy with a place before I feel comfortable about depicting it. In earlier works, the portraits I made were always of friends or family.

What is your favourite printmaking product?

I love the boxwood blocks that I engrave – especially the round ones that still have the bark of the tree attached. It’s a wonderful feeling to work on this organic product. I also love my engraving tools – most of which I have bought second-hand. It’s very special to work with equipment that has been loved and cared for by other practitioners over many decades. The same applies to my printing press to which I’m also strongly attached!

What have you made that you are most proud of?

I have different favourite pieces at different times because you always hope that, with every piece you make, you want the one you’re working on to be the best thing you have ever made! So it’s hard to pin it down to just one work. But I did make a series of five Babel Tower printed collages in 2005 which were bought by the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester for its permanent collection. I am still very proud of those as they were particularly ambitious in scale and concept and took a circular format which has influenced the more recent work I’m making now.

Where can we see your work? Where do you sell?

I show with Long & Ryle Gallery, Pimlico, London which is showing my work at the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 25-28 April 2019. I am also a selector for this year’s RA Summer Exhibition in which I’ll also be showing 6 of my own latest works (June – August 2019) You can also see virtually everything I’ve ever made on my new website:

What will we be seeing from you next?

In 2016, the RA published a facsimile sketchbook entitled ‘Anne Desmet – An Italian Journey’. This comprised over 120 pages of my Italian drawings from 4 sketchbooks spanning some 25 years reproduced at actual size (a little smaller than A6). This autumn the RA will publish a follow-up book of my drawings of the Greek Islands from 1984, 1985 and 2018. The book will be called ‘Anne Desmet – A Greek Journey’ and will be launched with a small exhibition of Greece-inspired collages later this year. I am also curating a significant exhibition for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Entitled ’Scene through Wood – A Century of Wood Engraving’, it will show some 100 fine engravings from c.1920 – 2020 from the Ashmolean and private collections. It will open on 27th March 2020 until July 2020 and will include a selection of my own works as well as engravings by many other artists.

As I mentioned earlier, I will also be sitting on the selection panel for the inaugural Westmorland Landscape Prize, and am hoping to see a good range of really ambitious prints entered. Make sure to get your entry in by 17 June! Enter now:

Do you have any advice for other printmakers and creatives?

When I was at art school, printmaking – and especially wood engraving – was considered highly unfashionable and not an area of art that any self-respecting artist should have any interest in. I had great support there from the printmaking tutors but regular criticism from tutors who weren’t involved with printmaking and who spent much time criticising my practice and encouraging me to make large-scale paintings instead. In the end, whilst weighing up whether or not any criticism you may get is justified, I do think you ultimately need to work at whatever feels truest to you, whether or not it’s ‘fashionable’ or ’trendy’. It’s impossible, really, to predict what will be the next ‘in’ thing in the art world so there’s not much point in trying to second-guess it. All you can do is make work that comes from your heart and that you believe in. Hopefully, in either the short or the long run, that integrity in what you make will be appreciated by a discerning audience so, stick with it and don’t be downhearted if the sphere of art you have chosen to work in attracts criticism or even disinterest – working as an artist is a long game and you have to enjoy making what you make and believe in it or your life and career may not feel fulfilling. I feel very lucky to have had a long (ongoing) career doing something I truly love and I am delighted that, over the years, my work has built up a strong audience.

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