From the Autumn 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
At first glance Anne Desmet RA’s house is a perfect example of three-storey, end-of-terrace Victorian ordinariness. However, the sharp-eyed might notice that the paintwork, a shade of peacock blue-green, does not qualify as standard for this quiet east London street.
Push open the gate and the front path is a seething throng of blue sea, leaping fish and swerving lizards, picked out in a blaze of coloured mosaic with glints of glass. How wrong first impressions can be.
Inside the half-glazed front door is a world in miniature. Framed on most of the available wall space are exquisitely detailed engravings of great buildings, real or imagined: the Tower of Babel, Pompeii, the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, Manchester’s Victoria Baths. The images are variously painted in closely observed detail; selected elements of Desmet’s prints on paper are collaged on shards of slate, small pieces of ceramic tile, half a razor-clam shell, a clock maker’s convex glass – or whatever appeals to her vivid and practical imagination.
Only the third wood engraver to be elected in the RA’s history, Desmet was elected to the RA as an Engraver/Printmaker last year. She uses an upstairs room as her studio, with domestic life happening all around. Two sash windows, framed in red paint and adorned with red curtains look out on the road. Desmet and her husband, artist and framer Roy Willingham, bought the house nearly two decades ago. He and their children – Thomas, 14 and Marion, 11 – have gone swimming for the afternoon, leaving her to work: part of the juggling of duties which has become second nature to them.
Halfway up the stairs, in a new extension to the house, a room with a reinforced floor bears the weight of her craft as well as her art: a cast-iron Albion relief-printing press dating from 1859. “We were beginning to worry that at any moment the floorboards and ceiling would give way so we built this room as a precaution,” she laughs, making it clear that this was, potentially, no joking matter. “It’s useful that mostly I work on a small scale. I don’t need a huge space. Working at home like this suits me. It’s the perfect way of combining my art with the demands of family life.” She is also Editor of the journal Printmaking Today.
Studio time may be precious but Desmet exudes a serene determination reflected in the industrious productivity all around. The tools of her chosen speciality are evident: spitsticker for making fine and curved lines and lozenge graver to create straight lines and cross hatching. Wood engraving blocks are piled on top of a large plan chest. Her shelves are full of files and old cassette tapes and CDs with music ranging from Mozart to Bob Dylan to Amy Winehouse.
Desmet’s Belgian father was a successful oyster farmer, who fled occupied Ostend in the Second World War, becoming a hotelier in Toxteth, Liverpool. Desmet was born there in 1964, too young to realise she was living in the most celebrated city of the Sixties. “Yes I love the Beatles. I’d have to, wouldn’t I! But mostly we listened to classical music – my mum was keen on Kathleen Ferrier – or Herman’s Hermits.”
Her mother was a paediatric surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. “We lived in the hotel with the guests and would chat with them,” she recalls. “The characters of the elderly guests were all a bit Fawlty Towers. There was a retired colonel and a woman who wore fox fur and everyone stayed long term, with their own belongings in their rooms. It was all quite unusual.”
Art was all but absent from Desmet’s childhood. “My father doodled for me when I was a child. My mum’s uncle was a sign-writer for the Liverpool trams, and a distant Belgian cousin designed pre-Raphaelite style stained glass. I don’t know his name… Most of the family were engineers or medics.”
Then they moved up the coast towards Formby and life took several dark twists. Her father died when she was nine, leaving her busy mother to bring up the children. Desmet herself had many long stints in hospital. A dislocated hip necessitated several surgical operations and left her with walking difficulties, about which she makes no fuss, now managing with a couple of cushions on a rickety chair for comfortable seating in her studio. “I’m sad that I didn’t see much of my dad as I had been in hospital for most of the year before he died.” At that period, confined to bed, she started drawing obsessively, using everything within visual reach as her subject matter, from her own feet to the light bulbs.
“My mother encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to do with my life, which was far removed from her own scientific interests – though more than once viewers of my work have asked me whether there is a surgeon in my family because my engravings have a surgical precision.”
“In my teens, she bought me endless art books (which I still have) about Dürer, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Van Gogh etc. She also took me to see the early Renaissance and Victorian collections at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. She never underestimated my potential, despite my physical disability, and it was she who instilled in me a sense that I could achieve whatever I wanted if I just put my mind to it.”
Desmet missed a lot of school through being in hospital. “But I felt I had a lot to prove. I needed to show that just because I walked with a limp it didn’t mean I was stupid. The school was quite surprised when I got into Oxford.”
She studied at the Ruskin School of Art. “At first I felt quite an outsider but by my third year I had made good friends and had a great tutor, Jean Lodge. It was she who suggested I could enrich and deepen my drawings through printmaking” – the process, as she describes it, of cutting light out of darkness in a wood block’s surface.
A Rome Scholarship in printmaking, which she won in 1989, was a turning point. “At school I had studied Latin and was very taken with Ovid and the idea of metamorphosis. In Rome I made my first collages, a new step towards my own artistic freedom and crucial for what I have done since.” Rome also awakened her passion for architecture, and the complex, many-faceted relationship between past and present. “I loved the fact that you could be walking on a Roman pavement that might be above an Etruscan tomb and that you could look up and see a medieval façade or a Baroque sculpture in the middle of a busy modern city.”
She is exploring these abiding fascinations in two forthcoming shows: first, the site-specific exhibition Sense of Soane, shared with Emily Allchurch and Catrin Huber, at Pitzhanger Manor, west London, the country house of Sir John Soane from 1800 to 1810. Desmet has made work related to buildings he might have encountered on his Grand Tours. She also has a solo show in Islington in November featuring Italian-inspired works as well as those concerned with the changing face of London.
Orderly but not tidy, Desmet’s studio reflects her love of found objects. On the floor a box of weathered roofing slates provides material for collage. “I find things in the garden, on the beach, in skips… And those,” she says, pointing to a box full of strange grey shapes, “are oyster shells”. All eaten by her? “No, I’m a vegetarian! I found them on the beach at Mumbles, in Wales. My father would have been proud.”