“I identify with them in some way, perhaps I’m a bit damaged. I find perfection uncomfortable. I love using silver because it tarnishes and it has got its own inbuilt oxidization – we’re always battling against that oxidization and somehow it seems like a metaphor for humankind: our own surface is continually responding to the environment. Our hands and our faces get more rugged and lined with time. I’ve always used found objects, things that had a history – they might have been a wedding present that someone’s got rid of – they were precious once but they no longer are. I’ve used wedding rings, identity bracelets, personal things. For my sculpture Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89) I bought about a thousand objects and then I gave them one history by uniting them in one levelling, and then I resurrected them into 30 disc-shaped groups, giving them back their volume.”
It is no surprise that her favourite restaurant is St John, known for visceral “nose to tail eating”. But it’s not within walking distance of the RA, so I suggest Quo Vadis – I thought its pedigree might appeal to her love of historic coincidence (it’s in the building where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital). This Soho institution has recently been reinvented under Jeremy Lee, who has turned it into a modern British brasserie, unfussy, open, airy, reasonably priced, complete with an in-house bakery turning out earthy, whole grain breads. It has a Soho buzz and a kitchen that revives historic recipes, alongside seasonal European specialities. Cornelia agreed to it and met me on the sunny terrace.
We sample kickshaws – small bites such as hot puff-pastry parcels filled with chicken in a creamy broth – and baked salsify (a root vegetable) in a crispy parmesan crust, as well as her favourite, skewered rabbit livers and sage. Then she orders crab soup and rouille (a flavourful but light broth), followed by roast duck and bitter leaves with braised onions and garlic. I choose my seasonal favourite puntarella (wild chicory) salad with anchovy, followed by brill in a wild garlic and mussel broth, a kind of British bouillabaisse. She agrees to one glass of white wine, so I order Pouilly-Fuissé, a distinctive white Burgundy known for its flinty mineral taste that I think will appeal to her artistic sensibility as well as her palate.
Raised in a modest home in rural Cheshire (“we were very poor,” she says), Parker attended grammar school and then, to the dismay of her parents and her teachers, chose to go to art school at a time when only a handful of artists made a living from their work. “When I was a student in the 1970s, being an artist was very idealistic. I wasn’t doing it for the money, I made art because it helped me to understand the world. It allowed me to travel and be expressive.” She says she was lucky to have six years of free art school education, followed by cheap accommodation in ACME subsidised artists’ housing in east London. “I was able to make art for nothing,” she says, noting her concern for art students today.
In 1997 Parker was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. “It was a brilliant year. I was 40, I met my husband, the artist Jeff McMillan,” and at last she began to earn a living from her art. The birth of their daughter Lily in 2001 was a creative spur, rather than the proverbial pram in the hall: “Being close to art is a natural thing in children. It’s only as you grow up that you get educated out of it,” she says, and reliving childhood through her daughter’s eyes has inspired her. “I was lucky because my career was already established when I became a mother, I’m solvent and I have a supportive husband. Now I’m doing everything the way it should have been done when I was a kid but wasn’t.”
Parker was elected an RA in 2010 and over dessert – a bittersweet blood orange and campari sorbet – I ask her what it’s like to be an Academician. “I like being part of a community, meeting artists of different generations, as well as architects,” she says, but she feels uncomfortable with committees and administration. “As an artist, I’m more of an iconoclast,” she says, confessing that she’d like to overhaul the Summer Exhibition: “I’d like the Summer Show to be more representative of what is going on in art now, and to include important artists in the community who aren’t yet on our walls. There’s room for the Academy to be a much more exciting place. I think of it almost as a kind of ‘found object’ and am looking forward to exploring its possibilities.” Then she flashes a wicked smile: “I’ve got this lovely silver Academician’s medal, but I don’t want to tell you what I’d like to do with it.”