RA Schools Show 2023: Anna Higgins

Published 5 June 2023

In St James’s Piccadilly, Anna Higgins finds solace within the walls of a Wren church, where William Blake – a favourite artist and a former student at the Schools – was baptised.

  • From the Summer 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    On a weekday lunchtime, the forecourt of St James’s Piccadilly is thronging with people buying wraps and salads from an assembled group of food stalls. Cross the threshold of Christopher Wren’s church, though, and the hum of chatter and traffic fades. “I’m not religious, but I’ve always loved being in churches,” Anna Higgins tells me, when we meet at its entrance. “One thing the RA Schools really lets you do is spend time thinking. Sitting idly in a church is a great place for the imagination to roam.”

    Higgins began using the Mayfair church to escape the pressure cooker of her studio. “The Schools is a complex environment, and there’s an intensity to the place you can’t get away from, so I think maintaining an emotional or spiritual life outside it is vital.” She would locate an empty pew, and wait for her thoughts to loosen. “I’m not praying, but I don’t think you need religious orthodoxy to have a sense of divine presence either.”

  • Anna Higgins, To be filled with light

    Anna Higgins, To be filled with light, 2022.

    Toned black and white film printed on Somerset velvet paper. 180 × 130 cm.

  • Higgins’s bond with the church deepened after she discovered that William Blake, a favourite artist and a former student at the Schools, was baptised here. “I’m fascinated by him as a figure who maintained independent thought and spiritual life at an oppressive moment in British history,” she says. The Australian-born artist began reading Blake’s diatribes against RA President Joshua Reynolds and the academic environment he fostered at the Schools, amused both by what had changed since, and what hadn’t. “Some of the things Blake is so angry about students still battle with today – this idea that there is institutionally sanctioned art, art that is governed by the tastes of the upper classes. That hasn’t gone away. It might not demand that we paint portraits, but it’s still there to a degree.”

    Higgins credits the RA for doing what it can to shield students from these pressures, but, inevitably, London’s art world encroaches. It is, she says, a far cry from the scene she left behind in Melbourne, where artists, particularly students, attract less money and less attention. “It is less financially focused, which means there’s a more experimental underground scene. Here, there are so many more connections between the establishment and artists.”

  • Anna Higgins in St James’s Piccadilly

    Anna Higgins in St James’s Piccadilly

    Photo: Kemka Ajoku/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • Wren’s church, its doors open to all, represents an enclave from this commercialism. Plus, it grants Higgins access to something ineffable and atmospheric, which she channels into her art. “I’m interested in the idea of the divinity of light, and how it can be achieved within photography,” she explains of her abstracted images, which are captured using a film camera, then printed and reworked by hand. For her final-year show at the RA, she plans to go big, drawing with pastel and screenprinting over large-scale photographs to create a panoramic feel. “My work attempts to evoke immaterial things, like memory and emotion. I want people to have a perceptual or sensual experience, not an intellectual one.” Looking around Wren’s church, it is easy to see why she feels at home.

    Imogen Greenhalgh is Deputy Editor of RA Magazine.

    RA Schools Show 2023 is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 8 June - 25 June 2023.

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