An insight into Royal Academcian print maker Anne Desmet's new print 'Wood Engravers Tower' alongside other prints.
Click the link to view Anne's Collector's Choice at the LOPF Online
Key to the elements in Anne Desmet’s engraving: Wood Engraver’s Tower
The block is boxwood: 30.3 x 25.2 cm. Edition size: 45. Edition printed: 20 & 21 February 2020
The block was given to the Society of Wood Engravers by the engraver George Tute. He bought it some 30 years ago from T N Lawrence & Sons Ltd and donated it to the SWE which gave it to me by way of thanks for my curating the Ashmolean exhibition: Scene through Wood, a Century of Modern Wood Engraving. Then Peter Lawrence, former SWE Chair, informed me that Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections Library intended to host a centenary exhibition of items from the SWE archive and would be delighted if I would engrave this block with an image that could be used both as the poster for the exhibition and an ongoing emblem for the SWE Archive in the Special Collections Library. Thus I decided to create a variation on the theme of the Babel Tower – an ongoing subject in my work – and create Wood Engraver’s Tower composed of items in my home-studio which seemed to have relevance to a library, to the history of engraving, and autobiographic relevance.
1 The image is designed to be read from the bottom-left-hand corner upwards, round, and back again. It begins with a sunflower seedcase to acknowledge George Tute and his spectacular sunflower engravings.
2 These paper-cut-out trees are derived from Eric Gill’s SWE logo of 1921 in the MMU collection. In creating the model for this engraving, I scanned the logo and printed it out at different sizes. I then cut out the trees to create a tiny copse.
3 The steamroller suggests the creation of a huge building. My husband and I have amassed a small collection of such toy vehicles over the years. This one has featured in other engravings of mine.
4 This tiny concertina-folded artist’s book is by Jean Lodge RE, my printmaking tutor when I was a student at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University (1983-86). This is the book’s unprinted side. Its inclusion refers to Jean and to my training as an artist.
5 This fragment of tracery is from a window at St Luke’s Church in Liverpool city centre, which was bombed during WWII and now remains, roofless, as a war memorial. When I was a teenager I rescued this piece of carved wood from the edge of a bonfire in the church grounds. It is included to symbolise my Liverpool upbringing and the wider subject of architecture, a predominant theme of my work for some 30 years. It also hints at the many historic churches featured in wood engravings over the centuries.
6 The tiny glass bottle (a reproduction of an ancient Roman one) alludes to the pull of the Grand Tour to artists over many generations. It hints at my Rome Scholarship in Printmaking, which saw me living and working in Rome in 1989-90. The bottle was a gift I made to my husband many years ago.
7 This miniature ’slinky’ toy may suggest coiled wire or an oil drum on a building site. It is a stocking-filler I gave to my husband (Roy Willingham - also an engraver) at Christmas a few years ago.
8 The ornamental glass cube is intended to recall the motifs and mathematical inspirations of Escher. It also connects to my mother as it belonged to her (she died, aged 91, in March 2020, just a few weeks after the engraving was finished). She was the first and always the greatest supporter of my work.
9 The round glass bottle also recalls Escher’s engravings of reflective surfaces and, more generally, to the joy of engraving objects of high contrast and wide tonal range.
10 The trees allude to my years of drawing in Italy with images of olive trees, pines and cypresses. They are designed to suggest a vast landscape or dramatic stage-set. The tree behind the glass cube reflects the form of the paper-cut trees in the foreground to create a link between the two groups.
11 This open book suggests a library as a repository of books.
12 This book too serves as a library reference. This particular book is of Vermeer’s paintings. It relates to my family history: my father was Flemish-Belgian. In the family home of my father’s cousins in Gistel, Belgium, I spent many happy holidays until the house was sold about ten years ago. That house had black and white tiled floors, old dark-wood furniture and a quality of light and age redolent of Dutch paintings of the Golden Age by Vermeer and De Hooch.
13 This concertina-folded book again aims to suggest a library and one of wood engraving's many functions as book illustration, but also its use in the making of artists’ books and novels without words. It also relates to the four artist’s books of wood engravings I made, early in my career, which took a concertina format. The entire ‘foundations’ of the tower are made of books in order to suggest the key building blocks of any library.
14 Several planed but as-yet-unengraved boxwood and holly wood blocks are stacked up as elements of the tower. They represent the ‘stuff’ of wood engraving. I hope they may also recall Tree Stump, one of many memorable engravings by Monica Poole. I have also attempted to replicate, on a tiny scale, some of the exuberant pattern-qualities in wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes, such as her One Person.
15 The hatpin with a bauble belonged to my mother. Here it suggests, perhaps, a streetlamp but also put me in mind of an engraving of an angler fish with its glowing ‘lamp’ by Jim Westergard.
16 The sea urchin shell recalls Urchin by Paul Kershaw, an engraving I’m lucky enough to own. My own seashell was a souvenir of a wonderful family holiday to Cyprus in 1970, when I was six, on the scuba-diving boat of a Greek Cypriot, Andreas Cariolou. Not long before we met him (through my Uncle Francis who was a keen scuba-diver and record-breaking glider pilot) Cariolou had discovered, in the bay of Kyrenia, the astonishingly well-preserved wreck of a 4th century BC Greek merchant ship, which can now be seen in the Ancient Shipwreck Museum in Kyrenia Castle.
17 The tape measure suggests the tiny scale of many engravings and gives a key to the real size of the elements in my tower. It is from my mother’s sewing box. She was an able seamstress and a distinguished neonatal surgeon in Liverpool. She prided herself on doing the most meticulous work before micro-surgery had been invented; this included the neatest sewing up of a patient after surgery. I am often asked whether there is a surgeon in my family because I have a steady hand for engraving. The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’!
18 The plastic bull is from a Spanish wine bottle. It is included to suggest Picasso and the whole modern art movement and also the famous Chillingham Bull engraving of Thomas Bewick.
19 The wooden chess piece (knight) relates to a comment by Peter Lawrence about how wood engraving is like chess because each ‘move’ has to be carefully planned.
20 The miniature figures suggest that this is a vast tower, not an 18-inch model on my studio table. This is what wood engraving does best: suggests a sweeping panorama in a span of just a few inches.
22 The Corinthian column is an engraving of an engraving. In the model, it is a detail cut out from a larger engraving of mine depicting the so-called Temple of Vesta in Rome. Like the tiny glass bottle, it aims to suggest the allure of the Grand Tour. It also hints at the peerless etchings of Rome by Piranesi.
23 The glass egg-timer recalls a recurrent motif in Madman’s Drum (1930), a novel in wood engravings by American artist Lynd Ward, a first edition of which was the first art purchase I ever made, in 1984. I taught myself to engrave, to a large extent, by studying Ward’s engravings in it. The egg-timer also suggests time passing and, by extension, the considerable time it often takes to engrave a block.
24 A row of clothes pegs suggests hanging up prints to dry in a studio, but also that this is a tower created by a woman as the pegs have an obvious domestic allusion.
25 A paper fragment printed with a Paisley pattern suggests the earliest use of end-grain blocks for the printing of repeat-pattern fabrics in India, particularly in Kashmir (where I spent a memorable six weeks in 1986).
26 The plastic ladder (from a game of Jack Straws) reinforces the idea of a building with many levels that could be explored.
27 This tiny cloth-bound slipcase contains three miniature books of Russian wood engravings. I was given it by Anatoly Kalashnikov, the great Russian wood engraver, when I had an exhibition at the Ex Libris Museum in Moscow (1995).
28 This Babel Tower is derived from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. It aims to reinforce the Babel qualities of the foreground tower and to give the composition a sense of spanning a vast landscape rather than a constricted interior. The city setting of Bruegel’s Babel is Antwerp, in Belgium, and thus also relates to my family’s origins.
29 This tiny stretched canvas, viewed from the back, is included to suggest that this composition is not about painting but an entirely different art form: wood engraving. The unseen painting on the canvas’s front is of a ‘moomin’, painted some ten years ago by my daughter. Based on the Finnish storybook characters by Tove Jansson, which I have long found inspiring, the moomin isn’t evident in the engraving but I like to know it’s there!
30 The Lego brick denotes generalised tower building but indicates that this is a small-scale model. It also refers to my son, once a passionate maker of Lego models, and my daughter who won her place at Cambridge having won a university competition to create a new language via the medium of Lego.
31 These bookmark-shaped postcards show images of stacked books. They are details of photographs of a Babel tower constructed from hardbacks by Tina Hill. The tower was her MA piece at the University of the West of England (2009). It was featured in Printmaking Today magazine for which I was editor (1998-2013). I included these cards of it because they relate both to the idea of a Babel tower and to a library.
32 I have created, on this triangular-shaped engraving block, a suggestion of an engraved brick wall to reinforce the idea of the still-life ‘tower’ as a potential building. The brick-wall depicted refers to one of John Farleigh’s engravings in his illustrations to George Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of The Black Girl in Her Search for God (1932).
33 These three boxwood roundels (without bark) were a gift from a student in one of many engraving classes I have taught at UK print workshops over many years. They are thus intended to suggest the continuation of wood engraving with new practitioners.
34 The tiny people are intended to give an illusionistic sense that the tower is of epic scale and that it could be climbed and explored. They are plastic figures intended for use in architects’ models.
35 The geometric construction of this potted cactus, forming the finial at the tower’s apex, suggests the motifs and mathematical inspirations of Escher. The model is a cactus-shaped candle, a Christmas gift from my son to my husband.
36 The engraved sky was an afterthought. I had planned to keep the background black so that the foreground tower would loom out of darkness. However, I never have a completely fixed idea of how my engravings should look from the outset. I prefer to let the block ‘talk’ to me as I engrave. I came to feel that the sky needed an extra dimension and that the top corner of the block needed to be light. I began engraving random loops intending to create playful, stylised cloud forms. The cutting began to suggest the light and smoke of a fire or industrial chimney somewhere out of sight, which I liked. I intended these cloud/smoke forms to bring animation to offset the foreground’s stillness. Their tonal character aims to recall pre-20th century trade engravings for publications such as The Illustrated London News while, at the same time, being fully informed by the exuberantly fresh white-line engraving style of the 1920s.
37 The fabric ‘dolly’, tied with picture cord, is a recreation of an old-fashioned inking dabber for printing blocks prior to the invention of rollers. I made this some years ago to print a woodblock I was commissioned to create for the V&A. That was a facsimile of a Jack from a medieval set of playing cards. A video in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries shows me printing that block using this dabber. By extension, it is here intended to suggest historic relief printing practices.
38 The inside mechanism of a small clock suggests, like the egg timer, the passage of time but also the levels of intricacy – like the cogs and wheels of a clock – of wood engraving. This clock mechanism also relates to my wood engraved collages, for some of which I use convex clock glass to create three-dimensional illusionistic effects. I have collaged onto the faces of some actual Napoleon-hat clocks and this is the mechanism from one of those.
39 Ladders and staircases relate to my earlier engravings and collages in which they often feature.
40 The wood engraving tool refers to the technique of engraving. This is a multiple tool – with several teeth for cutting parallel sets of marks. It is a tool closely associated with the history of trade engraving but has been used to great effect by artists since – notably Iain Macnab and Clare Leighton. It is not a tool I use often though there are multiple-tool marks in this particular engraving.
41 This tiny lidded glass bottle contains granules of a special wax which can be used to fill small dents and depressions in an engraving block to render the surface smooth again.
42 This is a cardboard spool of silver-grey silk ribbon. When I was elected a Royal Academician in 2011, I was given my engraved, silver, RA medal hung on a length of ribbed silk. From time to time, I hang it, instead, on a length of thinner ribbon from this spool because its original ribbon is designed to be worn over a man’s shirt collar rather than on a bare neck. This spool therefore refers to my election as a Royal Academician. I am only the third wood engraver ever elected to the RA.
43 This fragment of blue pottery was found by my husband in our London garden. It refers to where I live, to my use of such fragments in collages, and also its flower motif reflects a perennially popular engraving subject.
44 This wooden cube is a collaged artwork by artist and cartoonist Ken Mahood. The collage incorporates fragments of letters and postcards and found paper ephemera and, as such, relates to the fact that the Special Collections Library is a repository for the SWE Archive containing letters and other hand-written ephemera.
45 This concertina-folded book is of Giotto’s paintings in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. I bought it when I first visited Assisi in 1989-90. Giotto has long been one of many early Italian Renaissance influences on my work and on Western artists generally. Within the composition, the content of this and other books is intentionally not specified. The choice of books was important to me but compositionally they aim to suggest generic library books and the idea of a Babel (or babble) Tower built of words.
46 This book is a version of Tom Phillips RA’s A Humument.
47 These are small boxwood roundels ready for engraving.
48 The compass and pencil refer to the careful measured drawing which wood engraving often involves.
49 This pair of tiny crutches (from a game of Jack Straws) refers to my life experience of becoming interested in drawing via many childhood years spent in hospital having repeated operations on an abnormal hip. There are incidences of other engravers suffering from polio (Monica Poole and Peter Reddick), terrible war injuries (Blair Hughes-Stanton and Iain Macnab) and lengthy periods of illness (Paul Nash and Tirzah Garwood), the direction and nature of whose work may have been formed and changed by those difficulties. The crutches are intended to suggest those many artists whose work has been affected and informed by such challenges.
50 This is a tiny picture from my daughter’s old dolls’ house. It recalls 19th century butterfly collections (a suitable pastime for a woman in an era when wood engraving was not, generally, a career open to them). It also recalls a natural-world subject popular with engravers and may bring to mind Damien Hirst’s butterflies and, by extension, the YBA art movement – artists of which are of my generation but whose work and motivations sometimes feel worlds away from the art that moves me, hence the butterflies are shown in semi-obscurity.
51 The metal padlock and coiled ribbon recall the fabulous lock engravings of Edwina Ellis.
52 The digger truck suggests the construction of a huge building. It is a small plastic toy which has featured in several of my engravings to date.
53 The thimble might be read as a bucket, which you’d always find on a building site. It is shown at actual size which also indicates the real scale of the objects in the still-life tower.
54 The paper staircase with tiny figures aims to recall scenes on a vast unsupported stairway between heaven and earth in my favourite film – Powell and Pressburger’s: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), starring David Niven, in which the action moves from colour (earth) to black and white (heaven). The ‘heaven’ scenes convey panoramic vistas within the limited rectangular screen, just as engraving can do on a tiny block.
55 The foreground is laid out like a stage with planking receding towards a distant vanishing point centred on the background Babel Tower. This composition recalls a SWE founder: Edward Gordon Craig, whose engravings were mainly set designs. He had a facility for suggesting epic vistas within a few inches of woodblock. The use of receding linear perspective also aims to recall the left panel of Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c.1435-60) in London’s National Gallery, a work I admire, and the woodcuts of contemporary Japanese artist Nana Shiomi which also employ a stage-set composition.