Last week, I met up with the charming author and illustrator, Alice Stevenson, at Tate Britain. I’d recently read and greatly enjoyed Alice’s latest project, Ways to Walk in London, an illustrated personal guide to unusual and beautiful London walks, and I was delighted when Alice agreed to meet me for an informal interview. We strolled through the Barbara Hepworth exhibition together before having a drink in the Members Room, where Alice very kindly answered some questions I had for her on her work and inspiration.
It was such a treat to go to an art gallery exhibition with someone as knowledgable as Alice, who told me she had formerly studied Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in school and clearly has a spectacular knowledge of and interest in this era of art (as do I – interest, not knowledge though!). We recalled that we’d first connected via instagram over a hashtag related to the marvellous book Romantic Moderns, which we were both greatly enjoying reading. I know, like with anything, there are pros and cons to the world of social media, but the possibility it allows for connecting with like-minded individuals is most certainly a pro!
If you haven’t been to the Hepworth exhibition yet, then I do encourage you to go – I loved it! The mesmerisingly beautiful sculptures were perfectly set against backdrops of pale blue and grey toned walls, which made the experience of walking through the exhibition rooms wonderfully soothing to the soul. After admiring the graceful sculptures (the wooden ones were a particular favourite), we picked up some postcards in the gift shop and had the excitement of seeing a pile of Alice’s book, Ways to Walk in London, for sale!
But on to the interview. Alice shared some fascinating insights into her writing and drawing processes, as well as book recommendations that had me scrolling through Amazon later that evening and a touching account of the women who have inspired her the most. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her words (which I’ve paraphrased slightly below) as much as I did!
MN: When did you first realise you wanted to be an illustrator?
AS: I wanted to be an artist from when I was a child, because I enjoyed drawing more than I did anything else. I won an art competition when I was 3, and it was something I always loved to do. My best friend and I used to write and direct plays. We would draw and create characters together and make up stories for them. What’s amazing is she’s now a playwright, and I’m an illustrator, and we’re still best friends! I went into illustration at art college as I decided I wanted to do something where I could do the most drawing and image-making.
MN: What in particular feeds your inspiration for your art?
AS: I’m really interested in pattern, detail, form and composition. An emotion or atmosphere or sense of place really inspires me too, particularly in the form of colour. I find nature and architecture inspiring: anything that you can find a pattern in.
MN: Which artists do you admire the most?
AS: That’s really hard! There are so many I admire for different reasons. Having just been to the Barbara Hepworth exhibition too; of course I love her. She captured something in her sculptures that is just so perfect. I love Eric Ravilious, particularly his watercolours and the limited colour palette he used. My favourite artist of all time is probably Paul Klee.
MN: Have you always loved writing as well as drawing?
AS: I’ve always made up stories in my head, and I’ve always had a book on the go in my mind, but I never thought I would be a writer until I started this book [Ways to Walk in London]. I read constantly – reading is the art form I love the most – but I never thought I could be a writer. Then I was approached to write Ways to Walk in London, and I had a go, and it turned out that creative writing was something I could do.
MN: Was it difficult to jump into the process of writing more creatively?
AS: It was really hard, and I still find it incredibly difficult. Writing has made me appreciate drawing so much more. For me, the process of writing is quite painful, but then it feels amazing when it’s done. With drawing and making art work, I love the process, but I rarely think about what I’ve produced when it’s finished. When I’m drawing and making pictures, I just love it. I feel like I’m in the perfect state of calm, where creativity can flow and it feels really nice. Writing, though, reminds me of the few times I’ve tried to take up running – it’s the mental equivalent! At the same time, I do still love it and have realised that I do want to write more, and I’m potentially interested in writing fiction too.
MN: Your illustrations are a huge part of what makes Ways to Walk in London so special. I love the added layer of detail and emotion the accompanying pictures give to your words in the book. Do you find that you often get images in your head that go along with your words when you’re writing?
AS: It’s lovely that you say that! I’ve always enjoyed making abstract or semi-abstract artwork, but in the past it has sometimes felt purposeless to me. Finding a way to write that incorporates art gives that sense of purpose. I love to explore the relationship between text and image. When I’m making the artwork for my book, I’m drawing from memories and my interpretation of an experience, and I use the incidental patterns and small things I noticed on my walks in the illustrations. I’ve always loved walking and travelling and having a sense of place, and I’ve always loved patterns and the decorative arts, and I try to find a way to combine them through my own work. I find walking in particular makes very good memories. When I look back on my walk, all the varied things I saw during it become one image or a series of images in my head.
Also, I have a very visual mind. When I read – I think it’s why I love reading so much – I often see in colour. I have synesthesia so I’ve always seen letters of the alphabet and numbers as colours, and I visualise every word. I think this is quite common to a lot of artists though.
MN: Have you always loved walking? What first inspired you to start?
AS: It’s something I’ve always done, though initially not so consciously. As a teenager, I grew up in London and lived a 1/2 hour walk from the nearest tube station. I was really annoyed about it at the time, but actually I think it was a blessing in disguise. London lends itself to walking – it’s easier to walk from place to place than deal with the stress of public transport. I don’t mind buses or overground trains, but I really hate the tube, so I always try to walk instead. So it was out of necessity to start, but then I realised how much I love walking and how inspiring I find it. It’s the best way to experience a place. I’ve always been really interested too in the atmospheres that different places have. London is so varied and different areas have such individual atmospheres – it’s like walking through different worlds. Walking is such a good speed for noticing things as well – you can notice so much more about the detail around you than you could driving in a car.
MN: Do you have a favourite walk or area in which to walk?
AS: Right now, because I’ve just moved to South East London, I’m loving walking around my area and having that feeling of exploration. Telegraph Hill is an amazing place to walk. You get incredible views. I love Nunhead, East Dulwich and Brockley too. I also have a soft spot for walking around Richmond and Teddington and along that part of the river. They’re real comfort walks for me.
MN: You said you love to read. What have you particularly enjoyed reading lately?
AS: I’ve just been rereading Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. She’s one of my favourite artists, and she’s such an accomplished writer too. Real comfort reads for me are the Cazalet Chronicles which are such favourites. They’re so well written, but at the same time are a wonderfully easy read [I think I’d love these!]. I also recently read Peerless Flats by Esther Freud. I love her books (she wrote Hideous Kinky), and this one was wonderful too. I also read H is for Hawk and I absolutely loved it [this is one of the books I recently read and loved too!]. Helen MacDonald’s writing style is very distinctive, and it’s such a strange but extraordinary book.
MN: I love celebrating inspirational women through my blog. Who are the women who have been the most inspirational in your life?
My godmother was a wonderful inspiration to me. She was the most amazingly strong woman who lived her life exactly as she wanted to and didn’t care about what other people thought of her. She was really funny and was a good, loyal friend to people. She was passionate about what she loved – she was really in to sport and ballet – and that gave her so much pleasure. She showed me that it was ok to be a woman and to feel strongly and to live the life you want to live.
My Mum is also an inspiration to me. She’s very strong in a different way, and she’s such a good and kind person and has devoted her life to other people in a way I really admire. She too is so engaged and interested in the world, which has been a wonderful example to me.
MN: I also like to write about my philosophy behind living stylishly, meaning trying to be the best version of yourself. How do you strive to be the best artist you can be?
AS: I have incredibly high standards of the work I produce, and I don’t know if that’s always a healthy way to be, but I refuse to put out work I don’t truly believe in or that doesn’t meet my standards.
MN: Finally, do you have any particular London recommendations?
AS: My very favourite pub is The Telegraph at the Earl of Derby in New Cross. It has the nicest atmosphere and does such good food – the Sunday roasts are the best! I also love Review Bookshop in Peckham – they have a really nice selection of books and it’s a great place. My favourite book shop to go to in London is Persephone Books [I worked at Persephone Books for a short time a few years ago, so it was lovely to hear Alice is a big fan!].
Thank you so much again to Alice for providing such a fascinating interview!
Have any of you read Ways to Walk in London, or are you tempted to pick it up now?