Fee Greening Brings Gothic Maximalism Back

Studio Visit

Photos: Alex Merrell

Photos: Alex Merrell

When English illustrator Fee Greening began her art career, her interest in gothic maximalism and Renaissance flair weren’t exactly in style. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the fashion world to catch up, and the in demand artist now has a packed schedule collaborating on projects with Gucci and Florence and the Machine.

Fee welcomed us into her East London studio with all the ethereal beauty and mischievous humor of the folklore bound fairies that inspire her. A peek around revealed designs for a recently launched collection of handmade cashmere throws and cushions with Saved New York for Moda Operandi, dozens of intricate drawings for upcoming projects, and even a Greening-illustrated fabric covered screen that once belonged to former neighbor George Michael.

We chatted with Fee about the difference between burnt umber and ochre and what rubbing a sprig of thyme on your eyelid can do.

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Where were you born?

I was born in London but grew up in the countryside. My family live right on the coast in Devon. Lots of rugged cliffs and heather.

What is your earliest memory of making art?

I remember feeling very proud of learning certain tricks with drawing that made your work look more grown up. Eyebrows and lip philtrums on faces, pollen stamens on flowers. I used to go to galleries in London with my family and try to recreate oil paintings unsuccessfully with my crayons at home and get very frustrated.

What was your experience at art school?

I had a mixed experience. I went to Central Saint Martins and then Royal College of Art. Although I had a couple of great tutors and met some lovely people, I had imagined a much more romantic experience. I thought it would be all paint studios, gig flyers, stone corridors and life drawing lessons but instead I found it very millennial: weekly crits in glass classrooms and online sign up platforms. This probably really suits some people but I was imagining a wizened old teacher explaining to me the difference between burnt umber and ochre.

How did you begin to use dip pen and ink as a medium?

When I was around ten, someone in my family gave me a Murano glass dip pen from Venice. It took a long time to get used to it. For the first few years it was hard to get the ink to run off smoothly and it would often drip. Now I have developed a muscle memory of what angle to hold my pen and it no longer happens.

How does travel influenced your work?

Traveling is so important. As a working illustrator I can get really trapped in my schedule and creatively stay in my comfort zone. When I travel, I have the freedom to switch off and allow myself to be influenced by the unexpected. It also forces me to have distance from my work and lets me reflect on things.

How has English culture & history inspired your work?

If I wasn’t an illustrator, I would be a historian. I read a lot of history books and often listen to Radio 4’s history podcast In Our Time or a Peter Ackroyd audiobook whilst I am working. Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is one of my favorites to listen to. Then, when I walk home from my studio, I can walk over the ground where Boudica fought the Romans or down a street of famous opium dens.

The areas that really underpin my style though are the Renaissance and Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts. I think this stemmed from an obsession with Robin Hood and Elizabeth I as a child.

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What is currently your greatest influence?

Currently I am really interested in English folklore and witchcraft and am reading The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment by Brian Copenhaver. I love learning, for instance, that a sprig of Thyme rubbed on your eyelid will let you see fairies. I enjoy looking for something hallowed and fantastical in every day life.

How have your choices in subject matter evolved since beginning your career?

I have always been drawn to the same era. If money was no object I would happily just draw demons and angels. When I started out, my interests were very out of vogue so I dulled down my Medieval Gothic influences a bit. Happily though, brands like Gucci have really changed peoples’ perceptions of gothic maximalism and people have embraced my taste.

What is an upcoming project you’re excited about?

I have a cashmere blanket collaboration launching with Saved NY. The designs include lots of Flora and Fauna illustrations. Until then I am going to focus on a children’s book I have been working on for the last couple of years but never get around to finishing.

What do you believe to be the greatest challenge of an artistic life?

Self discipline. It is hard when you only have yourself to answer to. If I have a deadline for a client I will work all night to get it down in time, but when I have a personal project that’s really close to my heart I can procrastinate for months.

What do you believe to be the greatest redeeming factor of an artistic life?

I love that I am my own boss. I don’t have to answer to anyone, and if someone is mucking me about on a project I can always walk away. I love that I don’t have to follow an atypical schedule. I am not a morning person. For years I found this really shameful and then I had a ’you do you’ epiphany and restructured my day. I start late and end late and I draw much better for it.

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When in East London…

I live in De Beauvoir, a little residential area sandwiched between Islington, Dalston and the Canal. I love it here. It’s super quiet and sleepy, with great pubs, but only a short walk away from the Kingsland Road if you want to go out properly.

EAT

For everyday food I go to the De Beauvoir Deli or, if I am in a healthier mood, to The Cure opposite. My favorite place for dinner is Towpath. It’s the most elegant, humble outdoor restaurant along the canal. It’s so romantic and only open in the summer, which makes it feel extra special. I also love The Little Duck Picklery and Bright. Broadway Market and Victoria Park Market are also fab if you want to pick up something on a long dog walk in Victoria Park.

Drink

I love Brilliant Corners, a cocktail bar and sushi restaurant seconds away from my house with the best sound system. For a quiet drink, Three Sheets, which is further along.

Shop

On Sundays my boyfriend and I like to wander down to Redchurch Street in Shoreditch and have a peruse around the clothes shops, Aesop and Labour and Wait. On our way back we drop in at Goodhood for clothes and get a slice of pizza from Homeslice.

Stay

Normally I recommend the Ace Hotel to family as it’s so close or, if they would prefer to be central, The London Edition.

Find Culture

There are so many great galleries in East London. I love the Parasol and Victoria Miro where my friend Katy Hessel of The Great Women Artists Instagram account just curated a fantastic show with an all female line up. I am also a member of Marguerite, a members club for women in the arts, and they put on great events that are often in the area. For music I am lucky to be around the corner from EartH, an insane new live music menu and for the cinema I love The Rio on the Kingsland Road.

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CultureAlex Merrell