Julia Manning’s majestic relief prints celebrate the preciousness and strength of nature. Her fascination with animals began at an early age, and has developed throughout her life. In her prints, Julia aims to capture the spirit of the natural world that she maintains a close relationship with through regular drawing trips and coastal walks. She recently won the The Conservation Through Art Award at the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London. In this interview, Julia describes her artistic career to date, its close relationship with craft, and how a chance encounter has led to a current creative fascination with eels.
Lisa: My understanding is you have been an artist your whole life. Would you say this is true? And could you describe your journey through painting and your discovery of printmaking?
Julia: I attended Bath Academy of Art at Corsham at the beginning of the 1970s, studying Fine Art and Printmaking. I have always earned my living with a paint brush and have done so for over 40 years. In the ’80s I was the queen of Faux marble and paint effects; I would paint murals and trompe l’oeil, anything anybody wanted, I termed it ‘art by the yard’! I would paint copies of paintings. I once did a very nice copy of a Stubbs painting for somebody who would rather keep the real one in a vault and have the copy on display!
I did a lot of work for a company called Stuart Interiors. They would sub-contract me to paint all sorts of decorative period artwork. Once they asked me if I could do a medieval style painted tapestry for a castle – Carrick Fergus in Northern Ireland, which is a National Trust property. They could not afford real tapestries of the period, so I did a lot of research and managed to paint on thick linen canvas, and line and quilt them on a large scale so they were difficult to tell apart from the real ones of early Renaissance. I was living on the outskirts of Paris and spent a lot of time looking at the tapestries in the Cluny museum and going to Ange to study them.
Because they all portrayed nature and were Mille Fleur, as it was called, which would fill in all the spaces and they were very comical, they were an absolute joy for me to create and so I started painting them to commission and I did this over a long period of time.
I painted commissions which went all over the world. I painted one for the CEO of Visa Card International for his California house, and I had a brilliant time working for hotels and medieval chateaux all over Europe.
Lisa: Why is printmaking the natural process for you when portraying wildlife and nature? And can you describe why you combine various processes, such as woodcut and linocut?
Julia: In the beginning of the ’90s I found, in Paris, an open access printmaking studio where I could go, and this was the start. I had a friend a Danish engineer who built me my own press and really I have never looked back.
I love printmaking. I am a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists and portraying nature is what I really enjoy. My experiences in Art, Botany and Zoology at A-level, and especially the opportunity to explore dissection has influenced me through my life in everything I do. I love the craft of printmaking and its different processes. I love whittling away at a block. Printmaking is really a cross between craft and fine art and especially with my latest series, which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s called The Decline of Eels. I managed to use all manner of different things to get the effects I wanted in this work.
I love drawing and it always comes before I start a print and getting my ideas down. My prints are usually related to things I’ve seen and drawn in the wild, but I also dream things up. If I’m not sure how to develop an idea I usually find the answer of the way I want things to go when I’m laying awake at night.
Lisa: I’d like to ask you more about ‘The Decline of Eels’, could you tell us about how you came about doing this project, and your thoughts on using art to communicate a political message?
Julie: As a Somerset printmaker I was invited to join nine other artists on a project entitled ‘Somerset’s Brilliant Coast’ funded by Somerset Wildlife Trust and Hinkley C Nuclear Power station. Learning about our coastline with a Marine Biologist, a Geologist and other experts to educate us has been a joyous learning experience.
Last year I was wondering about what aspect I could cover when quite by chance I met Andy Don, an International Eel expert. Having lived close to the River Parrett in the early ’80s I knew a bit about eels and the elver fishing that went on, but I had no idea of the amazing story and history of this fish.
I had found my subject!
Andy is a Fellow of the Institute of Fisheries Management amongst other things, and a font of knowledge about his specialism, eels. He has been my mentor, feeding me the latest scientific information and the reasons why they have dramatically declined over the last forty years. They are a great barometer for the wider environment. I read all I could about them and started to look with new vision at my local environment of the Somerset Levels, the rivers heading out into the estuary of Bridgwater Bay and the Bristol Channel.
I could not believe that the dramatic saga of eels was unfolding annually on my doorstep. I felt compelled to tell their story in print, to make an audience aware of what we may be losing due to man-made structures, such as weirs and dams, pumping stations, hydropower plants, and large intakes like Hinkley Point power station! Then there is Climate Change – altering the way that the ocean currents operate, novel parasites, and the ubiquitous issue of plastics in our watercourses and oceans.
Lockdown gave me the opportunity to experiment with printmaking, to create in print, my interpretation of the eel story, happening in real time month by month in my local rivers and coastline. I walked with a sketch book, capturing the environment the eels passed through on their migration to and from the Sargasso Sea.
Lisa: You have also worked in collaboration with other printmakers, under the name Pine Feroda. Could you tell us what working collaboratively on a print is like, and how the experiences you have with Pine Feroda influence your solo work?
Julia: For five years I was one of four printmakers called Pine Feroda. We created very large woodcuts. We would go out, mainly around the North Devon coast, where we were based and had a really large press. We would all go and draw different aspects, get back together again and discuss which bits we liked best and what we wanted to do. Then we would get a big piece of paper the size of the print (they were always the same large size) we would communally draw onto it, we would take this back to the studio where we would work out how we wanted it to go. We all worked on everything, cutting the blocks and printing. I left the group about two years ago, although Pine Feroda continues as a group of three artists now.
Lisa: Can you tell us about your studio, and how you have organised it so that it suits your way of working?
Julia: I’m very lucky, having moved back from France in 1997 to have bought a funny little house which had a largish barn attached and this is now my studio, which I so much love. Over the years it’s evolved to a great working space.
Lisa: Do you have any favourite papers/inks and what qualities do you most favour in your materials?
Julia: I love to work on really thick Somerset Printing paper. I love mixing colours so still use oil based inks to give depth and brilliancy. I love layering colours using many different sorts of techniques for different effects.
Lisa: What advice would you give to anyone curious about making work based on the nature surrounding them, who might be a bit nervous about working out of doors?
Julia: The advice that I would give to anybody who wants to create work based upon the natural world, would be to get out there and keep observing, keep drawing all the time. It’s when you are really quiet, sat somewhere concentrating on your drawing that things happen around you. I was drawing on Shetland, really concentrating when up came an otter really close to me. I find these things just amazing, just things that happen when you become part of your surroundings.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Julia: You can find my work on my own website which is www.juliamanning.co.uk
On Instagram I am juliamanningartist.
I am an elected member of the Society of Wildlife Artists and you can find me on their website too.