Illustrator Fee Greening: ‘I have delusions of grandeur about paper’
Sep 23, 2023
Interview by Victoria Woodcock. Photography by Marco Kesseler
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My personal style signifier is scruffiness. Although my work is feminine and delicate, my own style is a lot tougher. I haven’t changed the way I dress since I was about 13; my everyday clothes are old band T-shirts or Vivienne Westwood men’s shirts, tucked into Levi’s. I love fashion – I studied it at Central Saint Martins – but I stick to my classic staples and replace them when they get battered. When I’m going out I like a suit. I love the elfin, made-to-measure ones from Realms, a one-woman-band brand by designer Lauren Osborn. I love Gucci and Paul & Joe suits, worn with men’s loafers. I don’t wear heels and I feel like a bit of a wally carrying a handbag.
The last thing I bought and loved was a puzzle jug from a company called Potted History, which makes replicas of artefacts. It’s full of holes; if you pour it a certain way, the water comes out perfectly. I get targeted by anything with a medieval feel on Instagram. I think the cookies hear me and that’s what they send me.
A place that means a lot to me is the West Country. I grew up in Devon, and although I’d been living in London for 10 years, my partner Dan and I moved to Dorset – near Bridport on the Jurassic Coast – a few years ago. We spend a lot of time on the rugged beaches, like Eype Beach. I love how this part of the world feels brutal and magical, and like you’re always on an adventure.
The best books I’ve read in the past year are history books. I read a lot of stuff on witches. In Defence of Witches by Mona Chollet was really great. And I loved Satanic Feminism by Per Faxneld. But for something lighter, I like rock biopics, mainly from the ’70s. I just read Glyn Johns’ Sound Man; he was an engineer on The Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St and The Beatles’s “Let It Be” – all those heavy sounds of the ’70s.
My style icons are really tough, wild women who in one moment might be wearing dungarees, the next minute a tuxedo. So Patti Smith, Anita Pallenberg, Anjelica Huston, Betty Davis, Lee Miller, PJ Harvey. There are so many.
The best gift that I’ve given recently is one of my drawings – a dragon for my goddaughter. I’ve also become obsessed with gardening in the past couple of years, so I might turn up at someone’s house with the first radishes. We’ve gone big on the veg patch and had great broad beans this year.
And the best gift I’ve received is an antique Green Man bureau, which my family gave to me when I graduated from the Royal College of Art. It’s based on folklore; all carved wood. It has little demons as the handles. It’s completely impractical for drawing – it’s a wobbly, creaky old thing – but I use it every day.
The music I’m listening to at the moment is Rabbit Head by Tribes – Dan is the band’s guitarist, and I did the cover for the album, which is out later this month. They’ve been recording it for the past two years, so it’s very close to me. I’ve been living with guitars and drum kits in every room. I listen to music a lot as I work: lots of Pavement, Led Zeppelin, PJ Harvey and The Rolling Stones.
In my fridge you’ll always find cold beers – sometimes from local breweries such as Hattie Brown’s or Cerne Abbas. We host a lot of friends, and because Dan is a record producer we often have hungry musicians staying with us. So we always have beers for emergencies. And anchovies. You can make vats of pasta or butter beans, but if you add anchovies it’s always delicious. In summer there are also bottles of ink in the fridge, because if you don’t keep it cool it goes stodgy.
I’ve recently rediscovered my teenage self. Since we moved back to the West Country I feel more relaxed. When I was a teenager, I could often be found sitting in my dog’s bed, eating toast and listening to Pavement – just the other day I was doing the same thing. My teenage tastes seem to have returned.
An indulgence I would never forgo is Arches Hot Pressed paper. I have huge delusions of grandeur when it comes to paper. It’s really smooth, like butter. Once you’ve tried it, you can’t go back, which is most unfortunate because it’s so expensive.
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was jelly shoes. A jelly shoe can take you from the beach – it’s quite rocky, so they’re good for swimming – to a dinner party to… anywhere. They’re by a brand called Melissa, in collaboration with Viktor & Rolf, and they’ve got a little bit of vegan leather in them, so you don’t get sweaty feet, which can be a jelly-shoe hindrance.
My dog Patti herds me! She thinks I’m a sheep
Something I couldn’t live without is my dog, Patti – a blue merle border collie. Dan and I have always wanted one because Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin had one called Strider. He would shriek “Strider” at the beginning of their concerts. It’s a cult dog. The night we moved into our new place, our neighbour told us he had one blue merle puppy left. And she’s awesome. She has one blue eye and one brown. She herds me! She thinks I’m a sheep and fiercely protects me.
The artist I would collect if I could is William Blake – I have a few bookplates framed, but it would be amazing to have an original piece, particularly his print Pity.
My beauty staples are Sisley All Day All Year anti-ageing cream; Hermès tinted lip balms – I wear the Rose ones a lot; and Dr Hauschka’s Lemon Lemongrass body oil – it smells like sherbet lemons. I don’t wear a lot of make-up but I love wearing scent – in summer, it’s Hermès Eau de Basilic Pourpre, and one by 19-69 called Villa Nellcôte, which is inspired by the garden of the Côte d’Azur mansion once lived in by Keith Richards. 19-69 Villa Nellcôte, £155 for 100ml; goodhoodstore.com. Dr Hauschka Lemon Lemongrass Vitalising body oil, £22.50 for 75ml. Hermès Eau de Basilic Pourpre, £71 for 50ml, and Rosy Lip Enhancer, £62. Sisley All Day All Year, £315 for 50ml
My favourite room in my house is the kitchen. We live in a crumbling old cottage in the middle of the woods, and we’re slowly chipping away at it. We don’t have heating yet. But we like things to look rustic, so we haven’t done much to the kitchen apart from painting it yellow – Corngold by Farrow & Ball. It’s the warmest room in the house, with an Aga. Running along the kitchen sink are the Curios tiles I created with Balineum, featuring motifs that I’d find on a coastal walk. Even on a gloomy day, I can think of walking by the sea. From £29 a tile, balineum.co.uk
My favourite building is The Square & Compass pub in Worth Matravers, about half an hour away from where I live. It’s an old Purbeck stone building looking out to sea. The moon rises from the ocean. There’s a dog that sleeps on the roof. There’s a fossil museum. It’s an institution and, I think, the centre of the universe.
My beauty gurus are the hairdressers at George Northwood. Whenever I am in London for a work thing, they literally have to comb brambles out of my hair, and never say anything about it. They quietly make me look professional, while I sit there mortified.
The works of art that changed everything for me are sublime images that are delicate and feminine but have a dark, disturbing undertone to them. So, Ophelia by [John Everett] Millais, and the drawings of Arthur Rackham – particularly Undine, the book he illustrated in the early 1900s, with the pixies and goblins in the margins. When I was little, I would read it by torchlight. And The Book of the City of Ladies, which is a medieval illuminated manuscript drawn by a woman about a utopian city of women who have been maligned by history. I’ve loved all these things since I was a teenager; I wish I could say that I’ve evolved further, but I’m just a creature of comfort.
My house is full of stones and shells and bits of smoothed-out glass
The best souvenirs I’ve brought home are stones and shells and bits of smoothed-out glass. Whenever I’m walking on the beach I always pick them up. Our house is full of them – on every window ledge. My favourites are hag stones which have a perfect hole in the middle. I think they’re meant to be a doorway to a fairy kingdom, and to bring good luck and prosperity to your house.
My favourite website is eBay. I use it for most purchases – a Jean Paul Gaultier corset, foxglove plants, olive oil! There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t try to find on eBay first. I love it. I have alerts set up on so many things – “serpent”, “snake”, “dragon”. I recently bought an arts and crafts tray in hammered metal and covered in Celtic knot dragons. And once I got one of those amazing midcentury chain candlesticks for £5 in the Halloween decorating section. I have a pair of chairs in my kitchen that have backs carved like sea monsters; my shepherd’s-hut studio is also from eBay. I call her Baba Yaga, after the witch in Slavic folklore, and she is an olive-green, rickety old thing with red windows. When I first got her she was a leaky old bucket, but I’ve been lovingly fixing her up.
An object I would never part with is a photograph by my dear friend Tom Beard of Glastonbury stone circle at sunrise. It was taken years ago, when a load of friends of ours were all there on the Monday morning at the end of the festival. It makes me so happy. I have it where I make my tea; I like looking at it every day and reminding myself of that moment.
I have a collection of quills. I work in pen and ink and can’t resist buying new quills in interesting colours or strange materials, often from L Cornelissen & Son in London. I’m also given lots by friends, which is lovely. But even though I have so many, all lined up in little pots, I always return to the same favourite one. It’s really light, and I’ve used it for so long that it’s worn where my fingers go, so it just feels right.
I listen to podcasts constantly. My drawing process is very slow, so podcasts keep me from being bored. I love In Our Time; I’m obsessed with Melvyn Bragg. I think he’s hilarious. There’s one episode on unicorns that I’ve listened to about 36 times.
The best bit of advice I’ve ever received is “take the gravel in a shell and make a pearl”. I can’t remember where I heard it but I wrote it down and have it pinned in front of my desk. Even in the biggest work disasters, I try to see the positives. My work can be quite stressful; everyone always thinks drawing is very serene but there are a lot of fast deadlines involved.
When I need to feel inspired, I walk – ideally, where I can see the sea. It really helps if I feel at all creatively sluggish or anxious; I’ll instantly feel better and want to make stuff as soon as I get back. If it’s freezing or pouring with rain, sometimes Dan and I will just drive to the sea. We park the car looking out to the horizon and eat tin-foil sandwiches. I also do a lot of cold-water swimming. All the friends I’ve made locally are really into sea swimming. At first I was a bit scared – it’s so cold! – but it is really good and makes me feel so relaxed. In the summer, Dan and I will go for a jog and then plunge in the stream that runs through our garden. I find it a really good way to shake off any anxiety.
In another life, I would have been a bearded bassist in a ’70s rock band. Or a monk in a tower drawing some illuminated manuscripts.Mypersonal style signifierThe last thing I bought and lovedA place that means a lot to meThe best books I’ve read in the past yearMy style icons The best gift that I’ve given recently And the best gift I’ve receivedThe music I’m listening to at the momentIn my fridge you’ll always findI’ve recently rediscovered An indulgence I would never forgoThe last item of clothing I added to my wardrobeSomething I couldn’t live withoutThe artist I would collect if I couldMy beauty staples My favourite room in my house My favourite buildingMy beauty gurusThe works of art that changed everything for meThe best souvenirs I’ve brought homeMy favourite websiteAn object I would never part withI have a collection ofI listen to podcastsThe best bit of advice I’ve ever receivedWhen I need to feel inspired,In another life, I would have been