Lily Irwin and Alice met on a bitterly cold February evening, and over a half pint of Guinness – Lily, and a hot chocolate – Alice, they spoke about all things art and illustration.
Lily who grew up just outside a Quaker village in Co. Kildare in Ireland, speaks about her work and life as an illustrator with a sincerity that is both heart-warming and at times disarming. Slight, with dark shoulder length hair and a soft Irish accent, she strikes me as both kind and thoughtful, with a strong sense of self, and most refreshingly, as someone who takes real delight in her everyday work.
Her first memories of learning to draw were in classes given by a local painter in Ireland, focusing on observational work, such as trips to the woods to look closely at plants and trees. Sadly, she says, drawing gradually went ‘underground’ as she made her way through her teenage years.
It was during her final year at Exeter University that her ‘confidence and feeling for drawing began to re-emerge’. On a train journey, between Exeter and London, she was inspired by Dora Carrington’s letters ‘there was something about her way of writing and bringing her inner and outer world to life through her ink drawings. I feel they were quite significant in rekindling my love of drawing.’ Lily’s confidence in her own drawing grew, and sketching on wood, scraps of paper and envelopes, in between studying for her English Literature degree she inadvertently formed the foundation of a portfolio. After graduating, she applied to do a part time MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, with this portfolio, and is currently in her final year.
Lily lives in North London in a little house with friends, and refers to herself as a ‘domestic hedgehog’.
I love her description of her house – ‘As you walk through the doors, the house looks more like a rickety boat, old wooden floors and bumpy white walls, the kitchen is filled with light and all my seedlings – sweet peas, squash and sunflowers sit by the windows, waiting to planted –the mixture of damp and scents coming from the garden conjures up a feeling of childhood smells from the sea in Waterford.’
She works from home, and wakes up early, spending the first hours of the morning listening to the radio and having breakfast, ‘calming any chaos in the kitchen and watering plants.’ Edmund, Lily’s boyfriend also works from home. They share a morning ritual ‘of drinking coffee together, plotting the day and hatching plans – then they go their separate ways.’ Her studio comprises of a long desk in one corner of her bedroom, next to a sunny window. On the desk is a large set of drawers of all shapes and sizes, filled with pencils, paints and pastels.
I loved Lily’s drawings the moment I saw them, so whimsical, wonderfully colourful and full of life.
Drawing from every day life, she captures fleeting moments in the world around her – instilling a sense of vitality into an unoccupied room, bringing to life the objects within and hinting at further stories to tell. And she balances the energy in her drawings with a harmony of composition and colour, resulting in an enchanting sense of calm. As the viewer you are invited to step into the world she has created, and once there, you are encouraged to pause and fully enjoy it. For me they evoke a sense of nostalgic innocence, gently recalling a time when life moved at a slower pace.
Lily tends to draw from life, as this allows the mind and imagination to capture details that might go unobserved when drawing from a photograph. And it is these details that often come to life and become the focal point of a final image – a trinket on a mantel piece, or a cat snoozing in a chair – and sometimes these become recurring motifs – cropping up in other drawings. Her images also tend to be rendered as though observed from a birds eye view, which adds to the sense that, as the viewer, you have just entered the place in the drawing, rather than merely viewing it.
Her drawings move through phases – she enters a world for a period of time, with a strong colour scheme prominent throughout, which is often determined by the season. Her projects have often been family related, drawn at home in Ireland, or evolve from sketches drawn in her house in London, and sometimes they are focused on a novel or a folk tale. She says she would absolutely love to illustrate Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, to realise in detail the movement of nature and the rich sense of rural life.
Her work is influenced by many different artists, particularly those around the late 19th and early 20th century – Odilon Redon, Henri Matisse, David Jones, Samuel Palmer and Joan Eardley. She feels a strong affinity with Pierre Bonnard, and is very interested in his approaches to drawing and painting, ‘keeping small pocket diaries, jotting down memories through words and drawing, possessing the gift of seeing the wonder in the mundane and working on unstretched canvas – never allowing himself to be confined by scale.’
Gwen John is another great influence – ‘the sense of emotion, determination and courage you see in her portraits of women and indeed her self-portraits are profound. There is so much depth, feeling as if you are stepping into her inner world.’
She has also been inspired by a number of illustrators – Beatrice Alemagna, who has ‘a real integrity and insight into the imagination of a child’. And Brian Wildsmith, ‘the imaginary worlds he creates, filled with rich colour and a joyful harmony of different materials.’
When not in the studio, she spends a great part of her time drawing with two of her closest friends, Agnes and Maude. They try and work together once a month, mostly in London, and are currently preparing work for an exhibition next year at the Art Chapel Gallery in Abergavenny. They will be exhibiting their sketchbooks and work, mostly painting, but also experimenting with textiles, printing and embroidery, as well as working towards another show this year, at the Art Chapel Summer Festival. I really love the sense of community arising from her group of friends, something that could easily otherwise be lacking in the every day of an artist.
Maybe, most importantly, her Lurcher at home in Ireland is named Pip, after Philip Pirrip, of course.
I loved speaking with you Lily, and can’t wait to see your final graduate show, and group exhibition.
2018, Hidden Hedgerows, Art Chapel Gallery, Abergavenny, Wales
2019, MA Graduate Show, Candid Arts Gallery, Islington, London