Wednesday 13 May 2020
In conversation with Loraine Monk
Continuing our chats with artists from our Beyond the Frame exhibition, we (virtually) meet up with academic and artist Loraine Monk. Growing up in Kingston Upon Thames, Loraine gives us an insight into the part luck, as well as personal and social history, played in giving inspiration to her work, and how it still drives her forward today.
Loraine, could you say a little bit about yourself and what or who got you into art? What were your influences back then?
I had several near misses before becoming an artist. We never had any books in the house apart from my father’s small Pears encyclopaedia. But when I was six, a travelling salesman came by and I think by accident, my parents bought a set of children’s encyclopaedias. I was an only child, and the books were like a window on the world. One of the books both fascinated and troubled me, it was World Famous Paintings (only it wasn’t the world, just America and Europe and had no women artists). It listed in alphabetical order the painters and then one of their famous paintings. Poisson followed Picasso, Van Gogh, but then Vermeer came after – the latest images were 1950 and no Modern art movements (Picasso was only included for his Blue series). So, though I was fascinated by the images, I couldn’t work out how they connected or followed on from one to another; what made them all equally “famous”. It seemed to me that if I didn’t understand that, then great paintings were not for the likes of me.
When I was a child it never occurred to me that I could be an artist. There was an art teacher at school who said I had talent but for me, a working class girl with limited opportunities, the only chance I thought I had was to get to University, maybe to work in theatre or teach, both of which I thought I could make enough to keep myself. (I could see even then it was almost impossible to make money from drawing and painting.) At school art was placed in the non-academic timetable, so art in school for me stopped at the age of 14.
Years later I found myself, after a few turbulent teenage years, at Newcastle University studying a combined honours degree, one of the options being Art History. I finally understood art in the context of when it was produced, a product of political, sociological and scientific progress. I got a first in the end of year exams, but couldn’t take it the next year as I wasn’t (ironically) in the Fine Art dept.
A lifetime of campaigning and working in unemployed centres in Oxford and London, as a welfare rights officer and then a researcher working for a London MP followed. Having by then three children, and finding myself single, I decided to change career. I began lecturing, starting with Politics, Media and Sociology. Working with Access Students, I was offered the chance to teach Art History, which I jumped at. I realised that I needed to gain more knowledge of the subject, especially, if I was lecturing, so I studied part time for an MA in Art History at Kingston University. After I finished that, I realised I needed to start what I had stopped at 14, I needed to make art. First drawing and painting, and now printmaking.
I can see from your website that your working-class background has been a massive influence on your whole life, let alone your art. Would you be able to say a little bit more on this?
Understanding the inequalities that existed, and still exist, was a key to understanding my place in the world. To learn there are many different sources of ‘Truths’ and to pick your way through them is vital. I realised for me, that my only chance of escape was getting ‘an education’ and that without the opportunity to progress I would never change my limited future. For millions of working–class girls at that time, the expectation was that nothing would change. The only hope was getting a man that earned a good wage. The best I could hope for was to become a secretary and if I was really lucky, I could marry the boss.
People like me didn’t go to University. My dad was a brick layer, with a ‘cor blimey’ cockney accent and my mum did various jobs, working as a barmaid and in small corner shops. I remember from very young, being told to describe my father as a builder and not to tell people where we lived. The bizarre thing about that was, I didn’t have anyone to tell; no-one visited aside from my aunt, and my school mates were mostly worse off than us.
As if being a girl (at that time) and working class wasn’t enough, I am also dyslexic. People understand that better now with the exception that most people make allowances for children, but still seem surprised that it’s not something you grow out of like teenage pimples. Certainly, at school it was something else that labelled me a problem child, wilful and stubborn, who was either bright but deliberately wrote nonsense or just plain thick. A large percentage of people in the creative industries are dyslexic. When I taught in colleges, I would explain to my students never to believe any spelling I wrote, but to remember how creative Dyslexic people are.
I completed an MPhil at Brighton University in 2017. It was part theory and part practise. The title was: The Art of Memory and Forgetting: Fine Art and the Resurrection of Class Memory in One London Borough. I used Kingston as the model, exploring how from most of the histories of the Borough working class histories have been occluded. I made a series of portrait oil paintings from the very few photos I discovered in the heritage centre of working–class people from the late nineteenth /early twentieth century. That was my way of trying to give back something to where I came from. All those stories and memories. I remember when my great aunt went into a care home, I had to sort out her belongings. She and her husband and brother had all lived together, in a small rented cottage off the Norbiton Estate in Kingston. They had nothing. She was the last survivor. Apart from a table, three chairs and a bed there was one small wardrobe cupboard; it had a hook in it, because she didn’t have enough clothes for a rail. Uncle Dick had a certificate on the wall, that said when he worked for the Gas Board and that he had saved lives by fixing a fault while risking his own life. All those untold, unrecorded stories…
Back to 2020, what or who is your inspiration today and how is this changing your style or subject matter?
Printmaking; I began to cut lino prints two years ago. I found that the tactile anger really connected with the subject matter. Since then I worked with wood cuts and over the last six months, I have begun experimenting with Zinc Plate etching, including aquatint.
Paula Rego is a fantastic artist and printmaker; she has always been an inspiration. I am also inspired by contemporary printmakers like Thomas Kilpper who works with others to make huge lino prints, cutting into floors to explore historical subjects that connect to the history of the buildings.
Finally, why did you choose A Day’s Pleasure by James Scott after E. Prentis from the Richmond Borough Art Collection as inspiration for your relief print, Women gathered around the doors, 1842 in our current Beyond the Frame exhibition?
I knew I wanted to make a piece that was responding to the historic nature of the collection. As soon as I saw the image of the men gathered around the table the obvious question for me was what about the women? Missing again, let’s put them back centre stage.
Sometimes images come really quickly and this one did. I needed models so I asked some printmakers I knew to gather in a group and look disapproving, while I took photos. It was great fun. Afterwards I had to choose who exactly to use, and then to draw them into the costumes of 1842 – a challenge as people’s stance is partly reflected in how they are dressed, and these contemporary young women were not standing in tightly laced corsets and semi crinolines. It was a relatively large lino cut so I had to find a large bedded printer to make the edition.
It is hopefully clearly a feminist piece. I wanted to get as many women as possible into the frame. In art historical terms, apart from the occasional nymph or fairy painting, most images of women are solitary. This is very deliberately a group of women. Supporting one another, as they always have, though that isn’t always in the histories either!
Women gathered around the doors, 1842
Women gathered around the doors, 1842 is a relief print created by Loraine Monk for the Beyond the Frame exhibition. The inspiration for Loraine’s piece, A Day’s Pleasure by James Scott after E. Prentis, can be viewed here.
Find out more about her ideas for the piece in her Artist Statement below.
The group of dissolute wealthy men, drunk after a meal – probably in a room of the Petersham Hotel, or in a dining room of a mansion behind, is a rich subject. The chair on the floor in true Hogarth style is indicative of chaos and future ruin. Are they in Business? If so, are they traders? And if so, what dubious trade do they invest in?
1842 was the time of civil unrest in Britain. Poverty rampant and the Chartists’ demanding reforms of the corrupt Parliamentary system. Women in 1842 had no rights. They were the possessions in law of their husbands and if they were middle-class and governesses, virtual slaves of their employers. Working class women were condemned to the worst of work. It wasn’t until 1842 that The Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1842 made it illegal for women and young children to work underground. Victorian society condemned prostitution while its male members indulged in it, often not discriminating between women and children.
My image would portray three women in the doorway – two would be family members of the drunken men and one would a servant. The three women would represent that gaze of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.