“My father loved the arts and his great hobby was sculpture, but the truth is that he was utterly hopeless as a painter,” recalls an amused Anna Dickerson, as she pieces together her journey through professional life as an artist. “I remember his open-top Fiat 500 full of canvases for me to paint on and his delight when I did eventually become a painter. I got so much encouragement as a child from both parents; I was painting the whole time, from as far back as I can remember, and there always seemed to be a lot of Prussian blue attached to walls and furniture!”
A sizeable chunk of Anna’s childhood was spent in Rome, where her father worked for the United Nations. Going to boarding school at Bedales was a natural outlet both for her talent and that of her musically gifted brother. “I actually started at Dunhurst in Block Two, where the painting department wasn’t quite as established as it was at Bedales itself,” Anna reflects. Typically of the Bedales ethos, a solution was readily found for the budding painter. “The good old pre-health and safety days – I was often given the key to the art room and allowed to discover things for myself,” she explains. “I just painted, and quickly fell in love with oil painting and the tactile quality of the paint. It always appealed to me more than watercolour, which is its own particular skill and discipline.”
Overseeing Anna’s artistic progress was the eternal figure of George Hatton. “He weathered the storm,” Anna observes. “He was a superb facilitator and, while you might not always have agreed with something he suggested, he invariably made you think. George was also shrewd enough to know which children were in his classes because it was part of their timetable and which really wanted to be there.”
We were in a world where everything was possible, where speaking your mind was more than tolerated and grades were not the be-all and end-all. I’m sure that at the time, I took the beauty of the place for granted
Rather impressively, Anna was also able to fit in plenty of sport, and even her academic duties, alongside the painting. “There was quite a bit of leniency on bedtimes, so I tended to do my homework later than most of my friends,” she laughs. Anna’s gratitude for her school days is freely expressed. “The art buildings were quite ugly in my day, but that’s about the only thing at Bedales that was,” she remembers. “We were in a world where everything was possible, where speaking your mind was more than tolerated and grades were not the be-all and end-all. I’m sure that at the time, I took the beauty of the place for granted.”
On leaving Bedales, Anna won a place at the prestigious Slade School of Art. However, she had other ideas about her future: to a certain amount of shock, she decided instead to head for the Glasgow School of Art, where she could indulge her love of climbing mountains and properly hone her knowledge of life drawing and physical art. “There’s a streak of stubbornness in me somewhere, as there is in a few Old Bedalians, I should think,” Anna confesses unashamedly. “Glasgow had this outwardly dour, grey, Scottish atmosphere, but the sun would suddenly burst out on you and you could always draw inspiration from working in this fabulous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building. You were expected to work hard and achieve good results, but the point was how much one could learn.”
Anna’s sojourn in Glasgow was punctuated by a spell as a scholarship student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. “Totally different from Glasgow, of course, and I was welcomed by being asked if I minded being regarded as Scottish!” she reveals. “It was more good experience, learning something extra about the spatial aspect of painting.”
From childhood on, Anna had sold pieces of art (“a hundred quid or so here and there”, she thinks), so taking the step to becoming a fully-fledged professional was not as daunting a proposition as it might have been. She had a little to learn about the business side of things, however: “My dealer either did a runner or died or something,” she says ruefully. Despite this minor hiccup, Anna’s (4th year) degree show found a buyer and her reputation has continued to grow ever since. Based in her London studio, Anna experimented with techniques such as “flick painting” and materials like oil pastels and graphite, returning to traditional oil on canvas when she was appointed resident artist at London Zoo in 2009.
The emphasis on painting birds and animals is perhaps what Anna (you can visit her website at www.annadickerson.com) is best known for and her commitment is that of the perfectionist. “I’ll paint an animal until I think that I’ve done the best one that I can, and then I’ll move onto a different subject,” she says. “I did about 35 wolves, for example, but what interests me is not the portrait as such, but representing the feelings that I imagine the animals may have and the feelings that they inspire in me. In London, I would steal a lot of the natural textures and light to impose on my paintings, particularly when I started drawing cityscapes, a bit impulsively, during the London Olympics. Those drawings did so well that I should probably have done that sort of thing a decade ago!”
The mother of a young daughter, Anna no longer puts in the 14-hour days of work that were formerly her pleasure. Nevertheless a recent move to a new studio in rural Kent affords her quality time at the canvas. “I have this enormous studio a bit like a double barn, which is wonderful,” she says. “I’m only an hour from London, so I have the best of both worlds, and I still love to immerse myself in Fitzpatrick’s, my favourite art shop.” They must love Anna, not least because she admits to a complete lack of brand loyalty in her purchases. “Oh, I’m completely willing to jump ship to a new material if I find that it’s better,” she is happy to acknowledge.
Accomplished painters are fortunate enough to have a job that they can perform for a lifetime. Anna asks for little more than to be able to follow precisely that path. “I just want to be able to create artwork,” she says. “Perhaps I shall start making larger pictures soon; I think that I’m almost ready for that.”
Anna Dickerson was interviewed by James Fairweather in February 2013.