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Exeter College graduate behind one of art’s biggest lockdown trends

An @ExeterCollege art graduate has been the inspiration behind one of lockdown’s more unique art trends. 

Since the Government’s lockdown of the country in March, a number of artists have been looking for an outlet for their creative flair and have taken to recreating classic pieces of art from the comfort of their own home using photography. 

But Anna Grayson, from Teignmouth, has been producing work like this for years, having originally experimented with this photographic art style while studying an Access to Higher Education Art course with Exeter College in 2012.  

Now eight years on, Anna has amassed a collection of her often-humorous art recreations, which is due to be displayed at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM). 

Anna, 67, said, “I shot the first of my photos in this style while I was studying at Exeter College. We were looking at portrait photography and I wanted to do something different that also explored art history.  

“A lot of my work is about reimagining iconic works of art for the world we live in today, so quite a bit of it explores gender, women’s issues and society in general.” 

Anna’s collection includes recreations of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (or Moaning Geezer in Anna’s collection), and a feminist recreation of Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, along with around 30 others that are set to be displayed when RAMM reopens.  

Anna’s art career only launched following her Access course with Exeter College, and she has already seen her work hung in the South West Academy and, remarkably, in the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  In 2018 two of her pieces were selected by Grayson Perry to hang in his famous yellow room at the 250th anniversary exhibition at the RA. The making of a new piece was also featured on the Channel Four series, Grayson Perry’s Art Club. 

As social media caught wind of the photographic style during lockdown, Anna has been looking on with interest as others attempt to reimagine famous paintings during lockdown, “I’ve been rather tickled to find myself a trendsetter for an internet craze!” 

Anna said, “It has been great seeing everyone have a go at doing it while stuck at home. It’s a good way to explore art history and teach yourself about composition and lighting. But I always try to take it one step further by developing the meanings and interpretations of iconic works, but it’s so nice to see everyone getting involved in it! 

“If I was going to give advice to anyone considering giving it a go, I’d say to think outside the box and don’t restrict yourself just to photography. You also need to beware of copying other people’s images directly put on social media – many are covered by copyright and intellectual property law. Also make sure you credit another artist’s work if you’re copying or inspired by them – that’s just good manners!  

“Without the Exeter School of Art I would never have achieved what I have, and I am just so grateful. Just imagine, an idea on a college course ending up trending on social media during lockdown, and it all started right here in Exeter!” 

Anna’s exploration of using digital photography to recreate famous art started when, aged 60, she took on an Access course with Exeter College and started to explore different sides of art.  

“I’ve been experimenting with recreations of famous works of art because I’m greedy and I want nice art on my walls,” said Anna.  

“I knew I didn’t have the money to buy these works of art, and I certainly didn’t have the skills nor lack of moral fibre to steal anything, so I decided to go about recreating them myself. The more I made, the more I wanted to do.  

“On a more serious level, I’m intensely interested in what becomes iconic in art. Why do some images, like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini become so well known and recognised? Why do people engage with particular pictures? 

“I also had this feeling that more people might get into with art if it was updated and reimagined for a modern audience, so that’s a big influence behind the background of this collection.” 

Anna’s Journey

Anna’s art career hasn’t taken the conventional route, as the Teignmouth-based artist may be better known to some as the former presenter of the BBC’s Learn To Earn programme, where she regularly reported on the training opportunities for those aged 18 to 80. She also worked with the BBC for nearly 35 years as a producer, presenter, studio manager and journalist. 

Inspired by her previous reporting on the importance of lifelong learning, Anna took on an Access to University Art and Design course with Exeter College as a 60th birthday present, 7 years ago. This proved to be the touch paper for the start of Anna’s journey in to taking art more seriously; not just as a hobby, but as a career.  

“I didn’t mean to make a career out of it, it just kind of happened!” said Anna.  

“I thought when I did the Access course that it was going to be a bit of fun and a way to learn some new skills. While still on the course I copied the Arnolfini portrait from the National Gallery. The original portrait has a couple that don’t look obviously in love and clearly aren’t communicating at all. I thought as my husband and I had been married for nearly 40 years, we could fit the bill to recreate it in my photography! We dressed up, I photographed it, and I had a lot to say about it in terms of the symbolism and messages in the piece and it managed to get in to the South West Academy.” 

The exhibition coming to RAMM in the ‘new Normal’ represents a coming together of Anna’s collection of pieces in the series. Shot in carefully matched locations, and with the same lighting conditions and compositions as the originals, Anna’s commitment to recreate the art in modern digital photography isn’t something she expected to come at the culmination of her Access course with Exeter College.  

Indeed, Anna’s original degree had been in Geology at the University of St Andrews, so she originally felt most drawn to the ceramics side of her Access course with Exeter College. However, she quickly learned that photography was going to be her forte as she progressed in the year-long programme of study. 

Anna continued: “I was already aware of how great an Access course could be because I’d found out so much about them while I was working on Learn To Earn with the BBC. First and foremost, I was amazed by the transferable skills from science to art. Because you do experiments in art, you have to write them out and observe things, and that’s incredibly similar to the scientific world.” 

“Bearing in mind I studied Geology at one of the top universities in the world, the best lecture I’ve ever been to in my whole life was one on perspective drawing with Tony Martin at Exeter College. It really was a terrific experience for me and I’d do the whole course again and again if they’d let me!”  

Anna’s work will be displayed at the RAMM when it reopens follow the current lockdown.  

Find out more about Anna’s work on her website and on Instagram at #annagraysonartist 

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