We are a little bit in love with artist Alice Shirley’s sumptuous designs for French luxury powerhouse Hermès.
Displaying a fascination for the natural world in all its multicoloured glory, the pieces have become instant collector’s items.
Interview by her sister Henrietta Shirley
Portrait by Etienne Gilfillan
Still life images by David Newton
How is it that you can be barely a year apart, in a close family, and not really know where your sister’s art springs from?
Probably because you’ve never questioned it. It just aways was. I’ve been asked to interview my sister, the artist Alice Shirley, specifically about her work for esteemed Paris fashion house Hermès, and I’ve discovered her modus operandi is a mystery to me.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve needed time to go off on my own and think about things and just be quiet, and process what I’ve seen, what has inspired me, and how I might feed it into a creative project,” she tells me.“I think it’s important, when you are an artist, to think laterally – to explore lots and lots of different avenues. Never pigeonhole yourself to one discipline and kind of practice. Explore as much as possible.”
Nature, alongside storytelling and mythology, has been Alice’s long-running preoccupation, and I see now that Alice has a thirst for an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world. “When you are an artist, you are working from all these disparate sources to gain a greater understanding of your subject, of your place in the world – you are essentially exploring what it is to be a human being, and trying to make work about it. The natural world is how I understand my place in human history, humanity’s place in the evolution of the world, Earth’s place in space.”
In the Natural History Museum Alice discovered that thecollections on display are just a tiny fraction of what institutions hold, and that behind the scenes there is much more to see. “Simply by asking, you can gain access. I found a giant squid in the basement, in the tank room, and had my light-bulb moment. The best ideas come along and they hit you like a wave. The squid had poetry to it. I should draw it life-size… in fresh squid ink.” The brightly coloured environments Alice creates for Hermès are both observation and imagination. “With Hermès I’m able to reach a medium between the two.”
Alice was introduced to the creative director of Studio Dessins, and the head of women’s silk, by mice riding iguanas; an etching, handprinted in bright colours, that she’d sent to the Guerrand-Hermès family as a thank-you for buying her book, interleaved with her original illustrations for Aesop’s Fables. “They sent [the etching] to the art department at Hermès, and I got a phone call saying: ‘Would you bring your portfolio to Paris?’ I was nervous, because I was working on the sea monsters.” Fathoms was a solo show exhibiting her ink-water abstracts and the giant squid. “I thought they’d take one look at my portfolio and say: ‘No, nothing here that we like, and you’re not really Hermès material.’ But they did like something; they liked a little sketch of a zebra. And I came back a month later with Zebra Pegasus”.
Tackling “the fidgets” (I’d never heard Alice say these words before) is a central part of her practice. So she walks – often for hours at a time – on Hampstead Heath. Later, as we both walk on the Heath, Alice says: “The longer you sit in nature the more it happens around you.” That focused stillness is how she works: “Concentrating, but not trying to grasp anything; that’s when your best ideas crystallise.”
“Part of what I love doing for Hermès is the research, really understanding the subject, really understanding what is going into the design. How these animals interact with each other. What the relationships between different species are. The complexity of those biodiverse webs is so interesting.”
Alice is not interested in exchanging the education she could gain – and give – for an imaginary world. For her, seeing an environment or species “for real”, when she’s spent months researching and painting it, is “very, very exciting”.
That is the way it usually happens. Months of research, days of sketching, composing, painting, and then one day in the future she might see it for real. Meaning, that in the main, Alice uses the internet for research – she believes that “artists now have this amazing tool”, and she revels in “blossoming technology and the Information Age”.
And her inspirations? David Attenborough’s BBC documentaries, Björk – who has “that ability to explore and metamorphose into different dimensions of art, music and life”, and Arcade Fire – whose music has inspired her on so many occasions. It was the band’s album Reflektor that began to play in her head as she walked through Vietnam’s Thiên Đuong Cave (Paradise Cave). “It was like a thunderbolt, a sensation flooding through me – that only happens with the most exciting ideas.”
In art history, you learn how to read an art work. You begin to recognise its context, and the signature styles of a movement or artist in certain signs and signals. Talking to Alice, I realise she’s applying this to the natural world. To read it, to really see it, so that when she goes out, walks and travels, she has an infinitely greater appreciation of the world. Through Alice’s work for Hermès, you can wear that world.