Beauty & Decay: An Interview with Artist Juliette Losq

Artist Juliette Losq has an eye for juxtaposition. Her work explores the friction between the natural world and the human-made structures that overtake them—and how, once they’ve been abandoned, nature tends to lay claim once more. She sees beauty in the derelict, and the rapidly changing architecture of London, which is so often at odds with the remnants of its long history, offers plenty of inspiration. She is also an artist who sees merit in the disregarded; in particular, she strives to give new value to watercolours, a medium that has traditionally been overlooked.

We recently spoke with Losq to learn more about her work and process—and her studio space is likely not what you’d expect!

You were born in London, where you now live and work. This city houses some of the greatest museums in the world. How did growing up there shape you as an artist? Were there particular artists or exhibits in London that you remember as having a formative effect on you?

From an early age I used to visit the museums and galleries with my father. Every year we went to the Royal Academy Summer Show, which is an eclectic mix of styles. I particularly loved visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, especially the clocks and antiquities collections—I think I was drawn to the level of detail in these objects.  Another amazing museum was the Pollock’s Toy Museum.  This is a really small museum (six rooms) packed to the rafters with antique and vintage toys. You travel from room to room via winding staircases, so that you are discovering layer upon layer of objects. I especially loved the toy theatre collection.

Your medium of choice is ink and watercolour. Did you experiment heavily with other materials before landing on watercolours? And was there an ‘aha’ moment in which you felt you’d landed on something that felt right?

I’ve been working in watercolour and ink since winning the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2005, for a piece that I made using these media. I developed a particular way of using them that is inspired by the building up of an etching plate, alternating layers of resist with the ink and watercolour. Since then I’ve been refining the technique, increasing the scale and complexity of my work. Over the course of my career I have also worked in acrylic and oils. After a break of several years I’ve been reintroducing oil into my practice over the past year.

You’ve said that you aim to challenge the idea that watercolour is a preparatory medium, a portable aid to the artist in initial sketches when planning a finished work. What is it about watercolour that makes you feel that it’s a misunderstood medium worth re-examining?

Watercolour has this reputation as being twee and seems to be associated by many people with chocolate-box-style landscape paintings. There is also an historical association with gender; Victorian women would be taught to use watercolour as an accomplishment, so it became synonymous with parlour painting. All of these factors, and its use as a medium for making preparatory work, have contributed to its undeserved status. For me, all media should carry the same weight. I find that I can use watercolour to create the luminosity and colour that I want in my landscapes, even at a massive scale.

You’ve also said that you believe beauty and neglect to be interchangeable, which is evident throughout your body of work. There’s a growing fascination (especially thanks to Instagram) with abandoned spaces and the beauty of urban and rural decay. When did you first become interested in the aesthetics of neglect? Are there certain sites in London that sparked your interest?

I first started looking at derelict sites around London in 2004/5. At that time, it seemed that the whole of London was changing rapidly. The financial district, Canary Wharf, was growing up opposite the old docks. This juxtaposition was really interesting to me; although they were largely disused, you could still see the Victorian jetties and boatyard buildings clinging to life opposite these huge, glistening skyscrapers. Within a couple of years, they were all gone. I also made a lot of work based on the old River and canal systems in East London (called the Bow Backs) just after this. Again, these were almost unrecognisable a few years later when they were developed for the 2012 Olympics. It’s this sense of transience and fragility that draws me to these sites.

Many of your pieces use standard materials like watercolour and/or ink on paper, but the images don’t merely exist to be hung in a frame; rather, you use them to create imaginative installations, turning the traditional canvas into a three-dimensional environment. When did you first start using your images to create larger physical spaces?

I have been making paper installations since my undergraduate degree (2004-2007).

You often use antique furniture in your installations. What draws you to these objects and what message or visual effect do they help you to execute?

The drawings evolve from the furniture imaginatively and spatially. I’m inspired by the writing of Arthur Machen, who believed that an unknown world could be discovered beneath the observable one, if you knew how to look properly.  Interiors and their objects were an imaginative portal to the exterior world. I have often been drawn to Victorian and Edwardian objects as a starting point in my work, partly because they are very familiar and ubiquitous. At the same time, they come from an era so different from our own in terms of its tastes and conventions that they have become part of an almost alien culture. They invite us to speculate on what they may have been used for and by whom, a trait they have in common with the post-industrial landscapes and structures of my drawings.

Is your own home full of antique finds? Would you say that there is any aesthetic correlation between the art you make and the spaces you inhabit?

I share a home with my partner David Penrose, who is a furniture designer, so it is a mix of his own work and fairly old Scottish furniture that has been passed down through his family. I tend to keep my antique finds to the studio (there’s a grandfather clock, a card table, and a couple of corner cabinets in there at the moment).

You depict marginal landscapes that spring up in the overlooked borderlands of cities and towns, and your work so often features imagery steeped in flora and fauna. Are there particular landscapes or nature spots from which you draw inspiration?

I’m always looking for landscapes that have this quality of nature encroaching on the manmade, so really, I am looking at contested landscapes.  Recently I’ve been making work inspired by the Thames boatyards. Though they are semi-derelict, there are still working boatyards on some of the islands on the Thames.

What does your studio space look like? What kind of environment is integral to you for creative output?

My studio is on Eel Pie Island. The island is a nature reserve and a working boatyard. There are several artists’ studios on there, and over the years it has evolved into an eccentric collection of artwork, nautical objects, and river finds. I have my own self-contained space, which is how I like to work. My studio is converted from what used to be the boatyard café. It’s raised up (so it doesn’t flood), has a wall of windows (great natural light), and a very tall wall on one side (great for making larger work).

What’s something about you that our readers may be surprised to learn?

I used to work as an insurance broker at Lloyd’s of London.


Artwork and images courtesy of Juliette Losq