Anthony-Noel Kelly

The artist, whose career met with a great deal of controversy in the late 80s, is interviewed by the Chairman of the Sovereign Art Foundation, Howard Bilton.

HB: Are you the only artist in your family?

A-NK: Yes, I am. We used to have an art room at home and although we were all frequent users I seem to have been the only one to have carried on.

So you went to art school?

Yes, I studied art having left Worth Abbey, in Sussex. Worth was both a preparatory and secondary school run by monks and I was quite happy there. As much as possible I left the classrooms to escape to the art department. Then I left for art school.

In that order?

Yes, but actually I was a mature student when I enrolled at art school. After Worth I practised five years of restoration of paintings, suggested by my father who is a collector himself.

What kind of training did this involve?

Instead of enrolling in a university I worked as one of many apprentices to an American restorer. We worked on Old Masters, notably the Dutch 17th century, but having graduated I became restless and wanted to paint for myself.

So then you went to art school?

Yes, but it was a gradual transaction. After two years as an independent restorer in Fulham I started meeting other artists, notably from Chelsea School of Art. Becoming more involved with contemporary art I then moved to the countryside and worked in a slaughter house, and then returned back to London to paint and work part-time as a stained glass apprentice. Finally, after a trip to Ireland I enrolled finally at the City and Guilds of London art school. Although I enjoyed the course there after I left I realised that perhaps it hadn’t really been in tune with contemporary art and I had to do some catching up. I just mention that.

Why did you choose it?

Simply because I got rejected by St Martin’s School of Art. This was my number two choice. The City and Guilds was run by Roger de Grey who knew Brinsley Ford a trustee who happened to be a friend of mine. I was fortunate to get a late place.

Sometimes artists get rejected on subjective grounds, which are the wrong reasons. Looking back on it, do you think this was the case with you?

Well no, I don’t blame the Saint Martin’s panel really. When I went for the interview I must have been quite a sight. I was a 30 year old returning from eight months painting in hermit-like conditions in Ireland and too confident for sure, probably also out of touch with reality, certainly short of any formal training. There were plenty of younger more malleable students to choose from.

Describe the art you did in Ireland.

I painted a self-portrait, but it was landscapes that I was really interested in. The Wexford coast with its sand-dunes and gorse-covered mountains never lacked inspiration for me. It wasn’t long before the rocks, vegetation, and the sea near my cottage encouraged me to produce work expressionistic and gestural in content, similar to the early Cobra movement in Scandinavia. Quite unsuitable for Saint Martin’s conceptual approach…

So Central St Martin’s declined you and you went to City & Guilds instead?

Yes, I had to start from scratch again, my tutors uninterested in these mannerisms of mine. As I mentioned earlier the school was conventional encouraging figure drawing and studies from life. After two years of laws of depth of field, composition, and colours relationships etc. I grew restless and managed to change course, passing into the sculpture department. I felt much more involved with the physicality of solid form.

Anthony Noel Kelly, Members (1996) sculpture

But presumably the function of art school is to teach you the skills rather than to help you develop your own style of art?

Yes, but one cannot go without the other. Tools need to be learnt to feed the talent but you know it’s never so cut and dry.

And then art became a full time career for you after art school?

Well it always had been before but I suppose I felt it had a future now. I moved to Shepherd’s Bush, to an old factory that had manufactured paintbrushes. The height of the ceilings and layout of the premises was amazing and I really enjoyed the five years that I was there. I shared the premises with three other artists but then decided to move south of the river, to an empty engineering works in Clapham. It had been a dairy beforehand. I worked there for four years before leaving the country for Ireland and then eventually France

Did you remain in contact with the artists you went to college with?

No I didn’t but as the years passed met quite a few socially.

So you chose to leave Clapham?

Yes, after I married in 2000 we left for County Cork, realising that as my work was becoming more involved with animals I needed to move to the countryside. I had been visiting farms dissecting for painting and photographic projects and I felt that London was less relevant. Moving to Ireland was quite a revelatory experience and before I knew it I realised that I had amassed a Noah’s Ark community of animals. Goats, peacocks, pigs, sheep, llamas, donkeys and so all roamed freely around the property. There was two of each. We there for about three years and then decided to move somewhere warmer and perhaps more Latin in character. We ended up near Toulouse and although I was worried that I would have a ‘writer’s block’ I soon found subject matter in the local produce. There were fields of sunflowers, melons and maize and I soon realised that we were in the centre of the foie gras region, of the farming of ducks.

Tell me about the ground-breaking case against you ? The Court decided that body parts were actually stolen property which is an interesting interpretation…Tell me how this all happened?

The reason why the judge decided that the parts were stolen property was that they had been worked upon by medics for medical research by the Royal Institute of Surgeons. It was because these technicians and students had actually dissected the bodies that the judge deemed the college the rightful owner.

So what were you doing (with them?), why did you find them of interest?

Well if somehow somebody came to you in the pub and said ‘I’ve got a head in my bag, do you want it?’ Wouldn’t you have said yes ? I can think of nothing more intriguing than the study of the human form, especially opened to be looked at. My interest began having worked at the Basingstoke Hospital operating theatres. From there I was introduced to the Royal College of Surgeons in London where I was allowed to sketchand model in the display rooms. It was only when I decided to get more involved with the bodies, actually visiting the basement where they were stored, that I crossed the line. It was in the basement that I started taking moulds and so-on, developing my interest with little to stop me.

Why make casts of a dead person rather than a living person?

Well, quite simply they don’t look the same, do they ? Once they have been so-to-speak opened, as I have just mentioned, do you realise you’re in another world. Like diving beneath the surface of the sea. At first I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my pieces – you see myself and a technician started taking them home – , but the more I accumulated the more confidence I had. For example a head by itself didn’t mean anything but once I had, say a couple of torsos and ten legs you could start to think creatively.

Anthony-Noel Kelly artwork titled 'Birthdays (Male)'
Anthony-Noel Kelly, Birthdays (Male) (1998) photograph
Anthony-Noel Kelly artwork titled 'Birthdays (Female)'
Anthony-Noel Kelly, Birthdays (Female) (1998) photograph

How did you preserve the bodies?

The parts had already been preserved in formaldehyde and so all they needed really were to be kept wrapped in bags. Over two years I gradually took moulds of them, both in Shepherds Bush and Clapham, and then after I sensed questions were being asked. I then decided I would transport them to the family house in Kent and bury them behind a wood. Perhaps I was rather naive but I thought that what I was doing was perfectly natural. Perhaps admittedly a little in the grey area, morally speaking I mean.

How did the trouble start?

Well it began when the Jibby Bean gallery agreed to show the torso I took of a gentleman at the Islington Art Fair 2007. It was of his front side and back, and which I had gilded in silver. I really didn’t think much would happen at the time.

As the work was just a torso, how would anyone know you had used an actual body part?

The piece was obviously taken from a cadaver. It couldn’t have been anything else and certainly not modelled. The dissections were perfect, skilfully displaying muscle tissue, arteries and veins, together with the organs.

So how did they know the person whose body parts you used?

The police made enquiries with various organisations throughout England, starting with medical schools. However they came up with a blank. On being asked the Royal College of Surgeons even had the audacity of replying that they had nothing missing. I think they hoped it would all blow over and their lapse of security not shown. I suppose then that because the origins of my body parts couldn’t be traced the police decided to raid my studio in Clapham. I remember I had taken my dog out for an early walk on the Common and on my return I found them about to ram my front door with one of those bars with handles. They must have had a field day discovering work made from moulds but quite disappointed not find any body parts. As I said earlier, they had been buried in Kent but in fact quite a few had actually been stored in a friend’s basement in Brixton. It was when I was brought to the police station that I explained that all the bodies had in fact come from the Royal College of Surgeons.

It’s quite a morbid subject – death and bodies…where did this interest come from?

I’ve always been interested in the body. As a child my mother used to leave me the task of carving the chicken when preparing family meals. To me a body, be it human or animal, is more about an object without life than about the implications of death itself. They’re simply carcasses and not to be taken sentimentally.

Anthony-Noel Kelly, The Degustation (2009) sculpture

Where are all these works now?

The judge ruled that all my confiscated work should be given to the Royal College of Surgeons. That was four years of work and it saddens me now.

You are not the only artist working with actual bodies, of course. There is Gunther von Hagens*.

Yes, very much so. But whilst he’s working ‘on’ his bodies so-to-speak for display, I am working ‘with’ them for my art. He’s a surgeon wanting to share the marvel of the body through dissection with the public, whist I’m perhaps more interested in using them in a more abstract and subjective way. Rather ironic to hear that he’s now dying of cancer and preparing to donate his own body to science.

So your fascination with bodies continues to this day?

At the moment not with the human body really. My exhibition called ‘Birthdays’ in 1999, a photographic portrait of the human body naked, was a mammoth but enjoyable project and it was the last time that I used the body. People of all ages came to my studio to be photographed, the children as well as adults, and after two years of serious searching I managed to find all the required males and females. The final last sought after age was predictably a 14 year old girl, a sensitive period in their life. I had to advertise widely and visited old people’s homes, nature resorts, women’s institutes, public swimming pools and countless other organisations. It wasn’t so much about nakedness or beauty, which is entirely subjective anyway, but more about a visual survey of the human lifespan.

So that was one project, what else did you do?

Well in Ireland as I mentioned earlier I worked with animals, dissecting them and using their bodies as material for my work, and I also worked with nature around me. In France I became involved with insects, flowers and fruit, using them as palettes for paintings, sculpture, and photography. As I said the area where we are living in France has a thriving foie gras industry and so I became interested with that side of agriculture, using ducks as subject matter. I know this sound odd but the environment strongly influences me. Although we are not at close proximity to the sea I managed to work for a period with fishes, making a visit to Dieppe in the north. I also did a series of unusual photographic portraits of local people and visiting friends. The joke is that whenever people visit I use them!

anthony noel kelly, a john dory
Anthony Noel Kelly, A John Dory (2008) painting
Anthony Noel Kelly, Skate (2008) painting

Looking at the map of America work (behind me) Why America?

Oh, this was part of my recent insect, flower and fruit fascination. America ? Well the country is globally involved in issues and so I used the map of the country as a backdrop for my work, crushing the patisseries, cakes, insects etc. on the image. It’s called ‘Crises in America’ and although humorous the image carries undertones of a darker nature.

So far have the public agreed with you?

Not as much as I was hoping. Exhibiting has been difficult but I’m confident that one way or another I’ll find an avenue to show this recent work.

Anthony Noel Kelly, Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus (2010) photograph

How do you sell your art? Are you represented by a gallery?

In Ireland and France, but no, coming back to England hasn’t proved to be so easy.

How are the bills being paid if you are not selling so well.

In France I started up a tree surgery business which is paying some bills. My wife Clare is a civil servant and teaches. We get by.

And you’re determined to continue with your artistic endeavours?

Yes, but recently no. I’m more and more disillusioned but I seem to carry on nonetheless. There are periods now that I feel negative and stay away from the studio, but then it’s not long before I’m drawn back in, once again on the road to something new and exciting.