I saw the Master’s work being made at the Royal College of Art, and I knew that was the kind of stuff I wanted to make – but it was called illustration. Illustration in Holland was much more associated with children’s books, but what was being made here was part of the big collage movement. I applied and got in.
After an amazing two years, I left just as the recession hit in 1991, so that was not a good year to start. I had a grant from the Dutch government but it was starting to run out and London became unaffordable so, ultimately, I went back to Holland. The portfolio of work I took with me was very much seen as the avant-garde, top end of illustration. Within months I was very busy with work, and established an illustration career, which I continued for the past 20 years.
Through my partner, who was a media theorist and activist, I became very interested in new media communication. Activist artists and commercial illustrators were very much divided, but I wanted to question the place of illustration in this spectrum of communication and I started teaching at various Dutch art colleges in visual communication and illustration.
Having been informed by a major Dutch newspaper that illustration was unnecessary for a news website, I set up the Visual Correspondents Foundation in 1996, inviting artists to reflect on the news through images, and that project further fuelled my interest in the role of the image in news commentary.
Then, my partner got a job in London and we moved, with our two daughters. I had the choice to start building an illustration career locally, or to embark on a PhD and dedicate myself to these questions that kept arising. My research question became: What is the role of illustration within new media editorial environments? These days, work is drying up for photographers and illustrators as newspapers and magazines are folding, and new media websites are no longer commissioning them. I wanted to understand what was happening, and to question the attitude that illustration couldn’t be part of this brave new world.
I chose the RCA because I wanted to place the research squarely in the realm of illustration. The tutor I was given was the wonderful AL Rees, who passed away last year. He was an amazing beacon, and organised a research student reading group every second Friday, where we would close read one text, taking months over a small essay. He would mix that with discussion, gossip and tea, and it was a beautiful, intense experience where he managed to gel the group of people together. That was very special, and we continue to meet up, now at the Royal Festival Hall for close reading, gossip and wine.
As naive as I was entering art school at 18, I was almost as naive when I was starting the PhD. I’ve been a successful practitioner, and I’m interested in critical theory but I’ve never studied it and it was intimidating. People like AL Rees helped me and recommended books to get me started, and when Teal Triggs joined the RCA, I jumped on her and asked if she’d be my supervisor. That was great, because she had the kind of dynamics I was looking for and helped me formulate a path to follow on the PhD. I also needed to understand critical new media theory, so Professor Caroline Bassett at Sussex University became my second supervisor.
I also wanted to have a practice side to my PhD, and to create images that would fit into this brave new world, I realised I needed to start programming my own images. That was another adventure as I’d never done any programming or even made an interactive image before. The new Information Experience Design programme was just launching at the RCA and was exactly what I was looking for; I got as much help as I could from them, which was extremely useful. In the end, I managed to get something programmed, something finished, and something that I think is valuable.
I have now been asked to lead the Illustration and Animation course at Anglia Ruskin University. They invited me specifically because of my research, so that’s very interesting. These four years enabled me to really fillet and chew over my question, and use the medium of writing in relation to making to test my ideas, and that’s not possible in most universities. I feel there are many exciting ways forward for illustration, so my PhD has given me a sense of an answer to a way of approaching what illustration does and is.
"These four years enabled me to really fillet and chew over my question, and use the medium of writing in relation to making to test my ideas, and that’s not possible in most universities."Nanette Hoogslag