Tracey Emin

Interview

I did a BTech fashion course at Medway College, but I dropped out after a year and a half because I was rubbish at it. Billy Childish was the person who encouraged me to paint and make art. We both saw life experiences as good subjects. I really liked Egon Schiele because I have always been a massive fan of David Bowie. David Bowie was influenced by Schiele, with his album cover for Heroes. But Billy really encouraged me to paint and make art. After Medway, I went to Sir John Cass and did printmaking. My fine art degree was at Maidstone College. I took a year out before going to the Royal College of Art to do Painting. I chose to go to the RCA because I wanted to learn to oil paint. Ken Kiff was a tutor there, and I liked his work.

The interview to get into the College (with Adrian Berg, Alan Miller and Professor Paul Huxley) was a jovial experience. Looking back now, I think the students were chosen like a football team, in that we all had something to bring to the course, and I was coming from a completely different place. The majority of people who go to the Royal College of Art are pure A level students, who come from middle-class backgrounds and are born with a sense of security. Not all but some. I was chosen because I had really good sketchbooks. One of the criteria was to submit four, and I submitted seven. My paintings were appalling because I used screen ink but that’s why I was given a place because I needed to learn how to paint.

Painting at the RCA at that time was really conservative. It was the height of Thatcherism. Jocelyn Stevens was director and if you did painting you had to just paint on canvas. You couldn’t do anything else. And I think if I hadn’t learnt to use oil paint and make stretchers, I would have been asked to leave the course. The art history course could have been different, much more sophisticated. I was very surprised after Maidstone – I had very high expectations. I remember being very shocked that a lot of the students didn’t write their own theses – they just copied others.

I worked alongside studying to support myself through the programme, working for a home catering firm cutting up vegetables and washing up. I worked at Gaz’s Rockin Blues in Soho as a cloakroom attendant and scrimped around doing various part-time jobs to make money. In my second year, I worked six days a week at the College until ten at night, then it was seven days a week during the spring and summer terms.

I was lucky enough to receive the hardship fund that was specially set up for students who came from very impoverished backgrounds or had some calamity in their lives. At the end of the first year I was delighted to receive the travel scholarship, which was quite a lot of money at the time, except there was one snag: I could have the scholarship as long as I didn’t travel. I had to come into the College every day and under the supervision of Peter Allen, the school technician, and my Painting tutor, Alan Miller, I had to learn how to stretch and prime canvases, and oil paint. During that summer, I was allowed to have as much canvas or as much paint from any series that I wanted. Looking back on it, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Turkey could wait.

Alan was a long-term influence on my work in that the practical help he gave and advice has helped me to this day. He taught me how to prime and stretch canvas properly, how to apply oil paint and what you could mix with it. He gave me this tuition during the summer during my first and second year. I remember the time he saw my first oil painting and he jumped up and down and said, ‘You’ve done it, you’ve done it.’ When I was in my second year at the RCA in 1989, I heard something was happening at Goldsmiths. A group of boys in my year were always going on about ‘Goldsmiths this’ and ‘Goldsmith that’ but it meant nothing to me as I was looking forward to going back to Turkey to do watercolours of fishing boats and donkeys.

There were lots of things that made me unhappy at the RCA. I always referred to it as ‘debutantes’ day out’. It was incredibly posh, and I felt at the time like a misfit and found it hard to make friends, unlike Maidstone, which had just been really fantastic. But I really enjoyed my secondary courses: Esoteric Mysticism and Sacred Geometry.

I only had a handful of friends at the RCA, and I still care about those people now. My closest friends were Susan the secretary, and Rachel who worked in the shop. And the person I’m still most in touch with is David Dawson, who I shared a studio with for a year, who is a very good painter and photographer.

Smashing up my paintings in the College courtyard came out of frustration with myself. My only regret was never having it on film. I used a sledgehammer and my paintings were on wood. I went ballistic slashing the sledgehammer around and no one could get near me. And it was simply because I had nowhere to put my paintings so they had to go. That was a mark of my own failure. I later destroyed all of the paintings I made at the RCA by throwing them into a skip. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about them. It was because I cared about them too much.

In 1996, I did a three-and-a-half-week project called Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made. The impetus came though the fact that oil painting made me feel guilty and I had to get over it. It was wrapped up with my abortion and my feelings of failure.

One of my deepest regrets is swapping the painting that was meant to go into the RCA collection. The one that is in it now, Friendship, wasn’t the painting that was chosen by the selection committee group. They chose a painting of my grandmother. One evening Stan the caretaker was on his break and I took the keys from his office. I went to the store and I swapped the paintings over. The painting was six foot by six foot – the same size as the one I put back in so that no one would notice. I scrawled a note on the back of the painting to the effect ‘I am not ready to give you my grandmother’ and an apology. It is with the deepest regret that I ever swapped those paintings over, and there’s definitely a lesson to be learnt. It was years before anyone noticed, but for me it was too late.

The Perfect Place to Grow, featured in the 175 Years of the Royal College of Art exhibition, is about nurturing and love. My dad one day decided he was going to make me a table. He made two of the worst trestles ever known to mankind. He was never much of a carpenter, but he was a fantastic gardener. We should be encouraged to do what we are naturally good at, not what we are not good at. But, still, some of the results can be interesting. Maybe perfection isn’t everything.

I have been painting seriously for 11 years now. Sometimes it takes me seven years to do a painting, sometimes it takes me one day, sometimes half an hour. I love painting but I’m still really afraid of it. Always have been, probably always will be.

"Painting at the RCA at that time was really conservative. It was the height of Thatcherism. Jocelyn Stevens was director and if you did painting you had to just paint on canvas."
"Smashing up my paintings in the College courtyard came out of frustration with myself. My only regret was never having it on film."