John Dilnot has loved making art and experimenting with different media since early childhood. His curiosity led him to teach himself to screen print and make letterpress prints in the garage at home and he used the larder to develop and print photographs.
Dilnot studied graphic Design at Canterbury College of Art, followed by Fine Art at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1980’s. John focused on screen printing, exploring sequential imagery, which led to his first artists’ books. He also made boxes at this time, which featured in his degree show installation. John’s box works have since become very collectable. His work is in many private and public collections, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, and has been exhibited and sold through numerous outlets across the world.
John Dilnot in his studio
What is your earliest memory of an artwork and who was it by?
My earliest memories would be of book illustrations. I had a good number of Ladybird books on natural history, which have had a lasting effect on me. I would have been barely aware that I was looking at artworks but I later found out that I was enjoying the work of some top illustrators and artists such as C F Tunnicliffe. I must have gazed for many hours at the illustrations in the Ladybird series of ‘British Birds and their Nests’ illustrated by Allen Seaby and Ronald Green, when I look at them now they take me right back to childhood.
What is your favourite time of day to be in your studio?
All day! When I’m in my studio, I’m immersed in my own world and I like to stay there for as much of the day as possible!
Talk us through a day in the life of John Dilnot - What does a day in your life look like?
I start the day with strong coffee followed by a walk in the local woods on the South Downs with our dog Bisto. The coffee is a routine imposed by me, and the walk is a routine imposed by Bisto, he is a very persistent brindle lurcher and follows me around until I give in and take him out. I’m very glad of it when I get out, being immersed in nature takes me out of my life and at the same time is a huge inspiration, particularly noticing small changes in nature throughout the year.
Back to the studio, I have no other routines and I like to just follow my nose working on what is the most interesting thing at the time. I usually go into the garden for another nature fix later in the day. We have just moved to a house with a good sized garden which gets visited by a large selection of wildlife, and so is an endless fascination.
|Moths, 2013||Moth collection-detail, 2010|
How would you sum up your practice in 5 words?
Make something inspiring and meaningful.
What or who are your most significant visual influences?
Natural history collections such as The Booth Museum in Brighton. I grew up near the Powell Cotton Museum of Natural History in East Kent, which has an impressive collection of taxidermy cases, which I can still remember.
Natural history art of all sorts from book plate illustrations to artists such as John Dunstall who produced books of etchings with wonderful titles, for example ‘The Therd Booke of Flowers Fruits Beasts Birds and Flies Exactly Drawne’ 1661.
While in Amsterdam recently, I found a new artist to me, Jan Van Kessel. He was largely a natural history painter working in the 17th century. He made miniature paintings of insects and bugs in great detail on copper, which I find unusual and witty.
I also find experiencing nature directly a great influence and much of my ideas stem from a childhood of playing in my Grandparents' garden.
Over Trafalgar Square, 2010
Your creative output is prolific and diverse. How does the different media you work across merge into one another?
Much of my work is print based or has evolved from print even if it is not printed. The books I make originally came from a desire to house a series of images. And the boxes I make evolved from an attempt to make three dimensional prints. My first box idea was a forest scene, I thought it would be more powerful than making it in two dimensions. I used real twigs to represent trees, a print of a dark forest behind and prints of birds cut out to place in the trees. Once this is all placed behind glass, the viewer is outside peering into another world and the depth creates mystery.
A lot of your work suggests an interest in ordering and categorising elements from nature, resulting in unusual and often (to my mind!) gently witty taxonomies. How do you choose which mammals, minerals and insects to focus your gaze on?
I was initially interested in birds, I think because they live in close proximity to us and so are accessible, I liked to identify them as a child. In my work I think of the bird as representing the notion of freedom and innocence, also fragility. I am interested in domestic local natural history and in gardening terms these are quite often ‘pests’. So I like the underdog, the unwanted, the unnoticed such as the caterpillar, the ant, the millipede and the moth, which is preferred to the butterfly!
I’m glad you can sense a touch of wit!
|Caterpillars - small, 2013||Pond Life, 2015|
What has been the most interesting / challenging box you have made?
A box I made called 'Bad Apples'. The box has thirty apples that are rotten or diseased and the challenge was to make them look realistic. People do ask if they are real apples and so I must have succeeded! The apples are lined up on shelves and below each apple is a name label of a variety. I chose apple varieties that are old and forgotten and names that I thought had other connotations too such as Schoolmaster, Newton Wonder and Eden. The box was a long time in the planning and took over a month to make. It turned out to be quite a complex piece, I think it was successful and certainly is a piece of work that I am very fond of.
Talk us through the process of creating one of your boxes. Do you plan these before you begin a new one or are you fairly responsive to the found material you can use to collage together?
I find the most rewarding way to work is to be able to respond to found elements. I often use old found maps in the boxes, which I search for in junk shops. If you are looking for a particular map the chances are that you are not going to find it so I work with the ones I find that spark my imagination.
|Bad Apples, 2010|
What convinced you to join Bridgeman Studio for licensing, and what are your hopes for working as a Bridgeman Studio artist?
I’ve known about Bridgeman for many years and Bridgeman Studio is a very exiting part of it. Being a large company with a vast bank of amazing work, I know that my work will reach a new audience.
What would you most like to see your images licensed for?
I am very interested to see where my images will be licensed, it would of course be great if there is a natural history connection in their use.
|Rocks, 2014||Tree Seedlings, 2015|
If you could pick 5 artists, dead or alive, to have dinner with who would they be and why?
I’ve always thought it is quite dangerous to meet your heroes, just because you like their work it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will like the person!
Having said that, I’ve just come back from the Netherlands and went to see the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in his home town of s-Hertogenbosch, it commemorates 500 years since his death. His work is so full of fantastic imagery, I particularly like the darker paintings and visions of hell. The time travel would be quite an experience and I wonder what is for dinner?
I very much like Surrealism, and two of my favourite artists are Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. A constant source of inspiration for me is Max Ernst's suite of frottages entitled Histoire Naturelle, Ernst was initially inspired for these by seeing images in the grain of floorboards so he made rubbings from them. The woodgrain effect paper that covers my boxes is my own printed paper. It originated from a rubbing of the floorboards in my studio and I think of it as having more of the character in a real and also graphic way than actual wood.
I studied painting and from my student days I have always liked the work of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. I think meeting them might make a very lively and entertaining dinner. Knowing what they were like, I’m hoping it would be a top Soho restaurant with the best champagne flowing!
The Edge of the Forest, 2010
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