The Bridge Interviews
Frances and Anthony Corner
It’s some time since we interviewed a couple in this space but it would be difficult to tell the story of either Anthony or Frances Corner without including the other. They have both led highly successful lives in fields which at first glance might appear sharply contrasting but on closer inspection turn out to have a lot in common. Their parallel careers go back some forty years. They first met on the foundation course at Central St Martins, the renowned art and design college in London. Their first date was at the Rocky Horror Show. “It didn’t freak her out!” says Anthony. They have been together ever since.
Frances’ path led her into academia following an undergraduate degree at Central St Martins, an MA in printmaking at Chelsea College of Art, followed by lecturing and then to Oxford University where she studied for a doctorate in education. Her subject was the expansion of higher education and its impact on fine art, specifically the way this would change the way you teach and learn. This is as topical today as it was then. During this period she worked at what is now the University of Gloucestershire, was then appointed Head of Art at London Metropolitan University and in 2005 she became head of the London College of Fashion, part of the University of the Arts London, where she also served as pro-vice-chancellor until 2019. During that time, she published a book, Why Fashion Matters. In 2019 she was appointed Warden i.e. Vice-Chancellor of Goldsmiths, University of London. Of taking on academic leadership roles Frances says “I had gone as far as I could as an individual in terms of creativity and now I use my creativity in institutions, by making things happen.”
“I come from a tough, deprived part of southeast London”, Anthony has said, “and so that background has informed everything that I’ve done and continues to inform everything that I do.” At the age of ten he spent a year in hospital. “If there was any point in my life when I realised that drawing was the magic that I’d been given, it was then. I’d had to have a serious operation, and afterwards I was in bed drawing pictures about it, from the perspective of someone on their back looking upwards. I can still clearly remember a conversation I had at about 16 with someone who was doing a degree and when I asked someone from my family if I could do that too, the reply was ‘That’s not for you’ ”. Realising that if he wanted to make something happen he needed to move, he started to travel extensively. He left home at 16 and by the age of 17 he was in Australia where he worked in various places including a farm and an abattoir and became fascinated by the story of the bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly. “Like me, [he] was also an outsider.” Eventually he came home and knowing that education and his drawing abilities were pointing the way forward for his future ambitions and direction, Anthony enrolled at Central St Martins followed by undergraduate study at Chelsea School of Art and an MA at the Royal College of Art the prestigious postgraduate-only institution. Anthony then went on to work as an artist exhibiting extensively, for example, in the Royal Academy Summer shows and his work is held in numerous private collections. He has taught drawing at art colleges including Central St Martins and Chelsea School of Art.
Anthony has wide cultural interests which have helped to inspire his work including literature and music. He refers especially to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, reflecting that they are essentially about moral dilemmas and a personal journey that relate to us all. He sees the beginning of the Renaissance as an intellectual driver. “Dante points down, Galileo points up and Copernicus points around.” He started going to the theatre when he was very young - “the first thing I ever saw was Billy Liar with Michael Crawford in the lead, and I remember sitting there thinking ‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’ ” He spent three years as artist-in-residence at the Royal Opera House, an international creative melting pot he considers we should all be proud of. Here he was making reportage drawings and able to observe all the processes involved in bringing a show to the stage. He recalls sitting in the stalls while Pavarotti was rehearsing. “At the end of his aria the orchestra all put down their instruments and applauded - this was extraordinary as it was the only time I saw that happen.” He says that “This country has produced some outstanding artists in the fields of theatre and opera” and mentions Benjamin Britten as a leading example. “Theatre is one of the strongest artistic forms of expression because of the collaboration of music, image and text”. We spent some time discussing operatic scenes which make you want to cry, with particular reference to La Boheme, clearly a favourite of his. “How does a piece of music break our hearts?” As part of his time there Anthony took part in workshops organised by the Garden Venture and went on to design the sets and costumes for a new opera Beyond Men and Dreams with composer Bennett Hog, librettist Marion Lomax and director Wilfred Judd. The time at the Royal Opera House was the most enlightening and enabling period for him as a young artist. In the end, decided he was enjoying it too much. “As an artist I needed isolation and to avoid distraction”.
A key area of investigation for Anthony, is the relationship between drawing and language, which he used to discuss with a professor of linguistics at Oxford, and how a drawing can trap and communicate an idea. “You start with a white rectangle and you make a mark. Then you make a second mark and you have the beginning of a dialogue, as with language.”
Back to Frances. Goldsmiths, based in New Cross in southeast London, was founded in 1891 as the Goldsmiths’ Technical and Recreative Institute. A constituent institution of the University of London, it has over 10,000 students, roughly two thirds of whom are engaged on undergraduate studies and one third postgraduates. It specialises in the arts, design, humanities and social sciences but is perhaps best known as a creative powerhouse; many of the YBAs (Young British Artists) studied there including seven Turner Prize winners. “I have many things to juggle with such an institution - academic and research development, student experience, finance, buildings, human resources and economic and social impact on the environment.” As Frances makes clear, however, there is more to a university than helping young people to get a degree. “Universities are not just about education in the traditional sense. They have a role in addressing issues such as climate change, racism and social mobility.” One example of what they do as a university is helping people to turn around their lives through links with 11 other local organisations in Lewisham addressing environmental issues, creating new businesses and supporting pupils to achieve in schools. One of the aims of the college is to become carbon neutral by 2025 and one of the steps they have already taken is to ban beef from the campus. Bad news for hamburger lovers but good for the world. In 2019 she was awarded the OBE for her work in widening participation in higher education and bringing in non- traditional learners - her professorship is for academic leadership.
Both Frances and Anthony are committed to helping those who have had few opportunities in life, including those in prison. Anthony taught drawing to a young talented artist- a female offender – who he also supported to embrace learning. “Some people have the opportunity to navigate life, others get none,” says Frances. Both have a strong sense that your chances in life are heavily influenced by the circumstances of your childhood and that “There but for the grace of God go I”. “Education in prisons is not good, but there are amazing charities working there”, says Frances. She cites opportunities for prisoners to take part in performing, writing, poetry recitals and art in various guises. “Seventy percent of women in prison are there because of abuse by men. Many have children who have been taken into care and they are desperate to get them back.” She mentions a senior judge who said that out of the entire prison population a third should be in prison, a third should be receiving treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and a third should be doing community service.
“Prisoners are released with £46 and a plastic bag”, she points out. “It’s important to teach them skills which can be used after they are released”. She helped to set up a creative publishing project for students and prisoners and then a manufacturing unit within a prison producing clothes and dustcovers for shoes. She then established a unit in the East End of London for women prisoners to work in after release. The fashion industry is a sector where women can find jobs provided that they have been given the necessary skills.
Frances and Anthony have lived in a number of places, usually in old houses which are important to them. For a time they lived in a former forge in Herefordshire and they got to know Burford when stopping off on journeys along the A40. As a result they decided to move here and bought a house at the bottom of the High Street. Michael Taubenheim, Burford-born, was a neighbour. Very early in their time here they managed to lock themselves out and they remember Michael scrambling over the wall to let them in (well, he was a lot younger in those days!). Another neighbour was Albert Nash, a builder, who lived in the same house that his parents had lived in. They soon made other friends. Anthony says that “We enjoy the materiality of the place, its sense of history and time”. Frances’ parents also moved here. Her mother is still here. Her father is buried in the cemetery.
They have one son, Jacob, who was three when they first moved here. He is now a writer. They did a lot of travelling as a family in his younger days, to the point where Jacob mutinied and demanded “No more adventures”. He went to Magdalen College School in Oxford and the family moved to Oxford for that period. As soon as he left school Anthony and Frances moved back to Burford, this time to the top of the Hill. Their house is about 400 years old and they have lovingly restored it with the help of local builders and craftsmen who uncovered the original stonework behind layers of Victorian lathe and plaster. Anthony’s studio is at the back of the house and is meticulously tidy. They assure us that the idea of artists working in chaos is a myth and that in order to be properly creative it is necessary to be highly organised.
Anthony has twice exhibited his work during the Venice Biennale, a major event covering contemporary art (“the biggest cultural event on Earth”) with The Boy in a Box (2017), and Lamentation, Flux and an Empty Bladder (2020). Filthy Worms and Curtain Walls, a key publication on his work, was published in 2019 and this was shortlisted under the best design category for the British Book Awards. He explains that setting up an exhibition requires a great deal of activity and planning including selecting the work to be shown, deciding how to display it and arranging shipment. It entails working with curators, photographers, designers, technicians and publishers.
Frances and Anthony’s latest creative project has been spending time during the last 18 months of relative confinement creating a garden, something they have never had before. Like many others, they have praised how the community in Burford pulled together during the pandemic and how kind and helpful people were. Clearly spending time together is something they would do anyway. Although on the face of it they lead very different lives, one working mainly alone and the other managing a large organisation, they share the same outlook, values and objectives. It is apparent that it is important to them to spend time talking to each other. Both insist that they could not have achieved what they have done in life without the other. Depending on circumstances they can be seen every day having coffee together in Lynwood, or sitting outside or standing under the Tolsey. Indeed we met them the day after our interview heading back up the Hill, deep in conversation. A very creative, high-achieving and purposeful couple.