Interview with Southampton artist Jonny Hannah

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Interview with Southampton artist Jonny Hannah

The 2013 Southampton Guest Guide front cover was designed by Southampton-based artist Jonny Hannah. He shares his inspiration and love of Southampton in this interview with Managing Director, Jo Andrews.

How long have you lived in Southampton? What sums up 
the city for you?

I’ve been here for 12 years now. What attracted me to it was the fact that it was a working town and people had proper jobs. I can still hear the hustle & bustle of
the docks at night from my house in Shirley, and I love that. Stuff comes in, stuff goes out, including thrill seekers on their way to more exotic locations on the cruise ships. But in recent years, thanks to Dan Crow at Aspace and others, the art scene has been getting bigger. Twelve years ago, the arty side of Southampton was a bit of a blank canvas and now it’s getting better, more diverse and more exciting. I think the clock tower attached to the civic centre is my favourite city icon; tall, majestic, functional – a wonderful lump of off white architecture. The ever changing art collection inside the City Art Gallery is amazing, they’re very good at rotating the paintings in there, so there’s always a new surprise every time you walk in. It’s not often you see a John Minton painting, but now & again, there it is.

You teach at Solent university – what do you enjoy most about working with the students?
Solent School of Art & Design, as we are now officially known, is a great place to go to work. Our new building, which overlooks the High Street is a
real treat. No two days are the same working with the students. You may
see the same ones on a daily basis,
but there’s always something new to look at, something new to discuss from the images they’ve made overnight, or in the last hour, to music, to clothes. Every time you walk into the print room, there’s a new delight for the eyes, whether it be letterpress, screen print, or a card cut and each year we have the degree show which is always hard work, stressful, but productive. It’s our chance to show off what we do to the public, parents & rest of the university.

Our first degree show in the building, last year was graced with Sir Peter Blake’s presence, which was a day to remember.

Who have been your artistic influences?
I have long been influenced by the great image-makers from the 40’s & 50’s, people like Ben Shahn, the great American illustrator, lettering designer, painter and printmaker. Over here, I suppose the equivalent was the great Edward Bawden. I also enjoy the more graphic side of things, like the work of the great Alvin Lustig, he did the best book cover ever; 3 tragedies, by Lorca. I think graphic art doesn’t get any better than that, he was a genius who sadly died tragically young. But I’ve always said art goes way beyond the visuals. My biggest hero of all is the country singer Hank Williams. He painted pictures with his lyrics that are so full of emotion & passion, yet simply told. And poetry gives me ideas on a daily basis, I read anything by Ferlinghetti, or Charles Bukowski, but you can also have a laugh with someone like John Hegley, who came down last year to give a talk at the art school and a workshop. Right now I’m being hugely influenced by a contemporary genius called John Broadley. He does comic strips, in the loosest sense of the phrase, called things like Wild for Adventure. I’m jealous of Mr Broadly, as he can make scribble look like masterpieces.

You are known as a snappy dresser with your correspondent shoes and sharp suits, which fashion era most interests you?
I’ve always had a fear of looking like everyone else. That makes me sound like a snob, which I basically am! T-shirt, jeans and trainers… no thanks! So over the years, mainly dictated by the music I like, I’ve found alternatives to what the high street offers. I got my first tailor made suit to coincide with the launch of my only children’s book, ‘Hot Jazz Special’ published
by Walker Books in 2005. I had a slightly flamboyant pinstripe suit made, brown with blue stripe. I liked to think I looked like a more subdued version of George Melly, who endorsed the book. Or a slightly thinner Fats Waller. The correspondent shoes went a treat with that. There are a large group of illustrators who have this obsession with ‘work-wear’, not high-viz jackets and the like, but a more refined denim look perhaps, or a heavy cotton suit. There’s a great shop in Holt, Norfolk, called Old Town and it’s the only one 
of it’s kind.

You can buy suits, made
for you, that are relatively cheap, in a choice of workwear cottons, corduroy, flannel or tweed. You go into the shop looking like Joe Bloggs and you come out like a young George Orwell. Team it with a bow tie, or sometimes a knitted tie and one looks the bees knees – but you do sometimes get funny looks. There’s a fine line between looking different & looking like you’re going to 
a fancy dress party but that’s the risk you take; flaneuring along Shirley High Street in a Donegal tweed suit, trying
to look like a Harvard professor with a book of Ferlinghetti poems under your arm. I used to buy a lot of second-hand clothes, but the internet started calling them vintage & then the prices went up, so it’s Old Town for me from now on and Trickers shoes.

Tell us about your most recent artwork/commission.
I illustrated a cook book late last year called Food Glorious Food, which is now an ITV programme. I did six maps for it which was good fun to do. I’m working for a small Dorset publisher called Little Toller Books, they’re good to work for, smaller clients often are,
as you get more artistic freedom. I’ve just finished a screen print for a small print dealer called Jennings Fine Art. It’s about the revival of a long lost invention called the George Bennie Airspeed Railway. Neil is going to sell the print at the Artworkers Guild, in Holborn, London so I’m looking forward to going to that. But it’s also available to buy from me.

What plans do you have for the future?
Merrell Books are publishing a book
on me and my work later next year,
so that’s quite exciting. And this year
is now booked up with forthcoming exhibitions, in various parts of the country. In London, Scotland, Brighton etc. so it’s going to be a busy year. My first show is going to be at a London restaurant, called Kensington Place, on Kensington Church Street, starting April 1st (no joke). As it’s mainly a seafood restaurant, I’m busy working on a set of nautical prints & paintings. Including quotes from Woody Guthrie, Ginsberg & the great song by Tim Buckley, ‘Song to the Siren’, so that’s keeping me busy at my studio in The Arches, in the Old Cattle Market in Southampton.

What three things would you advise a visitor to Southampton to see?
The City Art Gallery, the home made beer at the Platform Tavern and feed the ducks at the duck pond on Southampton Common.

About Jonny Hannah…
Jonny Hannah studied at
 the Cowdenbeath College of Knowledge, Liverpool Art School
& then the Royal College of Art.
 For the last thirteen years he has been
a freelance illustrator, & is represented by the Heart Agency
in London & New York. His many clients include The Sunday Telegraph, The New York Times & The St. Kilda Courier. 
Any spare minute is often spent increasing the back catalogue of his own ‘Cakes & Ale Press’, a cottage industry publishing books, prints, posters, teatowels & badges. He has exhibited here & there, including St. Jude’s in Norfolk, who asked him to create his first fabric design, ‘The Captain’s Pattern’.
 He happily lives in Shirley, Southampton, with Sharon &
their two bairns, & is now the course leader for BA Illustration at Southampton Solent School of Art & Design.
Ultimately, he enjoys nothing 
better than going to his studio in the Arches, down in the Old Cattle Market, to illustrate, paint & savour the odd Tunnocks Caramel Wafer with a fresh cup of coffee.

To purchase any of Jonny Hannah’s artwork including a print of the Southampton Guest Guide artwork email: