Jessica May Underwood's Work Gilds Your Creations
Creativity is everywhere. Whether you’re making lunch in the kitchen or a painting on a canvas, we’re always creating if we mean to or not. So much of human life is centered around creation, it’s in our blood, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. When Fearne Cotton was putting together her latest cookbook she knew she was tapping into a deep need to create, so she asked Jessica May Underwood to bring an extra flair to that impulse and lend her drawings to the pages of the book. “I cook for myself every day. I think there are probably parallels you could draw between [cooking and illustration],” she says. “When you are creating something it's meditative and productive in a similar way.”
Anyone who has owned a cookbook and used the recipes they found inside knows that these books don’t stay pristine for long. Flour gets impacted in the binding, butter stains the pages and chocolate mars the cover. Art is precious to our world, but when Jessica’s illustrations found their way into the pages of Cotton’s book, they became a part of the artifact that would change with use and love and time. “The animals were an interesting way to bring some personality to each chapter, whilst allowing me to bring in some personal messages,” she says. “For example the Bees and honey were for Fearne’s baby daughter Honey.” All creation is personal, but the relationship that Jessica and Cotton have developed for years makes this extra special.
It’s important to hold a regard for art lifting it with our esteem. But we must also remember it’s there for us to enjoy no matter where we find it. “A well-loved cookbook is such a personal object. To bring my artwork into this equation is so special because just as you remember your children's books and coloring books this will have that element also,” says Jessica. “It is interesting as an artist to work on interactive pieces. You can use it and be a part of it and that is really important to me. It is a bit monumental for me to see it published and I am very proud of it.“ Whenever you love something it will change, and Jessica’s work in Cotton’s book will change right along with you and the beautiful things it helps you create.
Jessica May Underwood and Living a Creative Life: A Conversation
To many, the life of an artist is a mystery. Scrolling through the stories that we offer our readers gives a window into what it means to work and live as an artist, but always through the lens of certain jobs. Those lenses are limited. There’s only so much that each project can tell us about an artist, how they live, and what their macro process is. But every now and then we get a deeper look at the way an artist creates and approaches the world. Recently, Jessica May Underwood sat down with Lou Stoppard at the Victoria and Albert Museum to discuss Jessica’s career, process, inspirations, and take on some cultural issues. We’ve attached the conversation below, which we encourage you to listen in total.
The artistically curious would be interested to hear that Jessica never really set out with the intention of being a professional illustrator. Instead in was a combination of passion and skill that thrust her into a world she never aimed for. “I never thought I could make it into a career. I never planned it. I never set my cap at being an illustrator,” Jessica explains. But when Alexander McQueen’s team saw her work they hand picked her to join the collective, if for nothing more than to give it a try. It ended up influencing her deeply enough that she’s still inspired by her time there. “Going into McQueen’s working world was really influential for me,” she says. “Suddenly. You’re not being told to draw a picture, you’re being told to help create a vision. And to help create a world.”
They go on to discuss the value of beauty, the importance of tangible work, and whether it’s possible to use social media to build a career. Responding to what Jessica says, Lou stepped in and brought up the point that in a world saturated by beautifully manipulated photographs, illustration offers something intimate that has been lost in fashion photography. “[Illustration] is almost more human in a way,” Lou says. “There’s always that saying that ‘People trust images more than words,’ but I think photography now, people almost presume things have been manipulated, or presume they’ve been retouched. Whereas illustration there’s always a sense of someone made this, there’s a connection with someone.”
If you're looking to gain a deeper understanding of how fashion, illustration, and artistry intersect: this conversation is for you.
The Sunday Times Explores Scent with Jessica May Underwood
Scent is the sense that’s most tied to memory. One whiff of a smell from childhood is transporting, bringing up memories long buried. It’s immediate and visceral, and often inexplicable. So when Sunday Times Style invited Jessica May Underwood to create a series of illustrations on a feature about fragrance, she knew she was stepping into deep waters. “It is always interesting to work with the narrative of scent,” says Jessica. “Endless opportunities for visual interpretation - and the written article provided a good base note for embellishment by my work.” Her aesthetic offers an exploration of substance and survey towards the intangible, exactly the modality that scent lives in. Her work is interpretive and prioritizes familiarity above photographic reality, offering a richer experience.
Eagle-eyed flower enthusiasts will be able to pick out exactly which flora Jessica was drawing, but her way of creating these images brings through interpretation, building off reality and diving into understanding. “I was directed very specifically on the floral subjects, each of them a specific ingredient addressed in the article,” Jessica explains. “The bouquets on each page are drawn from tuberose, lily, jasmine, Tahitian rose and white amaryllis. The challenge was to convey the beauty of each flower when arranged in a cluster on the page, whilst giving equal weight to each.” In the real world, the physical forms of these flowers have huge variety, and more powerful smells may mask subtlety. When balanced for smell they can each play different parts that they would naturally, like they do in the fragrances featured. Jessica’s composition allows for the playing field to be leveled for our experience. Where a rose may fall away when placed next to a massive lily, Jessica gives them the same footing and we can take them together in a balanced bouquet.
The Sunday Times has become required reading for anyone with an extra pot of tea on the weekend, a fact that wasn’t lost on Jessica. “It’s always such a pleasure to work with the Sunday Times,” says Jessica. “It made my weekend!” That is what Sundays smell like after all, fresh ink on paper of a magazine or newspaper, a fresh pot of Earl Grey, and a bright spring breeze sneaking in through a cracked window.
Jessica May Underwood Breaks New Ground for Harrods
To celebrate spring, Harrods’ store has gone into full bloom. Inspired by the flowers of the season, they’ve filled their store, magazine, and window displays with the work of Jessica May Underwood. Her Victorian inspired line drawings of flowers represent a new chapter for the retail titan, something that isn’t lost on Jessica at all. “It’s the biggest thing they’ve undertaken that’s been solely illustrated,” she says. “It’s the first time my direct paintings have ever been made into something so large scale.”
It's a huge vote of confidence for an internationally renowned retail space like Harrods to take the leap into illustration like this. They could have walked into it with some trepidation, but they didn't. They trusted Jessica's work and let it stand on its own. "The nicest thing was that they kept it so true to the line work," she says. "And it was like watching my drawings grow literally into life size plants." From development, to drawing, to installing the final pieces; it has all come together very naturally.
Like real flowers, Jessica’s installation has a finite life. It is not ironic, but perhaps fitting, that the composite pieces are as ephemeral as nature. She noticed the passage of time working on her contributions the last time she visited the installation. “It’s been about three weeks since opening night and they all gradually begin to wilt because they’re made out of paper,” she says. But rather than being disheartened by this, she recognizes the reflexive feature. “It’s really nice. Kind of the nature of the theme of it all. It sounds really predictable but I didn’t expect for it to happen. And it looks really lovely.” The effort that Jessica put into each image was to bring a sense of realism to the work, and as time passes the realistic aspect expands.
This year, for the first time ever, Harrods attended the Chelsea Flower Show, the 103 year old even that celebrates spring and horticulture. Attended by 157,000 visitors each year (the number is limited), it is an international event and perhaps the most famous garden and flower show in the world. Harrods’ set up a booth this year, and used the same imagery for their display. The tradition of the Chelsea Flower Show reaches far back, drawing on inspiration from Victorian gardens, so it was fitting that Jessica’s work should be Harrods’ contribution. “For me it’s nice because it’s drawing on Victorian processes,” she explains. “It’s nice to be at the root of all of that as the artist.”
Check out Jessica’s flowers at Harrods before they lose their pedals, and if you want a piece for your own, check out Harrods’ Magazine.