Chatting to artist Eliza Southwood is like peeling an onion; her life story unfolds in layers, each perfectly independent of the other. Famous for her stunning cycling prints and commissions for the V&A, Sustrans, Rapha and more, I would never have guessed that her former careers included being a professional flamenco dancer and a horse stable hand in a Pythonesque anarcho-syndicalist commune in Tuscany! There is certainly more to this London-based producer of iconic cycling images than meets the eye...
Launching her "Spring Classics' series of prints at Look Mum No Hands! on Wednesday night, Southwood revealed the fascinating journey which took her from a poor upbringing in rural Worcestershire, to being probably the most sought after cycling artist of today. I should point out here that she also makes prints of things other than bicycles and cycling events - on her immediate wish list is the time to do a series of dogs!
"I'm always inspired by cycling," Southwood told me, "Rapha commissioned me to do these Spring Classics prints to be displayed in their Manchester shop. They've got a fabulous gallery. They asked specifically for large-sized prints." This stunning collection is all AO sized (83cm x 114cm), which caused her quite a few difficulties. "They're hand-printed, each layer is done by hand, you have to manipulate the screens by hand too so I built up my arm muscles!" Her prints are usually quite a bit smaller, and creating these was a physical challenge to 42-year-old Eliza, who is petite!
"After the Manchester show, Look Mum No Hands! approached me. I've always had a really good relationship with them." In fact Southwood's first ever exhibition was at LNMH! back in the early days of the café in 2011 "It all started with LMNH! years ago. They didn't know who I was, I approached them and they said 'well, your stuff looks ok', and they put it up on the walls. It was when I was just starting out and I'd just left my career as an architect and I was feeling really burnt out and I just wanted to be an artist."
So what was it about cycling that appealed to her as a subject? "I like cycling, I follow the races, I wanted to do a themed show and I produced a series of prints which Look Mum put up and it turned out to be a really good, best-selling show. So that kind of led on to other things. Someone from the V&A came in and saw the prints and then that led to a commission from the V&A which sold very well. People just bought my prints, I guess, and it established me as a cycling artist. It helps that my husband is a cycling nut as well, so he's my technical advisor. He tells me who's who and I got really into it as well. I love watching the Tour de France. I've always done other stuff, but cycling is a really strong thread at the moment."
Eliza and her husband Liam have a large collection of bicycles in their North London flat including two Bromptons, which she says are really good fun to ride, and a vintage steel framed Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra road bike. "I did a bicycle count once and we've got like 10 hanging from the ceiling they're sort of everywhere, two hanging upstairs and another two hanging on the landing - it's getting out of control - we need to sell some! We've got this hideous pole as soon as you come in the front door it's right in your face with two hanging things on it. It's aesthetically unpleasing but it's still there. It's hard to get rid of bikes though, you get fond of them."
Southwood's life in London is rather different to her upbringing, but early hardships taught her to work hard for what she wanted. Raised in rural Worcestershire, her parents separated when she was 10, and her mother took her to live in Asturias, northern Spain. "We were living in a one-bedroom shack in the middle of nowhere with just my Mum, sister, and loads of animals. I went to the local Spanish school until the age of 18 - I'm still bilingual. My Mum was just completely eccentric."
At 18, she got a job as an au pair in Italy with the aim of learning Italian. Southwood lasted just 10 days before running away (from the parents, not the children, she insists!). Her desperate search for an alternative source of income resulted in her taking the first job she found, as a stable hand working with Arab horses in an anarchic collective in Tuscany. "We were all equal there! I learnt to ride really well and became fluent in Italian." After an unusual gap year, Southwood decided to study Architecture at university. But if she'd always wanted to be an artist, why Architecture?
"I didn't want to be poverty-stricken. I grew up very poor - we didn't have any money as kids. I wanted to do something more lucrative. I struggled with it for years, but I always knew it wasn't really for me." After finally deciding to quit her job as a sports architect, working on projects such as the Singapore Sports Hub, she went on to pursue her dream. Southwood did two courses, one in illustration and the other in Printmaking, before choosing the latter discipline. "I love it as a medium - it's bold not subtle. I like choosing the colours, I like the whole process - it's all handmade. I love it! I'll probably be print-making until I'm 100."
Now she's making more money as an artist then she ever did as an architect. Her work is everywhere we go: R.E.W. Reynolds commissioned her to do their promotional artwork, her prints out-sell all the other merchandise at London Velo, and even Brightonian gift shops display her work proudly in their windows. "Success bemuses me. I find that if I like something myself then other people like it too."
The downside of success is that Southwood now has so many commissions that she barely has time left to do work for herself, "I need to take six months off to do my own work! Last year was mega busy and this year's the same. I need a PA very badly..." But it's her tireless work ethic that's enabled her to become so well known in a relatively short period of time. Is she a workaholic? "I was very driven when I left my job. I was really busy as an architect and that work ethic continued. I threw myself into being an artist and made it my mission. My work has to be just right, but I'm not a control freak, only a control freak about print making. After all, it's you up there on the walls - it's got to be just right."
Southwood has two children, having the eldest immediately after university aged 24. "Having kids focuses you to do stuff. I've worked since the age of 15. I can't just sit there and do nothing - I'd be useless in a spa - it's my idea of hell!" I was surprised to learn that one of her career choices was as a flamenco dancer as part of a dance troupe who performed on stage. There's a lot more to Southwood than meets the eye! "I think adversity makes you resilient," she explains.
Eliza fell off her Brompton recently and tore all the ligaments in her knee while cycling on an icy road so is off cycling for the moment, but she's commuted in London for the best part of 20 years and has every intention of getting back on her bike as soon as possible.
Her next project sounds fantastic - she's been commissioned by the Cono Sur wine company (who produce Bicicletta wines - one of Ride Velo's personal favourites) to produce a special Tour de France edition label for their wines along with various launches for the brand, which should go down very nicely indeed.
Back at Look Mum No Hands! Southwood was surrounded by friends and family in the place where she first found success. I asked her father, Francis Girling, what he thought of Southwood's new found talents: "I wasn't surprised at all, she's always drawn from a young age, though it was horses then and not bicycles!" Horses then, bicycles now and the future...? Well I get the impression that she could make a success of anything she chose to turn her talented hands to. Allez Allez, Eliza!