While Australian photographer Robyn Lea’s new book 'A Room of Her Own, Inside the Homes & Lives of Creative Women' is the ultimate escape, and takes us into the homes and lives of 20 extraordinary women from around the world, it’s Robyn’s life that we find most intriguing...
She moved to Milan when she was 18 to work as a photographer’s assistant – and never looked back. Over the years, there have been countless exhibitions held and books published. Robyn’s first book, MILAN: Finding Food, Fashion & Family in a Private City was published in 2013, and in her own words is, “an homage to the magical hidden heart of the city that I grew to love over many years.” There have been many books that followed, including a coffee table book for the Ritz Paris (Robyn was chosen from thousands of photographers as the official photographer and The Ritz Paris had not released a coffee table book since 1978).
Lea’s latest book, A Room of Her Own, Inside the Homes & Lives of Creative Women, came from her life-long obsession with reading biographies about women. “From the outset, female friendship and spiritual connectedness were part of the conversation. Then art and interiors – two of my great loves – were added to the mix, and it evolved into a book about creative women in their homes and studios. Female friendships, mentors and mother-daughter relationships are woven through many of the stories, and the life of the spirit is heavily explored in a number of the chapters,” says Lea.
Inside the colourful tome you’ll find stories on women ranging from Lisbeth McCoy – a sculptor and multi-media artist living in New York with her gallerist husband and their son – to artist and mother of six children, Fiona Corsini, who lives in Florence, as her family has done since the Middle Ages. There’s also Sue Townsend, the British founder of soap and scent brand Ortigia, Sicilia, who, Lea says, “infuses every aspect of her life in Italy with colour and passion.” Yet, as you’ll discover here, Robyn’s incredible life could be a book of its own.
Here, she shares her passions, memories and more about the life of a creative.
You moved to Milan in your late teenage years to work as a photographer’s assistant – what are your most vivid memories of this time?
I arrived in the early winter of 1989 when I was eighteen, and Milan was cloaked in a seemingly impenetrable grey fog. Looking back, it seems symbolic of my first year in the city which at the time, felt like a closed shop to outsiders. I distinctly remember my intense loneliness during that period. I was trying to learn the language as I wanted to get to know the Milanese and not simply hang out with expats. But the locals were very reserved and it took me several years to really feel at home amongst them. They are a highly-cultured people and many of their customs have remained unchanged for centuries – from social norms and culinary traditions to their intellectual pursuits and Renaissance-style outlook. And as an Aussie girl from the back blocks of Ballarat, I was not exactly refined. It didn’t help that prior to leaving Australia, a shop assistant in Chapel street had urged me to buy a shiny, silver puffer jacket to see me through the cold winter there. ‘It’s very Milan!’ he declared. After enduring the sideways glances of the elegantly-attired locals I soon realised that I had more in common with a disco ball than I did with a Milanese signorina.
That year I worked in a photography studio in the Navigli district, known for its many artists’ studios, busy cafes and the sprawling costume and set building departments for La Scala. Slowly I was able to access these often-well-hidden treasures, and I later produced a book showing what I found inside the cities courtyards and behind its high, grey walls.
Is this something you’d encourage your children to do – live and work overseas?
I would definitely encourage my children to live overseas. In fact, we lived as a family in New York for five years from 2010. But if our children Isabella (Issy) and Freddie were to head off on their own to live abroad I hope they would have more tools in their ‘life kits’ and more scaffolding around them than I had when I arrived starry-eyed in Milan two months before my nineteenth birthday. At the time, I thought I was ready for the challenge, as I had decided to be a photographer when I was fifteen. But in retrospect I recognise that I was very immature and ill-equipped emotionally to handle the challenges that I faced in a foreign city on my own. Later, in my twenties I spent two more years in Milan where I began my career as a photographer in earnest.
You have exhibited extensively, including at the prestigious Vittoriano Museum in Rome in 2015 – take us back to this exhibition?
I was invited to have a solo show at the Vittoriano Museum by the US Embassy in Rome as part of the World Expo 2015. At the time, I was living in New York and my book DINNER WITH JACKSON POLLOCK: Recipes, Art & Nature (Assouline, 2015), had just launched. The book featured the Pollock’s handwritten recipes which I discovered at his home (now a house/museum) in Long Island. The exhibition featured images from the project, including Pollock’s favourite landscapes such as Accabonac Creek and Louse Point beach, shots inside his studio and the home he shared with his wife, artist Lee Krasner, and images featuring the dishes he loved. Months ahead of the exhibition, the Embassy staff sent me the Museum’s floor plan and wall measurements, so I could design and curate the show remotely. The first time I saw it was on the day the exhibition was opened by the US Ambassador and the Mayor of Rome, who co-hosted the event. It was all very exciting as I had arrived in Rome the night before, and managed to have a quick look at the show before the press conference and opening night. After wandering through the exhibition during the event, guests were ushered to the Museum’s expansive rooftop terrace, with views across the city for cocktails and miniature tastings of Jackson’s favourite recipes.
Tell us about the process of creating a book – how have all of your books differed?
My first book MILAN: Finding Food, Fashion & Family in a Private City (2013, ERD/RLC) was an homage to the magical hidden heart of the city that I grew to love over many years. It wasn’t easy to produce, as Issy was three and Freddie was just a baby, and I was still muddling through my roles as mother, wife and working woman. But I knew then, as I know now, that without a creative project, I quickly become miserable. So, I struggled and juggled the work, travel and other projects with parenting and little sleep. It was an emotional moment birthing that book-baby in 2012, after an incubation period of almost five years. The Bulgari Hotel in Milan launched the book in their garden on a perfect summer’s evening. That night I reflected on the hardship of my first year in Milan as a photographers’ assistant in 1990, and I felt that in some ways I was no longer an outsider, but a commentator working inside the heart of the city.
The Pollock book was much quicker. After being offered the contract with Assouline, I delivered the project – text, recipes and photos included – about a year later. The success of that book lead to DINNER WITH GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: Recipes, Art & Landscape (2017, Assouline), which involved retracing the artist’s steps through the arid high desert plains of New Mexico, known as ‘O’Keeffe Country’. I also spent hours at the O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe, leafing through O’Keeffe’s annotated books and folders of her recipes and magazine cuttings. Then back at home in Melbourne I hosted dinner parties using O’Keeffe’s favourite recipes, testing them on my husband and our friends.
For Eternally Ritz Paris, Lisa Perry, Chateau Life, Venetian Chic, Hong Kong: Heritage, Art & Dreams, French House Chic, the process was relatively straight-forward. Typically for these projects I dive in for about two weeks and emerge with thousands of files to edit before sending them to the publisher. Occasionally though, for logistical reasons, I only have a few days to shoot, such as with Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair. Despite the fierce pace of many of these projects, I don’t feel depleted afterwards, because they are creatively nourishing and they feed the spirit and soul.
How would you describe the life of a creative?
The life and trajectory of a creative person is very much influenced by socio-economic factors, race, and gender. Even today, few females enjoy the support needed or the access required, to match the creative careers of their male counterparts. I see frequent examples of this prejudice when working on my projects. It is astonishing that even in the 21st century, and even amongst educated and in many ways privileged women, that these issues continue to underscore the experiences of so many. It can be quietly devastating for those affected, and ultimately detrimental for society at large.
Reflecting on my personal creative path – it’s often been a battle, but it’s also been fascinating, rewarding, and sometimes utterly thrilling and life-changing. Each project offers an opportunity for me to learn about the world, and share those findings with the reader. In my latest book, A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women (2021, Thames & Hudson), I have been privy to the working and private lives of female makers, curators, artists and creators. For many of the twenty women featured in the book, creative confidence developed at a young age, and was not undone – as it is so often – by well-intentioned adults who make value judgements about childrens’ artwork way before it is constructive to do so.
What is also clear for several of the book’s subjects, is that creativity developed as a language, a way to express feelings and ideas when they were unable to confidently or safely express them verbally. For some, their artistic voices emerged as a form of rebellion, while others enjoyed a nurturing creative environment provided by their parents. One of the many things the female subjects had in common is that there existed and continues to exist, a need to create, not simply a want.
When do you feel your most creative?
I have a vivid dream life, which often fuels my imagination. So, I like to stay quietly for half an hour in bed in the morning before I need to be up, to process the dreams or ponder whatever thoughts come to mind. Uninterrupted thinking time is so precious to me that it feels like the ultimate luxury.
I also believe that my best creative work comes while I’m actually doing the work, as opposed to the waiting for a bolt of creative inspiration. The work itself creates momentum.
What was it like working with luxury French publisher Assouline?
Assouline is a family-owned company, who also owns dozens of book boutiques around the world. As a result, they are not heavily reliant on other stockists and which liberates them to action whatever book proposals take their fancy. We usually start a project in an informal way, having a chat on the phone, and then they provide me with enormous creative freedom, which is terrific. It allows me to keep an open mind, make room for the unexpected and work instinctively – responding to the people and environments I find myself in.
You were chosen from thousands of photographers as the official photographer to shoot the new coffee table book for the Ritz Paris. The Ritz Paris has not released a coffee table book since 1978. Tell me about this project?
When I received the confirmation that I had been selected to shoot the Ritz book, I was thrilled, as when I was a child I had heard stories about the history of the hotel from an older family friend, Sara Benn, who had done the Escoffier cooking school. One of the joys of shooting at the hotel was documenting the many heritage-listed rooms, such as the Chopin Suite with its ornate painted ceiling that can only be is restored by experts from the Louvre Museum. In order to capture the ceiling in all its detailed glory, I had to lie in the middle of the bed which is decorated with a pink silk and embroidered golden bedhead. I would have happily stayed there all day!
Nearby inside the Imperial Suite, is a bedroom based on Marie-Antoinette’s private rooms in the Palace of Versailles with furnishings of brocade, silk and velvet which are absolutely sumptuous to photograph. The room is listed as a national monument for its historic significance by the French government.
I also photographed the Hemingway Bar, which was liberated from the Germans in 1944 by Ernest Hemingway and the grand cuisine, where Executive Chef Nicolas Sale and his team prepared dishes for the two Michelin star restaurant La Table de L’Espadon. The activity in the kitchen felt much like an impeccably choreographed dance performance, and I tried to be as unobtrusive as is possible with a long lens and a large tripod. Surprisingly, in the midst of all the culinary preparations, which demand absolute precision and focus, Chef Nicolas set up a stool and a little dining station at the end of one of the stainless-steel benches and prepared the entire degustation menu for me to sample.
How have you navigated your career with raising two children – what has been the most challenging part?
My career often requires me to respond to tight deadlines, travel frequently, and manage a heavy workload. When the children were younger these aspects of my work life sometimes felt logistically and emotionally incompatible with mothering. But I very much wanted to work. So, with the support of my husband Tim and several wonderful babysitters – who became part of our extended family – I found a way to do both. These days, I roll my work and family into one big, wild, and sometimes unwieldy tangle – I work from my home office, Issy sometimes helps me on small shoots, I ask the kids to read the first drafts of my books and offer comments, and the interiors of our home feel like an ever-changing canvas for creative expression. I used to worry that perhaps our children would suffer as a result of my commitment to my work. But, since owning my own need to create, I’ve realised that the children see my work as an integral part of who I am and an essential ingredient of our family life.
Your new book, published by Thames & Hudson is called “A Room of Her Own, Inside the Homes & Lives of Creative Women”. Tell me where the idea for this book came from?
I’ve always been an obsessive reader of biographies about women. So, when Kirsten Abbott from Thames & Hudson suggested a book about women, it immediately took my fancy. From the outset, female friendship and spiritual connectedness were part of the conversation. Then art and interiors – two of my great loves – were added to the mix, and it evolved into a book about creative women in their homes and studios. Female friendships, mentors, and mother-daughter relationships are woven through many of the stories, and the life of the spirit is heavily explored in a number of the chapters.
Your daughter Issy accompanied you during your shoot for the book through Europe, pre-lockdown – do you think your daughter shares your love of travel?
As a very special gift for her thirteenth birthday, I took Issy on one of the trips I did for the book. It was a formative and life-changing experience for her, and a wonderful time for us as mother-daughter. She was fascinated by the women artists, fashion designers, and curators we met in France, Italy, and Austria. It opened her mind beyond the world of school and life in Melbourne, to a broader world of possibility. She was able to see my work in action – as I conducted interviews, set up shoots, and processed photo files in trains and airports. I’m afraid she caught the travel bug! And I do hope we will have more work and travel adventures together in the future.
Tell me about some of the women featured in the book?
Lisbeth McCoy is a sculptor and multi-media artist living in New York with her gallerist husband and their son. Growing up on the Danish island of Funan as an only child, Lisbeth was left to her own devices at age fourteen when her mother died suddenly. Her father, a hairdresser of note, was busy travelling the world, so Lisbeth valiantly paved her own path, which took her from France to the US, then for a stint mustering cattle in a cowgirl hat on a rural property in Australia, before she eventually settled in New York where she works in a light-filled studio in Tribeca. Her work and home are both perfect reflections of her – elegant, thoughtful, and understated.
The artist and mother of six children, Fiona Corsini, lives in Florence, as her family has done since the Middle Ages. Determined to spread loving energy and goodwill across the globe, she dedicates each of her daily paintings to people in her life who are suffering, and posts them online, gifting them to strangers around the world in exchange for positive thoughts.
Sue Townsend, the British founder of soap and scent brand Ortigia, Sicilia, infuses every aspect of her life in Italy with colour and passion. Her home is awash with rare antiques and precious heirlooms, her thrice-weekly dinner parties attract a collection of European and British intellectuals and bon vivants, and the products she creates are earth-friendly and infused with the colours and aromas of the private walled gardens of Sicily.
Why are their homes so important for creative women?
Home is often a reflection of the inner workings of someone’s mind. This is also true for creative women, whose private domains not only reflect their artistic view of the world but provide a constant source of inspiration and artistic nourishment. For many of the women in A Room of Her Own, their studios and personal abodes provide the opportunity to create a series of giant still-life studies. Moving a chair here or arranging vases of flowers there – as French painter, Claire Basler likes to do – provides a never-ending creative loop. It’s a silent conversation or dialogue, that feeds the artist’s heart and repels the harsh blows of the real world located outside her door.
You once said: “There is only one sun. That is, never use more than one light.” Tell me about how you work with light?
Growing up in regional Victoria, I had no immediate access to professional photographers. That all changed when I did work experience in Melbourne in Year 12 with John and Kate Gollings, photographers who I respected enormously. John became a long-term mentor, and I learnt more from monthly meetings I had with him than I did in the entire BA in Photography I completed at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
One of John’s mantras was ‘you need to get back to the Bauhaus!’ Another was ‘there is only one sun!’ In other words, don’t overcomplicate your lighting. It’s time-consuming to do so, and often the results are less beautiful. Part of the discipline John instilled in me in my early 20s was to use one lens, one light, shoot only black and white and only use a plain-coloured background until I could produce what he considered to be a good photograph. In some ways, the simpler the approach, the fewer places there are to hide creatively. I became married to the Bauhaus ideals for about five years before I felt ready to explore further. Even today, I never use more than one light source, and that light source is almost always the sun.
Finally, what’s the best career advice you have been given?
A common approach amongst many of the artists, writers, and photographers I’ve met and admired over the years is their desire to create their own projects – allowing them to explore a subject in great depth outside commercial constraints. One of the photographers I assisted in Milan for example, Jacqueline James, did black and white portraits of all the wonderful characters in her neighbourhood – the baristas, the baker, the porter from her apartment block. Writer Sara Benn, a friend of my parents, researched the lives of women in history and wrote about them every day until she was forced to stop when she went blind in her 70s. Barnaba Fornasetti has continued the tradition of his father Piero – incorporating Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri’s portrait into his designs. And over a period of many decades, John Gollings produced a series of landscapes from the air – evocative views of Australia and beyond.
While I was not specifically advised to follow such a path, I learnt by example and my personal creative projects have informed and inspired other aspects of my work and family life. For example, in my early career I did a series on dance in Zimbabwe and several years later I produced a nude series that helped me learn about light, composition and form. In 2000, I spent time in the Himalayas, doing a photographic project on the Tibetan Government in exile. The books I produce today also provide a platform to explore in each subject in-depth, like personal projects expressed in a commercial context. I don’t think I will ever get tired of the format and feel extremely grateful to work in this area.