Artist Story: Anna Simmons, map-maker and illustrator

Inspired by all things historical and travel, Anna Simmons’ illustrations offer a chance to explore popular destinations near and far.

In her latest work, exclusively for Royal Museums Greenwich, journey along the Thames taking in familiar London landmarks, including all four Royal Museums Greenwich sites – National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, Queen’s House, and Royal Observatory . We caught up with the North Wales-based artist to hear her story and discover why the medium of maps is her favourite.

London-and-Greenwich-map-artist-Anna-Simmons

London & Greenwich map, designed exclusively for Royal Museums Greenwich by Anna Simmons (inset) ©Anna Simmons

Hello Anna! Please can you tell us why you decided to become an illustrator? 

I knew that I wanted to study only art, so I went through the art school system where you experiment, critique and then gravitate towards a discipline [Anna is an alumni of the prestigious Royal College of Art]. I loved drawing and colour, and had the problem-solving approach of a designer; but with my own set of references and rules. So the obvious diagnosis was illustration!

Your work has been commissioned by, among others, National Geographic Traveller and British Airways. What is it about the format of a map that you enjoy illustrating?  

On a simple level I just love learning about new locations, making drawings of architecture and exploring lettering styles.

However, I think that one of the most interesting aspects of map illustration is that the final composition is always determined by the geography. In a way, a map comes to life, partly by itself and partly through my interjection, which is quite an exciting process.

London-Greenwich-tote-bag-and-books

London & Greenwich map Tote Bag, exclusively for Royal Museums Greenwich. £12, available from shop.rmg.co.uk

You’ve illustrated London and the Royal Borough of Greenwich exclusively for the new RMG Shop collection. Do you have a favourite place to visit in the city? 

During my time in London I always lived in the East. I would often visit the Tower of London to retreat into the past and pay an imaginary visit to the Tudors. In those same years, I used to love to visit my sister in Greenwich where she was studying music, for an escape into the greenery and history.

As kids, we grew up with a peculiar obsession with Samuel Pepys, triggered by her starring in a school production as King Charles II (imagine a nine year old girl with a penciled-in moustache!). Because of that association, Greenwich holds a personal fascination for me and made working on this project a real treat. 

Glad to hear it! Do you have a traveller in mind when you begin a new map? How do you choose what goes on the map? 

With map commissions, the locations are usually requested by the client. I will then research and virtually explore the places. I suppose really I am the traveller, reporting back to the viewer how I imagine the place.

I will then use lettering that I instinctively feel describes more about the style or the history that I uncovered in my research. Finally, I chose little details and figures to populate the map, to tell a bit more about the place and bring it to life.

Cutty-Sark-and-Royal-Observatory-lapel-pins

London & Greenwich map Lapel Pins, exclusively for Royal Museums Greenwich. £3 each, available from shop.rmg.co.uk

You make your maps using a collaged composition of illustration, texture and hand lettering. How did you develop your style?  

My style is essentially a development of all the elements I poured into my art college sketchbooks- lots of research, lettering, textures, cut-outs and illustrations. Also, tiny people cut out of picture postcards and let free to meander over the pages. I didn’t realise it at the time, but all these elements I would later pull together in the form of maps. 

Your maps are beautifully colourful, but remain individual to the place they illustrate – how do you decide on a colour palette for each?   

I research and look at lots of images of the locations, to absorb clues from architecture, nature, history, signage and so on. Through this process, I find that the characteristic colours of a place tend to just jump out.

London-Greenwich-Shortbread-biscuits-and-map-mug

London & Greenwich Shortbread Biscuits, £5 and Mug, £8. Exclusively for Royal Museums Greenwich, from shop.rmg.co.uk

Who are your favourite artists/map makers?   

My favourite map maker is David Atkinson, and I was lucky enough to get a start assisting him at his illustration studio, Hand Made Maps. He's a brilliant artist and was a real mentor to me.

I’ve always had a special interest in British post-war art and design so the John Piper exhibition at Tate Liverpool earlier this year was a real highlight. Also, the work of Mary Blair, an illustrator for Disney in the 1950s, was an exciting recent discovery. Her use of colour is amazing. 

Coincidentally, when at college I was especially inspired by the work of Martin Parr [currently exhibiting as part of The Great British Seaside at National Maritime Museum]. I love his ability to isolate familiar sights and contemporary habits in his photography, so they suddenly communicate a different and unexpected truth. He identifies 'Britishness' so well.

Martin-Parr-Weymouth-1995-photo Martin-Parr-West-Bay-Dorset-1996-photo

Weymouth, 1995 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos. West Bay, Dorset, 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

And finally, if we asked you what your favourite item in the new London & Greenwich range is, what would it be?  

I love drinking my tea from the mug as I work- especially nice with one of the shortbread biscuits!

Browse the London and Greenwich by Anna Simmons collection in our shop.