In conversation with: Molly Lemon 

This interview originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of the Wotton Times.

When we talk it’s a characteristically dull day in mid-January; the view from Molly’s skylight is mostly lead-grey cloud, which conversely serves to make her studio feel cosier. Stacked in the corner of the room are boxes of prints, carvings and packaging for postage. 

“It’s slowly getting there,” Molly says as she passes a cup of tea. “I worked out that for the last three years of being self-employed I broke even. I’ve been working really hard since I started, so it’s good to see this all pay off – this fourth year has been much better.” After setting up an Etsy account in 2017, Molly has been cultivating a significant following on Instagram, and has made a name for herself locally with her delicately artistic style of wood engraving. 

“Wood engraving originally came about to replace etchings – etchings depreciate over time when you print them, it damages the metal slightly. With engravings, you can make thousands before the carving starts to wear down.” Molly gets her blocks from Chris Daunt: the wood used has to be hard and slow-growing, with a fine grain that doesn’t splinter when cut. She prints on an old letterpress machine dating back to 1886. “All the engravings are type height – so the same height as lead letters, the movable type used in old newspapers.”

Molly’s journey to reach this point in her career wasn’t linear: after doing Art at A-level, she attended an art foundation course which involved doing woodcut at the time. Afterwards, she took an art undergrad at the Winchester School of Art in Bristol, which she describes as ‘very conceptual’. “It was all performance art, animation, that kind of thing. But everywhere leads somewhere else.” 

Molly’s engravings involve a painstaking amount of detail and precision.

“Sarah Bodman, who was looking after me, put me on a wood engraving course for the day to say thank you at the end of my course. And that’s how I got into it.” After living and working in Bristol, Molly moved from Fishponds to Wotton around two years ago. “I really love being so close to nature. I can take my dog Winnie out for regular walks and let her sniff around while I sketch for 20 minutes.”

As well as hosting a range of regularly updated content on Etsy, Molly also has her work featured in several galleries across the Cotswolds. Having grown up in Dartmoor, she feels most content when she’s close to nature. “My parents own a field in Devon next to the river Teign and I used to row up the river on my boat. When I had my GCSEs I rowed out into the middle of the river and did all my revision on the boat.” This is acutely reflected in her work; be it rabbits, blackbirds or landscapes, she definitely enjoys drawing the outdoors. “It’s what I like to engrave, but I also love to show the vulnerability of it as well, and the beauty of it. I don’t really shout about it on my website, but for every print I do, a pound is donated to an environmental charity.”

“Knowing that my work is raising money for a good charity makes me feel better about it as well – I’m not sure how much I’ve raised because I’ve only been doing it since May, and obviously I wasn’t great financially before that, but it’s probably over a thousand pounds now.” She’s made a concerted effort to go plastic-free in her postage as well, with an attractive wrapping paper and cardboard combination produced in part at Clarendon Press. “When you buy my work online, the packaging – if you choose it to be – is plastic-free. So people have still got the option of a cellophane bag, but there’s a more environmentally friendly option as well.” Molly laughs as she produces one to demonstrate. “It’s something I was working towards for ages, as they’re made all by hand; they take longer than the actual print.” 

Molly’s attentive canine companion, Winnie.

Molly believes that a key part of the appeal of her work is the fact that her selection constantly updates. “I love working fast, and I don’t do many of each print; never more than 50. They usually sell out in between three to six months, so it means there are always new designs on display. I like that turnover because when people come back to see me at a show I’ve got something new on display.” 

Molly is frank about the amount of effort she’s put in versus the payoff she’s had in the first couple of years. “It’s hard to keep going if you’re paid nothing for three years, it’s a bit disheartening. I remember when I started out as a picture framer I was paid 50p per frame, so I was making about £17.50 a day. And that was working flat out with no lunch, because I was like ‘If I stop for lunch I’ll lose a pound’, which is crazy looking back now.” 

Fast forward a few years and her artwork has never been so in demand, with the bulk of her sales arriving through Instagram. “All the most popular ones have sold out, which is cool. I had a sleeping hare which sold out; sleeping dormouse as well. Sleeping animals that look cute, they’re a big hit. The tiny prints are good; because my prints are small I can charge that much, so they’re quite affordable, so I sell some prints for £16 – which for an original is not too bad.”

When I volunteer that the people of Wotton are always ready to support a good cause, Molly wholeheartedly agrees, citing her Christmas cards as one such example. “I did the poster for the Christmas market and, just to see how they’d sell, I made some Christmas cards as well. I think we printed 300 for the first run, and they sold out within 48 hours. So then I went to Pete at Clarendon Press and printed another run of 300, which sold within a week. And then I printed a third run – so 900 cards in total – and they all sold out. It was crazy!” 

As the interview wraps up, our conversation turns back to Dartmoor. “I still miss it sometimes; when you go home it feels like nothing else. People feel that about Wotton I think. I reckon I will one day too.”

“Photos reproduced with permission from Paul Groom and Pressing Matters Magazine.”