Return to Margate: A chat with Tracey Emin inside her new studio

Artist Tracey Emin has  given an insight into her return to Margate through an interview with Jay Cheshes for WSJ Magazine.

When Covid-19 brought the art world to a standstill in the spring, shutting down galleries and museums worldwide, Tracey Emin, one of Britain’s most famous living artists, was already upending her life.

As lockdowns spread across Europe, Emin was preparing to move from her home in East London, where she’s lived for the past 22 years, into a big new place in the centre of the city, a neoclassical spread with plenty of room to make art. And she was building a second home outside the city, a residential studio complex in a vast industrial space in her hometown, Margate.

Inside the Margate studio

I met Emin at her new place in Margate last year, before the pandemic hit, when construction was still in full swing. “I might be working on 30 big canvases all at once here, really large ones,” she says, imagining the possibilities for her new painting studio as we toured the dust-filled construction site. “I’d be really free, almost like a conductor, to just go crazy like a banshee or something.”

Emin is best known for her intense autobiographical work across many mediums, baring her soul in fabric, film, photography, wood, found objects and her own handwriting in bright neon. She’s shifted her focus in recent years to more classical painting on canvas and hands-on clay sculpture. “She’s making less of a variety of kind of artwork, but she’s becoming more and more who she is—which is a painter and sculptor where everything is made by her, where there’s no foil between her and the work,” says art dealer Lorcan O’Neill, a friend since the 1990s who represents Emin in Rome through his gallery there.

Emin’s acrylic paintings, in feral drips and streaks, often layer one image onto another. Spectral figures hide under whitewashes or violent bursts of dark colour, often with poetic, sometimes raging language scrawled on top. “I’ll start off with one idea and then as I go along, I’ll go, ‘Oh, my God,’ and something else comes out,” she says of her process.

Tracey Emin with the My Bed installation

Her more recent body of work is a major departure for this former “bad girl” of the British art world, who burst onto the scene with the Young British Artists of the ’90s with confrontational pieces like her appliquéd tent listing Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, and her Turner Prize–nominated My Bed, reproducing her unmade bed after a four-day bender, with crumpled sheets, spent condoms, empty vodka bottles and a pregnancy test.

Emin, now 57, started considering her legacy long before the coronavirus brought our collective mortality in focus. In January 2017, she bought her 30,000-square-foot stretch of the derelict Thanet Press building in Margate, ravaged by looters, pigeons and long, salty winters. “It looked like the set of some apocalyptic film when I found it,” she says. The site, she hoped, would become her final residence and, eventually, the posthumous home of her personal museum and archive.

This summer, that long-range thinking began to look tragically prescient. In June, a few months into her lockdown in London, Emin learned that advanced bladder cancer – “really bad cancer,” she calls it—had begun to spread to her internal organs. “I didn’t really want to tell anybody at the beginning because I didn’t know if I was going to die or not,” she says, reached by phone in late September.

Emin had an operation in July that left her cancer-free and, for weeks afterward, too rundown to make art. She was still recovering in September when she returned to Margate, to look in on the work there, for the first time in months.

Her return to Margate marks the culmination of a period of deep introspection, a reordering of priorities that began shortly before her mom’s death from cancer in fall 2016. That summer she announced a radical retreat from public life.

Emin on her painful upbringing at Margate

After their dad’s business went belly-up in 1972, their mother, Pam Cashin, turned to squatting in the hotel’s staff cottage, with the kids left to fend for themselves while she worked every job she could find. “Being in the hotel, being left alone, made us very vulnerable as children,” says Emin. “And this was quite difficult for my mom when she got older, and she felt terrible about this. And my dad was mortified…. There were all these people that came into our lives constantly—through a door, out the back door, this lodger, that person…. It wasn’t my dad’s fault. It wasn’t my mom’s fault either. It was like this sort of f—ed up, dysfunctional train of events.”

Carl Freedman, an art dealer and an ex-boyfriend from the ’90s with whom she’s still close on taking Emin to Margate in 2016: “She came down, looked over the whole place,” recalls Freedman. “‘This is fantastic,’ she said, ‘but the idea of going back to Margate, I just can’t face it.’ ”

Emin on deciding to return to her hometown:

In the studio

One day that fall, learning that her mother was on her deathbed, Emin visited her in Margate. Emin’s feelings about her hometown started to change. “I was thinking, When my mom dies there’s no reason for me to come here, no reason for me to be here anymore,” she says. “I didn’t feel happy with that idea. This place is in my psyche. It’s part of me.”

“I need the true memory,” she says. “I don’t want to romanticize. I want to try and remember how it really felt, and then I want to put that in my work. I find if I’m painting stuff that really means something to me, the closer I am to it the more inspired I’m going to be.”

Emin on her show at White Cube early last year:

A Fortnight of Tears, her first solo show in London in five years, which drew blockbuster attendance, debuted at White Cube south of the Thames, displaying Emin’s grief over her mother’s death channeled into paintings and sculptures. “When my mom died, I cried so much,” she says. “But after a couple of weeks there wasn’t any more to come out. You have to get up and get on.”

Emin on working nonstop after the White Cube show:

“Everyone said to me, ‘Why are you working so hard?’ ” she says. “I was going, ‘Because you never know when you won’t be able to work hard.’”

Jay Jopling, London gallerist, founder of White Cube: “So much of her artistic output draws from her childhood traumas. “Margate was always in her, always in the work even when she kind of left Margate far behind.”

Emin on Gabriel Chipperfield (son of architect David Chipperfield) her friend and former design consultant on the Margate project:

Chipperfield eventually stepped away from the project to preserve their friendship, says Emin. Now she oversees every design detail herself in consultation with an architectural engineer. “You don’t want to wreck your friendship because you disagree on whether something should be clad or the steel should go here or there or whether the concrete should be raised or lowered,” she says.

Emin on the Covid shut down:

“I’m used to isolation—it’s where I thrive,” she says of the time alone. “I had a fridge full of food, it was cosy, the weather was amazing. And I was painting about four days a week. I’d go to the studio on a Monday and stay there through Thursday, sleep on the sofa. I was working all night sometimes and sleeping on the sofa all day and not getting dressed and just swimming. I just loved this experience of being in this bubble, me on my own.”

Emin on her upcoming at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, pairing Emin’s work with an idol’s—Norwegian painter Edvard Munch:

“Since I was 18 he’s been my favourite artist,” she says. The presentation, originally scheduled to run through February, will move to Oslo next year, for the opening of the new Edvard Munch museum. Emin’s 23-foot bronze sculpture, The Mother, will be a permanent fixture on Oslo’s Museum Island, opposite the Munch museum.

Emin on what’s next:

Work continues, meanwhile, on Emin’s new home-studios in central London and Margate. She hopes to be living between them by the start of the year. “I’ll spend one last Christmas in [East London] and then change my life for good in 2021,” she says. “Margate is perfect for a museum. I don’t have to worry about my legacy: I’ve created a place for my work that will work perfectly.”

All photos Thurstan Redding for WSJ. Magazine


  1. Your legacy is one of pretentious twaddle that pretentious people have spent millions on. 2.5 million for a dirty bed? Nice work if you can get it, but if any of us of equal zero artistic talent did it we would have environmental health round fining us & taking it off to the tip. The rubbish tip is exactly the place for your work.

    • Love your work Steve but the presence in the brushstroke of your bitterness towards those who’ve approached the canvas from a different angle really kill the vibe …. hmmm

      • I am sure there have been many who took that approach that actually had some degree of artistic ability. Afraid throwing crap on a bed is something anybody could do, but if we did we would be called disgusting slobs & it as said would be carted off as a health hazard, not displayed in galleries & sell for 2.5 million.

        There is a reason that the cleaners at these galleries & art exhibitions keep throwing these ‘artists’ works out thinking it is junk.

    • Exactly Steve,nothing but overrated pretentious crap.Just like the Emperor’s clothes.
      How any of you can honestly say that that unmade bed is artwork…you must have a s..t in your eyes.
      This woman has made a lot of money out of producing Art GCSE grade 5 garbage.

    • People like you imagine you could do what Tracy does but you cant Tracy’s work is but of blood sweat and tears and her own soul. The venom you just spewed out shows what is in your Soul venom and envy. Venom and envy do not create art you better wake up and feel the love Mate. Margate is full of love. Tracy Rocks.

      • Miranda,do you really believe it is beyond the capabilities to create a disgusting bed like that.Millions of teenagers do that every day ,without even trying.”Heart and soul”…totally deluded.

        • Beyond belief that these people would rather look at & one assumes smell a dirty bed than admire the Hay Wain by Constable!

      • Oh dear Miranda, you seem to have been drinking too much of the Modern Art Brigade Kool Aid-I am afraid it takes zero talent to throw crap on a dirty bed & leave it there-anybody can do it. Anybody can do infantile scribbles as well. She is a zero talent hack-all hype, or if you like all sizzle & no steak.

        Who in their right mind would want to chuck rubbish on a dirty bed Miranda? The majority of people think it is disgusting & as said if we did it the council would be round enforcing health notices & fines, she does it & gets lauded & some equally pretentious person pays 2.5 million for her mattress covered in empty beer bottles, condoms, tampons etc. I suppose you think her used tampons next to a pregnancy test display is wonderful as well?

    • Agree Sylvia. Tracey Emin’s work as become more relatable to me as I have aged. Way ahead of her time but so relevant. Eish her health, happiness and continued creativity. .

  2. Honestly, did anyone read the quotes? “She’s making less of a variety of kind of artwork, but she’s becoming more and more who she is……,” says art dealer Lorcan O’Neill, a friend since the 1990s. “A kind of artwork”? Brilliant! You could say exactly that of any five year old, given materials to make a mess!

    By the reporter?; “Emin’s acrylic paintings, in feral drips and streaks, often layer one image onto another……” and on herself?; “I’ll start off with one idea and then as I go along, I’ll go, ‘Oh, my God,’ and something else comes out,” she says of her process.

    mmm, back to the five year old experimenting with materials and state of mind again. Is that what an artist? A accident? born of mental confusion? That others who can see how to make money from notoriety think its clever to elevate that level of artistic skill to get reporters making statements like “”Tracey Emin, one of Britain’s most famous living artists”. For Gods sake! Really? In my opinion, only to the money makers from “Controversial” art and/or the equally mentally challenged. This work is an embarrassment to real artists who probably think they can’t say so, or think they are doing something wrong.
    “Emin’s feelings about her hometown started to change”…… “I was thinking, When my mom dies there’s no reason for me to come here, no reason for me to be here anymore,” she says. “I didn’t feel happy with that idea. This place is in my psyche. It’s part of me.” “I need the true memory,” she says. “I don’t want to romanticize. I want to try and remember how it really felt, and then I want to put that in my work. I find if I’m painting stuff that really means something to me, the closer I am to it the more inspired I’m going to be.”
    I have no wish to be unkind but “Me” and inspiring herself, as she says, is where this “Art” should have stayed.
    What is is we still have to look at every night on the Harbour Arm in Margate in neon light?
    “Margate, I will always love you”? everlasting, confused, questionable, Tosh. Tracy Emin, doubtless a lovely person whom I wish a full and speedy recovery from apparent ill-health but this potted history article just reminds me of my first opinion of the “Art” of Tracey Emins’ work …. “right place, right time, well publicised waste of materials to produce a controversially juvenile standard of trash in the name of “art”. Or, in the alternative, is it “Art” from the mind, sole and deep feelings of an individual? So that’s that then.
    And worth how much?
    okay, I’m wrong then. It must be very special Art. Its just me after all. Sorry.
    But honestly, if I had a sketch of hers, I would give it away. Promise!

    In my humble opinion; If you want to see and enjoy real “Art” (without having to suffer the same mental trauma as the artist to understand its meaning) and the real efforts of local Margate artists, forget the opinions of pompous art critics that make their money by advertising stupidity regardless and don’t know “Art” from a submarine made of used tyres, or a Sheep cut in half. I would say, form your own sensible opinions and look around Margate more. Instead of scribble and paint running down a canvases that can only be named when its finished (because who knows what it will end up as, to try and name) , have a look at say;
    Darren Lewis, Anthoney Giles, or the photography of Frank Leppard and Ross Andrews or the sculpture work of Donna Flemming or Richard Want and many, many more un-sung deserving local artists.

    • I actually thought her neon light was nice & was at the time amazed she had constructed something so aesthetically pleasing after her dirty mattress & childish scribbles, far & away the best thing of hers I have seen. Not sure if I would term it art in the classical sense & more something that somebody with talent would make in CDT class, but certainly very eye catching.

  3. Dear Tracey Emin,
    You are one of the greatest British artists this country has ever had. Take no notice of people who make such cruel and nasty comments. This has happened throughout the history of art when someone does something that’s creative and different.
    I, and many other art lovers will understand exactly what you mean about your new projects. One day, I would love to visit your new studios! Thank you Cathy Bailes for a top notch article. Hope Tracey gets better soon! [email protected]

    • Please, how on earth can you compare somebody whose height of ‘art’ is throwing crap at her manky old mattress with the greats like Turner, Freud, Constable, Hockney, Lowry, Gainsborough, Millais etc?

      • Those are all great artists but there are also non figurative artists like DuChamp who among other things exhibited a urinal, and Pollock who expressed himself through splashes. People do find it more difficult to tune into abstraction, but this gives them no right to be so crude and nasty to those who create it and those who “get it”. Art, like dance or cricket is a language. It takes a while to speak it. I don’t get cricket, but I know those who do, and do not go round rubbishing it…

        • How can you say that a disgusting load of rubbish on a bed is great art,abstract or otherwise?As Steve has said,if anybody else tried to display that garbage,Health and Safety would have been in,to dispose of it.
          One of the great British artists!You are deluded,Fahri.

        • Well yes, she is far from the first of these ‘artists’ & I would consider DuChamp no more an artist than Larry David for his toilets you cannot sit down on in the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he could paint. Pollock’s splashes are nothing better than a child could do, however, once again his paintings such as Going West & Landscape With Steer showed the man had an artistic talent that Emin patently doesn’t.

          I am not against abstract art at all-Matisse, Picasso, Dali etc all had talent, but what she & others have done in recent decades is a racket-well done to her & the other ‘new artists’ whose doodles/scribbles, clothes with built in dung flies for the catwalk, dirty beds etc have made them a fortune, but it isn’t art.

      • I think I saw that ‘bed’ when walking down an alleyway, I think TDC have now removed it , I hope TDC didnt throw that 3 million bed away !

  4. Some of these people make me laugh and are missing the point of art, it’s not always based on talent but expression no? Meant to make you feel something at the end of the day maybe spur conversation or intrigue evoke an emotional response of some kind whether that be through the medium, colour, subject, sound, material anything really and it can trigger responses in people they weren’t expecting, clearly in a lot of people confusion, I personally don’t resonate with her art that much but that doesn’t mean she didn’t portray a snippet of her life effectively and it probably related to a lot of people at the time you find that with a lot of art throughout history that it is unusual but yet can still somehow relate to that person’s life or idea or the culture that surrounds them, I say her art has created quite the emotional response with most of you enough to comment on it and her life, job done, now you go out and create something different and outlandish and try to get the same response from an overwhelming number of people, and I’d rather have a colourful abstract piece of art on my wall I like rather than the Mona Lisa that took far more skill but also boring as hell to look at it’s not always a contest of skill
    Just my 2 pence enjoy

  5. Margate is clearly not St Ives, where art is appreciated, and massive economic benefits are reaped from it. Well done Tracey, though, for trying. It will happen, sometime, even if it’s not very soon. You are laying down the foundations for future generations of the Margate community to be engaged with art, and the “industry” to that goes with it.

  6. I can’t say that I’m fond of her work but I do like the neon sign on Droit House which kind of made me feel good when returning home when I lived in the Old Town.
    I do wish her well though with her recovery from cancer.

  7. I really admire Tracey Ermin and her work. So sad to read such unnecessarily vitriolic comments about both. If you don’t like something, then don’t look at it. To destroy it is really stupid.

  8. The Shock of the New – Robert Hughes looks at the development of modern art from the Impressionists to the Cold War era, examining in particular the influences of technology, authority, nature, and movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Modernism – first broadcast 1980:

    Episode #1

    Episode #2

    Episode #3

    Episode #4

    Episode #5

    Episode #6

    Episode #7

    Episode #8

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