Introducing Francesca Esme: artist, illustrator and HB barista


Although Francesa’s only been a barista at HB for a few months now, it’s not the first time she’s worked within the walls of 28-32 St Michael Street. Five years ago, she was working at Zappi’s — the well loved bike cafe that once occupied the space, and paved the way for the Handle Bar we know today. 

Fran is first and foremost an illustrator, and has always worked in cafés and restaurants to allow herself the creative freedom to produce art for herself. This lifestyle has also given her the opportunity to travel, including living on boat that moved around London, and even spending some time living in Berlin. She has eventually found herself drawn back to Oxford — the place she calls home.

‘I love to surround myself with creative people and if I am not working on commissions, I will be out and about drawing from observation, as for me this is a fundamental practice. For years, I didn't draw from life enough and was more obsessed with finding a niche style and abstracting shapes and figures. The more I find myself drawing from life, the more experimental I find my imagination and abstraction form. I like to think my style is forever evolving too, and I try not to get attached to a certain way of working or drawing.’

Her current style gives her a similar flexibility, as she only needs a small space to work from. Productive days are often spent in her home, where she works from her desk using an abundance of colourful paint palettes and pots of inks. Here, she designs work for projects, commissions or personal work. Conveniently, just across the road is her father’s barber shop, 101 Jericho, wherein her two brothers run the cafe, providing her with a regular supply of flat whites.

Fran was attracted to HB’s friendly and relaxed reputation and shares much of the Handle Bar ethos, knowing first-hand how important it is to support small independently run businesses in Oxford. Similarly, working sustainably is important to her, and she likens herself to a magpie, collecting receipts, bus tickets and unimportant scraps and turning them into colourful textures and patterns used to build the vibrant backdrops to her illustrations. 

Although she would hesitate to admit it, it’s easy to identify a Francesca Esme illustration, with characteristically bold colours, patterns and playful characters inspired by folk tales and short stories. She has been defining and refining her craft from the time she was a small child, to studying illustration at the Ruskin School of Art, Cambridge, and now as a regularly commissioned artists. 

‘Everything happens very organically,’ she says. ‘I’ll draw something random from my imagination and then things will start happening around that. I feel like the best stuff I’ve come up with has come out of nowhere.’  Equally, the business side to her work could be attributed to fate. After witnessing the collective grief of the nation when David Bowies died in early 2016, she was inspired to paint his portrait and post it on her instagram. The painting resonated with many Bowie fans and led her to start producing and selling prints of her work for the first time.

Now, she regularly sells prints from her Instagram. She’s recently been commissioned to do more commercial work, and notes an exciting project designing a wine label. For the next stage, she’ll push herself to work bigger, with a series of designs, paintings and comics based on more self initiated projects, and hopes to find more client work. She’s especially interested to work in new mediums, producing prints for packaging and textile design. 

‘It has taken me a lot to have a voice with my work, and there is so much I want to shout about sometimes. Instead of writing it down, I end up filling sketch book pages with doodles based on my own ridiculous experiences.’

To see more of Francesca’s work, you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Sarah Halliday