‘She was the most lovely aunt,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Wonderfully kind, and took a lot of trouble with her nieces and nephews.” The leader of the Commons is taking a pause from pushing Brexit to speak about his father’s sister, the avant-garde film-maker Anne Rees-Mogg. Yes, you read that right – the Rees-Mogg clan has a little-known arty streak. Long before Jacob was lounging in front of cameras in parliament, he was making rather different appearances in his Aunt Anne’s experimental films.

The works were shown in a former British Rail canteen in north London that had been taken over by a film-makers’ cooperative in the 1970s. There, in a screening area set up at one end of the large, leaky-roofed space, Anne’s filmic collages captured Jacob and his siblings mugging sweetly for the camera. He was, apparently, her favourite.

Anne considered herself – her contemporaries told me – the black sheep of the family. A committed socialist and champion of women’s and gay rights, her politics could not have been further from those of her conservative Catholic family. Though Jacob remembers her fondly – “She even took me to see the first Superman film – I can’t imagine that could have been her scene” – her friends and members of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op are less sanguine about the associations of her last name.

“She would have turned in her grave if she knew what Jacob had become,” says John Smith, who served with her on the board of the co-op, at the time the place to be for artists interested in film-making. “But she absolutely doted on him. Even as a baby, she would regularly bring him up in conversation. She thought he was the most marvellous person on the planet.”

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The MP for North East Somerset scoffs at this: “I doubt that’s true. I think people say that because I’m known. She was devoted to all her nieces and nephews.”

In Transmogrification, which also starred Jacob’s older sisters – and Alexei Sayle.



In Transmogrification, which also starred Jacob’s older sisters – and Alexei Sayle. Photograph: BFI/London Film-Makers’ Co-operative

Many children from conservative families leave for art school, discover a new world of social justice, and never look back. What is unusual about Anne, who died of cancer in 1984, is the way her family and memories became the focus of her work. She had been a land girl in the war, doing her bit for Britain by working in agriculture, and many of her films circle around the different places she called home: the stately family pile in Somerset; her house in north London, whose demolition she chronicled in one of her films; and her south London flat. Trinkets recur, from seashells on a mantlepiece to images of the countryside, as do snippets of old footage, like the scene in which three Rees-Moggs from a previous generation step into a fancy open-top car.

“She didn’t celebrate the establishment, which is obviously what one associates with Jacob and even more so with his father William,” says David Curtis, founder of the British Film and Video Study Collection at Central Saint Martins in London. “William was happy to be establishment – editor of The Times, a land owner in Somerset and all that. That wasn’t the side of family Anne was interested in. She was interested in place and the location of childhood memories.”

Anne’s films, many of which can be seen free on BFI Player, were made almost like scrapbooks and the footage she shot was casual, diary-like, though Jacob says she knew exactly what she wanted when she was directing her subjects. Her students, from the Chelsea College of Art, appear throughout her work, as do her nieces and nephews in Somerset, where she frequently visited.

Game … a screengrab from Grandfather’s Footsteps, 1983, with Jacob, left, and brother Thomas.



Game … a screengrab from Grandfather’s Footsteps, 1983, with Jacob, left, and brother Thomas. Photograph: London Film-Makers’ Co-operative/BFI

In Transmogrification, from 1980, Jacob’s two older sisters, Emma and Charlotte, parade in Georgian dress in front of the home in Temple Cloud, Somerset; it also stars standup comedian Alexei Sayle. In Living Memory, from the same year, Jacob catches butterflies in a field. In Grandfather’s Footsteps, one of her major works made three years later, Jacob tromps with his brother Thomas towards the camera in a game of Mother May I. Thomas, the elder, is dressed in jumper and anorak, like any other boy. Jacob, meanwhile, is already showing a taste for what will become his infamous attire: a too-large tweed blazer. “I had quite strong political views even when I was little,” he tells me. The sleeves hang over his hands and the shoulders extend out from his skinny frame, as he smiles shyly at the camera.

“It wasn’t nervous-making,” the MP recalls. “When I go on telly now, I’m quite conscious there are going to be people watching it. But when you’re under 10, and you’re asked to appear in a film for your aunt, you aren’t thinking, ‘Where will this be screened and who will watch it?’ You’re just thinking your aunt’s asking you to do something, it’s a jolly thing to do.”

In some ways Anne was ahead of her time. Her focus on personal memory chimes with later feminist work that took seriously everyday concerns, and her technique of collaging together memories with pop songs and her own lightly self-mocking commentary, feels contemporary. But in the 1970s in London, her films were absolutely beyond the pale. Artists’ film-making was still a nascent practice, centred among a group whose work was strictly anti-narrative and anti-pictorial.

Anne Rees-Mogg in one of her own films.



Focus on memory … Anne Rees-Mogg in one of her own films. Photograph: London Film-Makers’ Co-operative/BFI

As the name implies, the London Filmmaker’s Co-op, whose board Anne chaired in the early 80s, was a co-operative. Membership was conferred by the deposit of a film, and equipment was collectively owned. But the political significance of the structure ran deeper than just organisation: politics were conflated with style, form was politics and politics form. So the acceptance of other kinds of work was not simply a challenge to fashion. It was a challenge to belief.

“Anne was aware of a certain orthodoxy at the Co-op and was keen to be an irritant,” says Curtis. “She was quite partisan in supporting people who were doing other things, particularly film-makers whom she cherished and whom she nurtured at Chelsea.” Anne does seem to have been regarded as an extraordinary tutor and fought to have different types of art-making taken seriously. Film wasn’t yet considered fine art and, for her 20 years there, she taught in the painting department.

“She was marginalised,” says the film-maker Guy Sherwin, who studied with her. “But perhaps because she was unique and eccentric, people were drawn to her. She wasn’t cuddly or matronly, but was able to communicate with people on a personal level, and took people under her wing. At Chelsea, where you had people like Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield, it was quite a severe, patriarchal environment.”

The video artist Anna Thew, one of her Chelsea proteges, remembers Anne’s reaction when Thew failed to achieve the results Anne had expected. “She raged,” Thew says. “She kicked the edit room door with her plastic lamé-spangled sandals.” It’s a cruel irony that Jacob seems to have a similar fighting spirit, albeit for beliefs that would be at odds with Anne’s, such as his vote against gay marriage, his attempts to limit contraception, and his stance on reducing benefits.

Jacob Rees-Mogg leaves a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street this week.



Political gulf … Jacob Rees-Mogg leaves a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street this week. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Jacob acknowledges this political gulf. “It’s true that she was not very right-wing,” he says. But that didn’t stop him discussing politics with her as a child. “I suppose in a way it was very useful,” he says. “It was an early stage of realising that somebody who one loved could have a different political view and it didn’t make any difference to the personal relationship.”

Though Jacob likes to plays the part of a toff – and the Temple Cloud home is undeniably grand – Anne’s work tells different stories about the family, showing them as a typical Somerset lot, attached to the land but moving with the times. Grandfather’s Footsteps begins from a box of negatives she found in a glass cigar box. They were taken by her great-grandfather, a Victorian country clergyman filled with enthusiasm for the possibilities of the modern age.

While Anne might have had her differences with her Brexiteer nephew, she would have been cheered to see what has happened with artists’ film-making, now a medium particularly welcoming to a variety of identities and voices.

“I don’t think that anyone should ever do what they are told,” she says in Grandfather’s Footsteps. “If you look back at obedience to fashion in writing, in painting, in film-making, it just doesn’t work. It’s just always academic to do what other people think is correct.”

You might say it’s a trait that runs in the family.

Anne Rees-Mogg’s films can be seen on BFI Player.



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