by MK PALOMAR
When Charles Baudelaire wrote The Painter of Modern Life, he explained that the ideal position for “the perfect flâneur” is to be “away from home and yet [feeling] oneself everywhere at home”.1 Linda Kitson’s creative process fits this description perfectly. Immersing herself in various workplaces, she has recorded the activities and environments of subjects as widely diverse as theatre recordings at the BBC and the events of the Falklands war. For balance, she also works alone in wide-open and mountainous landscapes; in recent years, those outdoor places include architectural street scenes of London.
Kitson’s visual fluency, gleaned from years of honing her eye to master line and form, comes from single-minded dedication. Now embracing contemporary technology, she applies her visual knowledge to iPad imagery, constructing boldly coloured compositions that vividly evidence her enthusiasm for capturing and conjuring the essence of place.
Studio International visited Kitson at Drawings and Projects, her exhibition at House of Illustration in London, which is a celebration of the artist’s richly diverse works from the 1970s to the present day, curated by Quentin Blake.
MK Palomar: Thank you so much, Linda Kitson, for inviting Studio International into your exhibition here at House of Illustration. I’d like to begin by asking you, why do you draw?
Linda Kitson: I was always drawing from early childhood. As an only child, if I kept drawing I scored multiple brownie points, because it shuts one up. Early on, I drew Hiawatha, Davy Crockett and Hopalong Cassidy – and I personally became one of those, alternating, probably until my teenage years. I was isolated as a child – a lot of artists are. But you have to understand that I’ve had a 15-year lapse from drawing. This show has reminded me of a way of life that I thought I’d left behind a lifetime ago.
MKP: Where did you start at art college?
LK: At Saint Martin’s School of Art, I did evening classes, and a teacher told me the graphic design department there was keen on drawing. It wasn’t really my thing, but I wanted to keep drawing, so I joined the course and that got me out of being a debutante in Scotland with four drunken parents. It was 1968. We were the first generation not dressed by our parents. You could get out of your pearl necklace, and any scene you were in – up or down the scale – and be an art student. Everything was focused on the young: the music, the fashion, it was all aimed at us. It was a very joyous and groundbreaking time. And, of course, a lot of the classes at Saint Martin’s were actually spent at the 100 club.2
MKP: Who taught drawing at Saint Martin’s?
LK: Fritz Wegner3 came in one day a week. Life drawing was not taken terribly seriously: the room wasn’t designed for drawing and we mostly sat and talked in huddles, with or without the tutor, but we worked hard and we played hard. Wegner took us out to draw. I remember drawing at St Pancras station, sitting on the pavement, the way one did then, surrounded by stuff. Someone was trying to pick us up, not just me – all the girls. I got so angry. It’s a big disadvantage being as private as I am about it – some artists can stand up in the middle of everyone and don’t mind people watching. I cannot be interrupted because the line is so selective. After Saint Martin’s, I went on to do an MA at the Royal College. Brian Robb was head of the illustration department. Quentin Blake was there, too, and Paul Hogarth … he was the most noted reportage draughtsman at the time. I was extremely lucky to get in. The department took students whose work was outside the usual mode of illustration, expansive, in a very broad sense because of Quentin. Painting and print students were welcomed, too – it was a melting pot for the figurative and the naturalistic rather than the political.
MKP: You mentioned being cross at people interrupting you drawing. How do you manage interruptions?
LK: Get there first, and into a position where it’s not that easy to reach me – in a corner – back against the wall [laughs]. And discourage people from talking to me. The older you get, the easier it is. Although in Italy you can hardly work south of Florence for the interruptions. I had a sign on the back of my sketchbook and another round my neck in Italian saying: “It’s not possible for me to concentrate if you talk to me.” Artists with elaborate techniques don’t mind it – they’re doing a lot of shading or cross-hatching so interruptions aren’t that important, but my drawing is so continuous and the concentration is so exacting that I do not want any interruptions. It’s one of the reasons I’m very happy with the work that I’m doing now on the iPad – if I’m interrupted, there’s a process, I can easily pick it up again.
[Kitson shows us a display case, inside which are large drawings and copies of Punch, New Statesman and the Spectator magazines.]
LK: These are the first things I did when I graduated from the RCA – for Punch, New Statesman and the Spectator [Drawing for Touching People by Jerome Liss in the Spectator of 17 October 1970]. I did them in the studio – the article didn’t exist so the editors told me what it was going to be about. I wanted to show the original drawings here beside their printed versions in the magazines, to show the context because I think it’s so funny. The drawings got reduced to less than a quarter of their original size (from roughly 50cm to 7cm). I’ve never really come down to print with any ease or relish.
MKP: Did you use models?
LK: No, and I didn’t like doing it from my memory. I was rather self-conscious – you know, you can dwell on things. Although, when you’ve just left art college, you’re the closest to life drawing, and I could do bodies at any angle. I think most people could [Kitson indicates an illustration she did for the 1987 Folio Society edition of Albert Camus’s The Plague].
MKP: What did you do next?
LK: A number of very small drawings for the Illustrated London News. Adrianne LeMan was art director at the time. She wrote a letter of introduction for me, so I could get into all the different UK festivals. That’s when I broke away to learn the skill of outside drawing. I took off in the car for a year, staying with theatre companies in different places. I drew and drew and drew and drew. Every now and then one of my drawings appeared in a festival brochure or the Illustrated London News, but getting the drawings into print wasn’t my main concern; what I really wanted was to draw. When you’re doing something, which is like your handwriting, like breathing – if you don’t do it every day, you lose the skill. If I hadn’t drawn, it would take me at least 10 days to get back into practise again. If you do printmaking or something that involves “fretwork”, or as Quentin would say, “machinery”, then there’s a process to it – it’s not so crucial – but for my drawing, it is the first thing that happens, the beginning and end, and I think that you really do need to keep on it every day. After the festivals, I went to the BBC for its 50th anniversary (1972), and I did the same thing – drawing people at work. That’s what I began to be known for.
MKP: What was it about drawing people working that inspired you?
LK: Being an only child, I loved to go out and play. When you’re drawing what people are doing, you’re with people, discovering how they work and learning new things every day. At the BBC, they were kindred souls. They loved me being there. I became part of the furniture. It was quite intense: you were in darkened auditoriums for weeks and weeks. The BBC wanted 15 tiny drawings for its brochure, and I did about 300. But after being squashed into airless studios, I needed the opposite – to get away out into nature (France or Italy). That was my own time, it was absolute bliss, and every year I’d have a show of the landscapes. By the 1980s, I was also teaching part time in five places –the RCA, Camberwell, Chelsea, City and Guilds and Saint Martin’s. I loved it, but it became too much, so I dropped the others and stayed at the RCA.
Those have been the three big threads in my work – the teaching, the drawing among people at work and the landscapes.
MKP: What kind of materials did you use?
LK: Oh, even in the Falklands I’d have at least three different sizes of paper. Sort of toothy – not smooth – because the pastel grips to it and the pens slightly drag and the pencils give little variations. If you had flat paper, it provided a skid. If you used watercolour on the paper and it wasn’t thick enough, it all sagged, so it had to be at least 200gm in weight.
Quentin can draw on anything, but I became manic about it. I literally ended up having to go by car to take all the materials. When you’re away for eight weeks, you don’t know if you’ll pass an art shop, and you need different pastels because when the sun’s hot one kind of pastel will melt so you would also have the harder type too. And Derwent had 76 colours. Did I take them all out? Yes, of course!
MKP: There is an extraordinary energy in your work. Is it to do with the speed of making?
LK: Well, you see, it’s a reactive sort of work – it’s a reaction to – rather than artists who have a preconceived idea. Those artists would all go to that same mountain, look at it and say: “I want it to be this size, with these materials, and it will take so long, and I am not going to have that village, I am going to concentrate on the shadows in the middle.” The whole idea of the picture is in their mind before they start, which is a lot easier because, while they’re doing it, they know very quickly whether it’s what they want to say. That’s their end of the spectrum and then there’s my end.
MKP: What’s at your end?
LK: Hopeless chaos.
MKP: Chaos in what way?
LK: In the thought process. The minute I see the mountains, I know that’s it. And in those gorges [Plateau de Sault (1994)], you’re looking down and I find that subject really exciting. It’s the shapes. Especially if the sun is shining, you get the shadows and it’s the drama of mountains. You get a little tucked village. I’m happy even if the sun isn’t shining, it’s so opposite to being inside studios, you have 360 degrees of gorgeous colour and nobody doing anything, in fact. It’s as opposite to working inside as can be. And then, after several weeks, I remember thinking: “Bloody hell, what am I doing here sitting on the side of a mountain freezing my arse off – there’s got to be an easier way” – so then you return to the fray in town. It was a perfect balance, and I was lucky I could have an exhibition of the landscapes every year.
MKP: Can you tell us about being commissioned to make pictures? Does that affect what you do?
LK: One sort of tightens up and there’s the obligation to produce what you have been asked to produce with some accuracy. Some people really work best like that – they can only do the job where they know what the target is. But for me – it’s the same as with a conversation … I mean, I know what the target is, but heaven knows what circuitous route one takes to get there, and I find having to rein in – as I did with the early publications – very difficult. I think other artists feel the same thing. And with portraits I can actually always get a likeness, but I’m so embarrassed about it. It’s a big disadvantage.
MKP: What are you embarrassed about?
LK: Being held to account. When it’s a commission, they are going to know, and that inhibits me immediately.
MKP: Last year, the Royal Drawing School in London hosted a conversation between you and the critic and artist William Feaver,4 and you talked about how students were already in the bus queue …
LK: I meant in terms of people being aware of your ability, and then connecting you to opportunities. For me, it went back as far as Saint Martin’s. When I was a student there, I was rather noisy and noticeable. Freddie Gore was head of painting and he was also an RA and a war artist in the second world war. Then Leonard Rosoman and Carel Weight taught at the Royal College. They had both been war artists in the last world war. So when the Falklands war happened, Gore and Rosoman knew that I could draw very fast – that it was figurative narrative and that I was free, able and willing to go to the Falklands. I also had a show of the drawings I’d just done at the Times newspaper in Fleet Street5 (Newspapers and Newspeopleat Mel Calman’s Workshop Gallery6). So the Imperial War Museum commissioners saw that I had the ability to draw very quickly, and record things without bias. The process was very quick. They commissioned me to be a war artist and, within a month, I was sailing to the Falklands.
MKP: Without bias?
LK: For example, I heard Donald McCullin wanted to go – I’m not sure if this is fact – but he would not have been allowed to go because he had his own attitude about it, which was wonderful. What I was concerned with then was a whole different subject. I went to stick to what I’d been doing for a long time, and that was recording what was happening around me.
MKP: Can you talk about the coping mechanisms you had for drawing people working at war.
LK: Yes. I think boarding school was a very good crash course – you’re away from home, which was always wonderful, I loved it. The enjoyment of being with other people, because I live alone and always did, was wonderful. Not being afraid, being in a gang, was wonderful – and I do have a way of getting on with people at a superficial level.
The thing is “The Work”. People can tell I’m an artist. They could see I was very busy and committed and that translated straight into the army. It’s the same thing – absolutely – you’ve got a different hierarchy, the beaks and the sergeants and that sort of thing – so really it was boarding school that prepared me.
MKP: And the fact that you were invited or commissioned?
LK: Exactly – very carefully – and the tradition of war art is that the soldiers may not know about art, but they sure don’t want to be left out of war art, it’s a history.
MKP: Obviously, this was a turning point in your life.
LK: Definitely. There was life before the Falklands and life after the Falklands. I did go back and teach immediately afterwards, but I do remember being so useless at it. Some of the students used to help me because I couldn’t really manage the class. I don’t know why.
MKP: What do you mean by you couldn’t manage?
LK: I was very good at teaching until that time, but I sort of lost concentration. I might have been very tired.
MKP: Were you in shock?
LK: I wouldn’t say shock, but I think fatigue – it was such a different world. The soldiers have operation groups, which are like therapy. They sit round and go over what’s happened – and they air their grievances or their satisfactions – and, of course, I didn’t do that. When I came back, it was an absolute circus of media immediately – and there was the show of my works at the Imperial War Museum. Hugh Casson, who was president of the Royal Academy, wanted to have my work in a gallery at the RA, and that would have been better because more artists could have related to it. The focus would have been on the work rather than the war, but, fair enough, the Imperial War Museum commissioned it, so it was exhibited there.
When I came back, I mainly saw soldiers and moved with soldiers, with the exception of Quentin, who was the one person who was always part of everything.
I think it was just so extraordinary what we’d been through, and everyday life here was very far away. Coming back was a big transition. We saw each other all the time when we were in the campaign, and so having that carry on was a continuation – nothing odd about it – except that one knew those people better. I remember that, after the Falklands, I did a job for [the engineering and architectural firm] Ove Arup and I actually slept in a mail bag, a great big thing on the premises, rather than go home. So, you see, I tend to concentrate tremendously on the people I’m with, and coming back from the Falklands was no different – I spent time with soldiers.
LK: MKP: Do you think your experiences in the Falklands heightened your senses – and your reception?
LK: No I don’t think so. I think I operated in the same way, only less well because it was so difficult artistically.
I think one of the reasons that it was difficult to get over was that it was 8,000 miles away. That’s it – it’s coming back to me – you actually thought you might never get back again. You’d moved so far away physically that you felt that if that is what you’re living for, it may very well be what you die for. It’s completely … [pauses] … it’s like a chapter or an episode that you might have dreamed, particularly in my case because I did not go back to be with the soldiers. It just was a huge episode – and what was difficult for me – the point you make about the drawing before and the drawing after – a great deal of it before was better, because it was done in easier circumstances and I wasn’t so tired.
On board the QE2 [on the way to the Falklands], it was quite warm and we were indoors, but once we landed it was so cold and frightening and difficult. Then, to be quite honest – Quentin is always saying I’m too self-denigrating – but if I were teaching and a student put these Falkland drawings in among the other works here, well, almost any other drawing in the room is better.
But never has there been an occasion when anyone would have had such focus on say a drawing like that [she indicates Sir Galahad in flames at Fitzroy Waters (1982)], and to have that scrutinised by the whole world when the drawing is pathetic. Given that I can remember, and will for all my life, what it was like being there recording that horrific event, I had between two and 20 minutes, and it was moving around and I was frozen. Non-artists say: “Oh, it’s so powerful and it conveys this that and the other”, but I know how poor the drawing is. I can’t remember how many hundreds of works that I made during the Falklands are now in the public domain, but these [in the exhibition at House of Illustration] were at my studio – and they’re not the best – to my mind.
MKP: What did you do after the Falklands?
LK: David Putnam was making The Killing Fields, a film about the war in Cambodia. He shot it in Thailand. I think he thought: “Good idea – war artist – I’ll get her to draw us making a film of the war.” I thought it would be the same sort of job as those festivals brochures and the BBC, reportage works, drawing among people working. I thought they’d decorate studios and use rain machines, but authenticity was his thing, everybody got really thin and bad tempered. The jungle is a ghastly place to work. It was really unpleasant and it was a very, very sad story.
MKP: In the conversation that you had with William Feaver at the Royal Drawing School, you said that you had been away from making drawings for some years. Can you tell us why?
LK: It was a sad marriage and the whole thing took much longer than 12 years …
MKP: I’m sorry, do you not want to talk about it?
LK: I do, because I think it feeds into this [points to her work on the walls]. I got married at 51. My work really was the main source of the marriage failing, and there’s a lesson in that somewhere – ideally, not to be obsessive as an artist, to try and blend it in with the rest of things. That’s what I would advise anyone, because it can impede normal life. But I guess I’m talking as someone who is given to depression. I like speaking about it because I think it’s important – people are doing it more and more. I inherited a chemical imbalance; I have been on medication since I graduated. It never stopped me while the work was bowling along – but when things are wrong it can be the trigger. So throughout all these traumatic things [The Falklands, The Killing Fields] being very tired, etc etc, it didn’t affect me, but when the work stopped … it brought about really sorrowful circumstances.
MKP: When you say the work stopped, do you mean you stopped drawing?
LK: No, during the marriage I continued, but the drawings got worse and worse because I wasn’t drawing in the field any more. My husband built me a beautiful studio and I worked there, but I didn’t know at the time that it was gently sliding down. I became incarcerated, and the practice gradually deteriorated. I was a candidate for the Royal Academy at the time, but I didn’t get accepted – so things had got that bad.
MKP: You said you weren’t making work in the field?
LK: That’s right. I wasn’t able to go out and draw from life.
MKP: Why not?
LK: Because in Florida there’s fuck-all to draw, basically [laughs]. There may be things further south in Florida, such as Cape Canaveral or among the Miami Vice! Now, that would be interesting. But if you’re in the banking town of Jacksonville there really is nothing. It’s a cultural desert. It is, as they say, one of the armpits of the world.
MKP: Did it stop you being alive in some way?
LK: Yes, it did. I need to be away from home. I don’t care about anything in the home – cooking, housekeeping – I wasn’t brought up with it, the whole business of homemaking was anathema. I tried, but if, like me, you really want to be on the road, a home is not the thing, especially in the armpit of the world. It took me two years to disengage – it was very sad – and because it was so tiring I got depressed. Depression can completely knock you. The marriage lasted 11 years and then I was ill for roughly four – that’s 15 years in all. It’s a very long time, given that you need drawing and art every day if you possibly can.
I’m not the least bit coy about any of this, because I think the more people talk about it the better. And when you’re very, very ill, you really aren’t yourself, so you don’t know what’s going on at all.
From the work point of view, it was a complete vacuum and I couldn’t get started. I couldn’t get the confidence to make my own marks. I wasn’t out in the world, there was nothing to inspire me, I didn’t know where to go – or couldn’t and wouldn’t. It was too far away.
Then with the right medication I woke up, Rip Van Winkle, in town without my husband and back in England, thank God. But I’d lost the continuity of the work, my peer group, the students and all their private views, and the older artists who used to look at my work. It was a huge hiatus for me. When I was a student at the RCA, I remember Dan Fern said he knew things weren’t ever great for me at home, and (I’m coming out in goose pimples thinking about it), he told me: “You’ve joined a much bigger family which is all over the world” – ie, artists. When I came out of the depression, I woke up and I’d lost all that, it had gone.
MKP: So, how did you get back to it?
LK: Well, I didn’t, that was the thing. A psychiatrist told me “you must keep your mind going”, because I was lying on the carpet staring at the ceiling being quite literally catatonic, not manic-depressive but catatonic. He said: “They’ve got phones now you can play games on.” So, I started games on the phone – and then little drawings on the phone – and that led me to get an iPad. I can remember being in bed with an iPad. You could draw on it and you didn’t have to make decisions –like you do when you’re drawing with a pencil and paper, and I taught myself the different image-making programs.
MKP: What were the first images you made on the iPad?
LK: The Thames – along the Embankment.
MKP: So, did get out of the house?
LK: Yes, although for ages I couldn’t do much, and I’d been out of England for so long that when I came back everything had changed. Now, there’s a wonderful Jubilee Walkway along the Thames. I’d never in my life had time to look at the views there, they’re breathtaking. When you get to Tower Bridge, you look straight over to all those skyscrapers, it’s the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen. I’ve never done any town drawing before because there just isn’t room. And I’ve never been able to get a whole building on to one sheet of paper, I’m used to working this big [gestures at an A1 sheet of paper]. So given what I said about all the materials that I used to carry around with me, now that I just take the iPad into the city – and I am actually there – which sort of breathes into the image, it’s much easier. London used to be all bowler hats and furled umbrellas: now, it’s cafes everywhere and, as I don’t like working at home, I generally work in a cafe, so the city’s made for me. Another thing that keeps me working in town, is that Quentin is 84 now and, when someone gets older, you don’t want to leave them. He is very dear – and vice versa.
MKP: So, you work in cafes?
LK: Yes, I sit and go through the processes. Importing the image into the program, getting the composition down automatically, then working on it. I’ve never done that before. It’s like the camera lucida or squaring and framing up, it does relate to how Canaletto worked. There’s quite a lot of mechanical stuff in it – the fretwork as Quentin would say – it’s not spontaneous like when I drew on paper. And nothing has to be real, so I can decide the sky will be red, and if I don’t like it, I do another layer. I’ve got to a point now where there is no line, no drawing in my pictures. I build it up until I can’t do any more and then I know it’s finished. If somebody stops me in the middle, it doesn’t matter because there’s a process and I can pick it up again. And I’ve become fascinated by the City, these extraordinary glass buildings everywhere, being built from the foundations up –and they’re going way higher than they’ve ever been before. I find that very exciting, but I couldn’t do it without an iPad because you can only stand on the pavement and look up. If I did what I did before, I’d have to join with the construction of it and be part of that team.
MKP: Would you want to do that?
LK: [pauses] No, [pauses gain] I think not.
MKP: Why not?
LK: Because of the discovery of painting – these iPad images are paintings – and they’re like print-making, too. It is probably what I would have grown towards anyway through painting. I would have liked each step, leading from the drawing to the iPad works, to have been seen and examined and thought about. As an artist who is progressing, you can’t do the same thing for ever. Although, seeing all this [drawings in Drawings and Projects], there is a pull to make my own marks again. iPads, have a touch-sensitive stylus now – Oh, dear …
MKP: Why “Oh, dear”?
LK: Well, the more I am exposed to other people’s work around me, linear work done from the heart, I do think it’s increasingly tempting me back to drawing. And there is a sadness there. These drawings took me all over the world: they weren’t just part of my life, they were absolutely everything – too much, as it transpires. It does bring tears to my eyes, and it is a pull because there’s nothing mechanical about them, they are straight from the heart. They represent a life I used to lead, a life that I felt would never be anything else. And there is a skill there and also a chasm caused by sorrow – seeing them again has been an emotional trauma. There is sentimentality about it, and nostalgia. I’ve never thought of that before because I’ve been so busy getting better, and I’m so thrilled with the iPad. But the handmade mark and the mechanical image are so stunningly different that you can understand there is a sense of a void – I must do much more to fill it. With the new touch-sensitive stylus, you can draw with an iPad and maybe I’m about to run into trouble – because I think I’m going to be taking it out like a sketchbook and then it will get all complicated …
LK: It’s the one line – you care so much about it. Drawing is the hardest of all. With painting in the iPad, you can overpaint, you can “scrape it off”. But drawing is just the line, the one shot. That’s why I think it might be difficult. The show of iPad images [Linda Kitson’s iPad City, Coningsby Gallery, London, 2016] sold well, so I have got that safety net. I’ve always struggled with people not understanding the difference between a sketch and a drawing. But I’m thinking that I will make them much more like notes now – very simple, small, freehand drawings – of what’s going on in front of me.
Wouldn’t that be a great opposite number to those full colour iPad images?
1. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Jonathan Mayne, Phaidon, 1964, pages 9-10.
2. The100club.co.uk Saint Martin’s College of Art at that time was located on Charing Cross Road, and the windows in the library at the back of the building looked on to Greek Street.
3. Fritz Wegner Obituary, the Guardian, 24 March 2015.
4. Linda Kitson in conversation with William Feaver, at the Royal Drawing School, London, on 27 April 2016.
5. Newspapers and Newspeople was at Mel Calman’s Workshop Gallery in London. These were images Kitson drew while working behind the scenes at the Times newspaper.
6. Founded in 1970, The Workshop Gallery later became the Cartoon Gallery, and is now based in Museum Street opposite the British Museum, London. Mel Calman Obituary, the Independent, 12 February 1994. -mel-calman-1393696.html
• Linda Kitson: Drawings and Projects is at the House of Illustration, London, until 30 April 2017.