Portrait of a Dales artist

In the second of our series exploring mother and daughter relationships, Chris Bond spoke to Dales artist Katharine Holmes about following in the family footsteps.

Artist Katherine Holme at work, Picture by Simon Hulme
Artist Katherine Holme at work, Picture by Simon Hulme

AS a child Katharine Holmes vividly remembers playing in her grandmother’s bedroom.

“Her bedroom-cum-studio was full of paintings and she used to let me play in there, messing about with her tubes of paint,” she recalls.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Her grandmother was the noted Dales artist Constance Pearson and the room in question was part of High Barn Cottage in Malham, North Yorkshire.

This pretty 18th century cottage was first used as a holiday retreat by Katherine’s grandparents and became their permanent home in the late 1930s.

Katharine and her parents joined them in the 60s and at one point there were three generations of the family living in the cottage. After growing up there she returned in 2007 to live and work as an artist just as her mother, Philippa Holmes, and Constance had done.

Today, her grandmother’s bedroom, which looks out across a stunning Dales landscape, is now her studio. The narrative of her family’s story is woven into the stone building which is suffused with personal memories and filled with paintings by Constance, Katharine and her mother.

She remembers the house always being full of paintings. “I grew up in this house and I was surrounded by paintings, it was just normal to me,” says Katharine. “I still have a lot of their work up.”

Among the paintings is one done by her mother of a set of baking bowls in the pantry. “The painting of the pantry I have at the house and the baking bowls have been used by all of us. My mother taught me how to bake with these and I still use them today.”

The picture was among those featured in the Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney exhibition at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate last year, which included work by each of the three generations of artists.

If the three family members were united by their shared passion for art, they each followed a slightly different path.

Constance was something of a trailblazer, winning a scholarship to Leeds School of Art, and became a familiar figure in Malham traipsing to places like Malham Cove and Gordale Scar come rain or shine.

“She was a successful artist, which was unusual for a woman to have a career as an artist at that time, but she had a lot of support from grandfather.”

Constance died in 1970 when Katherine was eight years old but left a lasting impression on her. She followed her grandmother’s scholarly route by studying fine art at Newcastle University and like her was drawn to the more remote, rural settings.

But where her grandmother’s paintings are perhaps gentler, Katherine sometimes incorporates elements of the landscape, such as grasses and gravels, into her paintings and attempts to capture the feeling of being in the landscape.

Her mother, on the other hand, took a different route. She trained as an occupational therapist and during the Second World War helped rehabilitate injured servicemen through crafts. Later, she trained as a teacher at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire, specialising in art and English.

She juggled family life with her work, while still trying to find time for her painting. “She was quite a domesticated person and she had a great feeling for her family,” says Katharine. “She was very modest. Painting was more than just a hobby to her but she wasn’t as driven as my grandmother. My father encouraged her but she didn’t have the same urge to exhibit her work.”

To some extent she was a talented amateur sandwiched between two people with a burning desire to become full-time artists, although as Katharine points out her mother took painting seriously throughout her life. “She and my father would go on day trips where he would fish and she painted, so it worked quite well.”

Swinsty and Fewston Reservoirs, near Harrogate, were two of their favourite haunts. “Swinsty was a nice place for painting but it was probably better for fishing. It was my father’s favourite fishing spot, so they would do their own thing and meet up for an occasional sandwich.”

Although her mother was more of an amateur artist her enthusiasm rubbed off on Katharine. “She worked in oils and watercolours and she enjoyed all kinds of painting. She liked painting in some of the wilder places, like Applecross on the west coast of Scotland, and I’m drawn to these wild places as well. I think my work is bigger in scale but our subject matter is quite similar and she loved the Dales just as I do.”

Mother and daughter also spent time painting together, heading off for day trips into the countryside. “During the 90s we would go out into the Dales and paint together. We’d take a picnic and a flask of tea – there was always a lot of tea.”

She has particularly fond memories of a trip they took together to Italy when she was younger. “I was about 19, or 20, and I was supposed to be going with a friend but my friend had to drop out and my father didn’t want me going on my own so it was decided that my mother would go with me.”

Most people at this age want to explore the world on their own without being chaperoned by their parents and Katharine was no different. “I wasn’t too happy about it to start with, but we ended up having the most wonderful time,” she says.

“I remember we crossed the border into northern Italy and my mother started ordering coffee in Italian. She’d been to the country when she was younger and what was so nice about it was I was seeing a side to her I hadn’t seen before.

“We spent time exploring Florence and Siena and visiting all the galleries. She was very interested in the history of art and it was very special to have spent that time together because we never did anything quite like it again.”

Although her mother didn’t seek an artistic career for herself she wasn’t slow in offering her support. “She was always encouraging of my attempts to make a career out of being an artist and that was important to me.”

Katharine’s first major solo exhibition was at Leeds University in 1999 – the year that her mother died – and since then her work has been exhibited both in the UK and abroad.

In 2009 she returned to the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, based at the university, to show new paintings and an installation of drawings as part of a large retrospective exhibition called A Malham Family of Painters – which drew on work by all three artists.

It’s something Katharine hopes her mother would have been proud of. “She was an integral part of the exhibition and people seemed to really like her paintings – and that’s something I think she would have been really pleased with.”