Born in Leeds to Kindertransport refugees, Yorkshire landscape and still life artist Judith Levin lives reclusively at Gledhow Hall and paints incessantly, as she tells Stephanie Smith. Photographs by James Hardisty.
Judith Levin’s world expanded when she moved into her mansion house apartment on the outskirts of Leeds. “I fell in love with the size of the rooms,” she says. “Since I’ve been here, it’s been easier to paint bigger paintings because I’ve got even daylight from the skylight.” She has a designated studio in the apartment, but prefers to be in the kitchen under that skylight. “When I’m working, this is no longer a kitchen, which is a bone of contention from time to time because Josh needs to eat,” she says. Josh, 24, is the youngest of Levin’s three sons. “I don’t know if it’s a home or a gallery,” he says as he welcomes me into the apartment.
Filled with the canvases of her work – arresting, hypnotic, floral still lifes, mesmerising Yorkshire moorland and woodland landscapes, many swathed in white cloth – these first-floor rooms at Gledhow Hall are indeed large. Built in 1766 for cloth merchant Jeremiah Dixon and designed by John Carr (also responsible for Harewood House), this has been Levin’s home since 2000. An 1812 Turner painting shows it surrounded by rolling parkland.
These days it’s surrounded by an unprepossessing late 20th-century housing development, yet it retains a brooding grandeur. It’s a fitting backdrop for a reclusive artist.
Often, Levin doesn’t leave the apartment for days, rising early, perhaps working for 14 hours. “I live reclusively, I paint incessantly,” she says.
Standing under 5ft tall, she stands on a chair to reach the tops of her larger landscape canvases. “Sometimes I can have the first layer down all in one go, in one day. The faster they are, actually, the better they seem to be. It’s like one vision, it’s complete, and then you add details and layers to it.”
The skylight allows daylight to fall year-round into the kitchen. This room, Levin tells me, was once the atrium anteroom for the first tiled bathroom in the country, decorated in Burmantofts faience – glazed architectural terracotta tiles – for a visit from the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in around 1885. She opens a door and there it is, still gloriously opulent, and now Levin’s own bathroom. It’s a world away from the Leeds semi that was her previous home.
Now 63, Levin sold her first painting when she was 15 and living at home with her parents in Harehills. Self-taught, she left school at 15, too. “It was quite fashionable to drop out – hippies, in those days,” she says. “My parents were very open-minded, creative people, and they supported me.”
Although they met in Leeds, her parents, Maurice and Margot Crane, were refugees from the Holocaust who came over to the UK from Germany via the Kindertransport rescue mission, both just under 18 years old. Levin says: “My mum had her 18th birthday on the boat and, had the boat sailed one day later, she wouldn’t have been able to leave Germany. My dad’s story is even more hair-raising about getting out of Germany on the train, never knowing if the border would change at the next station.”
In 1995 Levin was asked to create artwork to accompany Call in the Night, a play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds by Bernard Kops, examining the guilt of a world-famous violinist who was the only survivor of a family wiped out by the Nazis.
Levin says: “The next generation apparently can be more traumatised on the subject than the ones who actually lived through it, and part of that trauma in me was fear of looking at any of the old photographs that my parents brought back, because they brought so little. I addressed it. I thought, the boy would have had photos with him like my parents brought with them.”
So she created a series of paintings copied from those tiny photographs. She shows me the artworks she still has, of her father, her maternal grandmother, Auguste Sänger, as a baby, and a portrait of her mother aged around 16.
“It’s the most serious work I’ve done,” she says. “It was very personal and very frightening. They still make me shaky looking at them.”
Levin began working full-time as an artist in 1989. She had married young (she’s now divorced) and was an at-home mother to her first two sons, David, now 40, and Mark, now 35. When Mark went to nursery, she took up her brush again. “I taught myself by painting flowers in vases, imaginary ones, not necessarily in front of me because it was all experimental,” she says. “I took them to a local gallery in Leeds where they began to sell faster than I could do them.”
Soon her oil-on-canvas still lifes were selling at galleries in London. “I started painting like mad and couldn’t stop. I enjoyed the texture, I enjoyed the freedom, I enjoyed the colour. It was play, really,” she says. “I had to paint very quickly. I’d be given orders – two more in pink by a week on Thursday. Galleries always want what sells fast.”
Towards the end of the 1990s, she began painting landscapes as respite. “When you’re painting still life, the plane of the canvas is like a wall and everything else is built up in front of that wall, whereas if you are painting a landscape, the plane of the canvas is almost like a window and all the space is going behind it or through it.
“I started painting landscapes because it felt quite claustrophobic constantly painting a wall. It’s a completely different way of handling paint.”
Also in oil, her landscapes are depictions of Yorkshire, with her favourite locations including the moors around Ilkley and Haworth. “One walk on either moor can turn into many, many paintings,” she says.
“Most of my landscapes come from memory and imagination. I don’t work from photographs because I like the idea of the feeling of being there, as opposed to a picture of a particular place. It allows the viewer a journey within the painting, and it allows me a journey too in the process of painting.”
When an Ilkley gallery owner visited and saw the landscapes, he knew they would sell well. Now both her still lifes and her Yorkshire scenes fly out internationally, especially to Japan and the US, and are found in private and corporate collections across the world. A gallery in New Jersey offers her works priced from £1,000 to around £7,000. There is a secondary market now, with early paintings coming up at auction.
Yet at her gallery on Haworth Main Street, opened in August 2018, there are signed original miniatures for £40 and 7in x 5in landscapes for £95. Joshua manages the website and marketing and also helps with the gallery, where the current exhibition is called Scenes and Scents, inspired by the nature of Yorkshire. A recent exhibition raised £11,000 for Ilkley-based charity Educate the Kids, which supports children in Kenya (Levin is patron).
A collector once said Levin’s work was like “Valium on canvas”, a description she believes points to one reason for the continued demand. “There’s so much tension and pressure that people feel under now, and I think with the internet, communications are so much faster, and people are having to make decisions so fast. I think people buy my paintings because they are calming. People want a bit of peace, so they can come home from their frantic work and there is something in their room that has a stillness about it.”
As for Levin herself, she prefers to remain in her apartment, working incessantly, leaving only to go to the gallery, occasionally to the supermarket or for coffee with a friend. She leads an artist’s life, intense and prolific in a world of texture and colour.
Judith Levin Gallery, at 95 Main Street, Haworth, is open Sunday afternoons and by appointment. Work can also be bought at Judithlevin.com.