Shades of living history

Three generations of artists have lived at this Malham cottage, which is layered with creative endeavour. Sharon Dale reports.

Katharine Holmes

Renovating an old property is never easy, but for Katharine Holmes it was laden with emotional and sentimental complexity.

Every inch of her cottage in the Dales village of Malham is suffused with fond memories and getting the right balance between essential modernisation and preserving the past was a difficult task.

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Her family have lived in the house for almost 100 years and after growing up there, she returned in 2007 to live and work as an artist just as her mother Philippa Holmes and grandmother Constance Pearson had done.

The pretty 18th-century cottage was first used as a holiday retreat by her grandparents, Sidney and Constance, and became their permanent home in the late 1930s. Katharine and her parents joined them in the 1960s and later bought it. Katharine inherited it, though it took her months to leave her property in nearby Clapham and move in.

“I did think of selling, but it had been such a happy family home I just wanted it to have a new life and some more happy times,” she says. “At one point there were three generations of us here and everyone got on really well. It was very much a house of women; my grandmother, my great aunt Elsie, my mum and me. My father was the only man. He spent quite a lot of his time in the shed, building boats.”

Constance, a renowned Dales artist, died when Katharine was eight but she was a big influence.

“Her bedroom-cum-studio was full of paintings and she used to let me play in there, messing about with her tubes of paint. The house was full of painters. It was just what you did and it just came completely naturally to me,” says Katharine, who studied Fine Art at Newcastle University.

The property presented more of a challenge, as very little work had been carried out over the years. She was forced to put in a heating system and rewire.

“I still occasionally reach for one of the old light switches to find there is nothing there,” she says.

She also installed new kitchen units, though she insisted on keeping the old stone slab her grandmother used to make pastry on. The walk-in pantry is exactly as it was when painted by her mother, filled with the same earthenware jars and enormous bowls that serve as “little reminders”.

The snug and dining room were also largely untouched by trends and still had original beams with the hooks where hams and oat cakes were hung to dry.

“The dining room once had an old range in it and the kitchen was a scullery at one point though when I was little there was an old stone sink and an ancient electric cooker. When we moved in with my grandmother and great aunt Elsie, my dad used to joke that every part of the oven had been replaced by the Yorkshire Electricity Board,” says Katharine, who installed a wood burning stove in the snug.

The hallway is her tribute to much-loved family, friends and neighbours. There is a long parade of coat hooks, each bearing the name of a gone but not forgotten personality.

Upstairs, what was her grandmother’s bedroom is now her studio, where she still uses paints belonging to Constance and Philippa. The bathroom was treated to a new sink and loo but the bath has been in place since the 1920s.

Furniture is a mix of the inherited, the rediscovered and the new. The dining table was her grandparents and the gouge in it is from her great uncle Whitfield’s parrot. He was in the Navy and brought the bird back from South America. The manual Singer sewing machine, now refurbished and back in use, was in the loft.

“I ended up with generations of old furniture and every piece tells a story. I had to have a clear out but I kept what was practical and sentimental. There’s a long history of reusing and recycling here, like the sofa that was first in silk, then covered in dralon by my parents and in linen by me,” says Katharine. The walls are painted cream and are full of paintings and engravings. Many are by Constance, who was prolific, and by her mother. Others are by friends including William and Mary Shackleton, Joan Hassall, a wood engraver, Richard Eurich and Bill Wild, the former Malham blacksmith, who was also a gifted artist. “There was quite a community of artists here in the 1930s and 40s and both my grandparents had been to the Leeds College of Art so they knew a lot of artists too,” says Katharine, whose own paintings are spectacular and highly sought-after.

She works in a range of media from oil on canvas to watercolour on paper and her work captures the feeling of being in the wild landscape. She often paints outside in all weathers, as did her grandmother.

“She went out in rain and snow with a hat bound to her head with a scarf on windy days and she worked mainly in watercolours which dried quickly and 
were easily transportable.”

Katharine has painted some of the 
same scenes of Malham Cove and 
Gordale Scar though her style is very different.

“Pictures had been in the same place for years and it felt odd moving them at first, though I now move them round quite a lot,” she says.

“It’s taken a few years to get used to but I now feel like this is my home.”

To see more of Katharine’s work 
visit Katharine is opening her home and studio to the public as part of the North Yorkshire Open Studios event in June. Some of her latest work will be on display.

Useful contacts

Katharine’s cottage in Malham is one of over 100 artist studios that will be open to the public in June as part of North Yorkshire Open Studios.

The event, which runs over the weekends of June 8 and 9 and June 15 and 16, covers some of Yorkshire’s most beautiful areas, including the Dales, the North York Moors, Scarborough and Whitby.

It now attracts visitors from all the country who come to meet artists and makers and to see everything from paintings, silversmithing, ceramics and glassware to furniture making, sculpture and textiles.

For a brochure of studios taking part visit or tel: 01756 748529.