Kitty North is one of our best known painters and the focus of the next in our ‘favourite artists’ series. Chris Bond visited her at her home in North Yorkshire.
You’re unlikely to stumble across Kitty North’s gallery by accident, tucked away as it is in the tiny village of Arncliffe, in Littondale. But it’s worth the effort. The journey alone takes you across some of the best countryside you’ll find anywhere in England, let alone Yorkshire.
Arncliffe, too, is picture-postcard pretty. Its stone cottages are surrounded by hillsides etched with limestone scars and have the added bonus of being a short walk from The Falcon - the kind of proper pub that is sadly all too rare these days (and where I enjoyed the best pie and peas I’ve had in a long time).
Kitty North has been based in Arncliffe for the past eight years and it’s home to both her studio and gallery. “I paint inside and outside, anywhere really,” she says, noticing that I’ve spotted flecks of paint on the gravel in front of her studio.
She lives at Prospect House, once owned by a former bishop and author called John Robinson, and it’s not called ‘prospect’ for nothing - the views from the back garden looking west are breathtaking and it’s easy to see why an artist would be seduced by its charms. “Once the daisies and buttercups are out it’s beautiful, but it is a tough life up here, especially in winter. It’s a farming community and the people work hard.”
Kitty has been painting the Yorkshire landscape for most of her life and her vibrant, colour-saturated paintings have become popular with the public and art collectors alike.
“I love the Yorkshire Dales,” she says. “There’s so much wrapped up in it all from the Brontës to Ted Hughes. I’ve always loved the tiny farm houses tucked away on the side of hills and the River Wharfe winding its way along, it’s just incredibly beautiful to my eyes.”
She grew up in Kirkby Lonsdale, between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, and it was here that she did her first “serious” painting when she was 12. “I painted Ingleborough from my bedroom window and that was a defining moment for me. It wasn’t particularly good but I just knew this was what I wanted to do.”
She sold her first two paintings to an art dealer when she was 16 and went on to study at Chelsea School of Art where her peers included a certain Ralph Fiennes (he wrote the foreword to the Kitty North Book published last year).
After further study in Brighton and then Manchester she’s spent the past 30 years living and working in Yorkshire. “I started off as a landscape painter working in wild, open places from the Yorkshire Dales to the Lake District in both oils and watercolour.”
Kitty has her favourite haunts, such as Bolton Abbey, Harewood House and Chatsworth, where she’s returned to over the years, and has also turned her hand to urban settings as in her Fire and Flume painting which depicts Bradford during its Victorian heyday. “I read somewhere that in the 1860s people said the smoke coming out of the chimneys was orange and that set this painting off. I thought about Lowry with this one of course, but also Danny Boyle’s magnificent chimneys in the opening ceremony he created for the London Olympics.”
Kitty enjoys working with oils, “there’s something about oil paintings that look so ancient”, but more recently has been drawn towards acrylics. “Oil absorbs light, that’s why with a Rembrandt portrait you sink into it. Whereas you bounce off an acrylic because it reflects light.”
Her move towards working with acrylics started with her exhibition Daring to Dream a couple of years back at Salts Mill in Saltaire. The series celebrated 30 years since the late entrepreneur Jonathan Silver and his family breathed new life into the then-redundant buildings.
Kitty, who has known the family for a long time, is full of praise for what they have done for this area. “Salts Mills is a great place and I think what the Silvers have done is brilliant, it’s become a beacon of hope and I love all the David Hockney pictures there.”
When it came to the series of new paintings she thought acrylics were best suited for them. “It felt like the right medium to tell this incredible story of the history of Salts Mill which goes back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”
There are several familiar faces in Kitty’s collection, from David Hockney at his easel to Alan Bennett with a cup of tea. The latter came to see her at her home one day. “He sat in this chair,” she says, motioning to her chair. “He’s great and such a wonderful writer. He signed one of his books for me which was very sweet of him.”
Kitty spends most of her time here in Yorkshire but also has a gallery in Bermondsey, in London, and has embarked on a series of family portrait commissions in the capital.
“They’re not traditional portraits, they’re more about telling people’s stories through a painting and I’m really enjoying doing them because they’re different.”
She’s keen for her work to continue evolving. “You’re not the person you were 10 or 20 years ago and as an artist you’ve got to keep pushing your boundaries. My paintings have got busier again. For a time they became very still and minimalist and now they aren’t. I think as you get older you become more disciplined, you become like a finely tuned athlete or a racehorse.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is her passion for the wild Yorkshire countryside. “It’s my muse. So in the same way that some artists return to the figure, or paint their wife for 50 years, it’s the landscape that does it for me. I love going out with oils or watercolours to do a simple picture, it’s a complete joy to me. You’re not really doing anything you’re just responding to what’s in front of you.
“Sometimes when I’m out sketching and the finished painting will appear in my head and the work will be finished there. Other times I might have the beginnings of a painting and come back to the studio where I may continue to work on it for 10 years or more.”
And Kitty feels she’s entering a purple patch. “In many ways I’ve never felt as hungry as I do now. Sometimes life throws stuff at you and there have been times in the past where I just didn’t want to paint, but I’m really enjoying painting at the moment. It’s like there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
As well as her artworks she’s busy producing her own merchandise - everything from coffee mugs to bookmarks - and at 55 there’s a zest about everything she’s doing. “I’m very much into doing new things. As Yoda said, ‘do, or do not, there is no try.’ And I’m with Yoda all the way on that.”
Prospect Gallery, Arncliffe, near Skipton. BD23 5QE. Open Studio: 9am-1pm Wednesdays and Fridays, and by appointment. Tel: 07894 797300. www.kittynorth.com
Several of Kitty’s paintings from her Daring To Dream series, including Fire & Flume, will be hung in the Salts Mill diner from mid-February.