Always a champion of women artists, the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate is following up a fine exhibition earlier this year of a specially commissioned series of paintings by contemporary artist Sarah Pickstone with their latest show, a major retrospective of the work of Sonia Lawson.
Now in her eighties and based in Bedfordshire, Lawson was born and grew up in the village of Castle Bolton in Wensleydale as the only child of artists Fred Dawson and Muriel Metcalfe and after leaving school followed in her parents’ footsteps studying first at Doncaster School of Art and later at the Royal College of Art. It wasn’t easy being a young woman art student in the 1950s she tells me – let’s just say the thinking at the time wasn’t very enlightened – as she recalls one of her first conversations with her tutor Carel Weight. “He said to me ‘do you think women can make good painters? It was just taken for granted that women weren’t as good as men. I said ‘yes I do’ – and I think I proved it to him. I got a first in the end.” She went on to be elected to the Royal Academy in 1982 and remains the only Academician from the Dales.
Lawson says that she can’t really say at what point she decided that she wanted to become an artist “because it never struck me as being different from anything else. It was the normal thing to do in our household.” She stresses, however, that although it was always likely, it was not inevitable. “My uncle had a small farm near Leyburn and I used spend a lot of time up there,” she says. “I was torn between wanting to go out with my dad and paint and going up to the farm to help with the haymaking and so on. I think I had the best of both worlds.”
Her childhood was quite bohemian – creative friends of her parents were always dropping in and these included the novelist and playwright J B Priestley, the poet James Kirkup and the sculptor Jacob Kramer. “I didn’t really get to know them particularly well as I was just a kid hanging about,” says Lawson. “But there was a really lively group of people at one time.”
Her early work, in a bold Expressionist style, was inspired by the beautiful landscape in which she grew up but much of her childhood also coincided with the Second World War and the impact of this conflict is evident in the work she made after graduating from the Royal College of Art. Throughout the 1960s the horror and oppression of war haunted her paintings with works such as Figure at Dawn and Grieving Women revealing the brutalising effect of war. “My uncle also had the post office in Leyburn and that’s where all the telegrams with sad news used to come to. It was a time of extremes and those extremes for me were very pictorial and clear cut.”
The exhibition features thirty major works charting Lawson’s career from the 1950s to the present and also includes more personal and autobiographical themes including a portrait of her mother. Lawson has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 15 years but continues to paint regularly. She says that the Dales still influence her work – “the limestone uplands and the sheep, they are always there” – and that inspiration comes to her incrementally. “It’s a bit like a bird pecking at a piece of silver paper or something that intrigues it.”
• Sonia Lawson: Paintings, Passions and Alarms is at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate until February 7.