Local water colour artist ahead of her time

Photo:'Mother with a ball of wool', by Kathleen Walne, 1936

'Mother with a ball of wool', by Kathleen Walne, 1936

Kathleen Walne, 3 October 1915 - 30 June 2011

By David Buckman

There's a touching and personal obituary by Diane Gaskin elsewhere on this site about her friend and neighbour Kathleen Ward (professional name Kathleen Walne). This more formal tribute was published in The Guardian on 17th August 2011 and is reproduced here with their permission and that of the author, David Buckman:

A dash of continental expressionism

Kathleen Walne, who has died aged 95, produced some of the most unusual and exuberantly colourful English watercolours of the last century. She was a natural designer whose figure studies, still lifes and landscapes are infused with a dash of continental expressionism.

Born in Ipswich

Kathleen was born in Ipswich, the fourth of seven children of Herbert and Ruby Walne. She never lost her Suffolk accent or affection for the county, and described her upbringing as idyllic, despite its problems. While in primary school she developed tonsilitis "and lost everything of importance in my childhood". She had to have an operation and, having missed many lessons, could not catch up. However, in the little elementary school near her home, an art teacher arranged for her to enter Ipswich Art School.

A grueling day

Kathleen gained a £1 a week scholarship and joined the design school, "destined to be a book illustrator", then inveigled herself into the painting school, where she met her future husband, the painter Frank Ward. Hers was a grueling day, with morning, afternoon and evening classes. Her father's income was erratic and she "would return for lunch and my poor mother would say “ ‘There's nothing to eat.’  I'd have a drink of water and return."

Gallery in Burlington Gardens

In 1933 Frank entered the Royal College of Art in London and, realising that Kathleen's originality was not appreciated at Ipswich, tried to interest London galleries in her work. He was successful with Lucy Wertheim, who three years earlier had opened a gallery in Burlington Gardens devoted to showing talented young artists. It was agreed that Kathleen would join Wertheim as gallery dogsbody. From her semi-basement room she could "see all the feet passing by", which she liked because "I've always been interested in people more than anything". It would be as a figure painter that Kathleen would establish her name.

A solo show

Wertheim paid Kathleen 10 shillings for those pictures that she liked, putting her under contract. Late in 1935 she was given a solo show, but Wertheim found that originality could count against her protegé : "The all too rare purchaser complained that his 'Kathleen Walne' made the rest of his pictures appear drab."

'Adventure in Art'

However, she gradually created for herself a circle of admirers. Wertheim recalled in her memoir Adventure in Art (1947) that, during one private view, Kathleen "mistook her paint rag for her dishcloth". As guests were offered a second cup of tea, one after another pushed her cup away exclaiming: "What vile stuff – it tastes more like turpentine!"

Paintings in public collections

Many fine studies from these years would find their way into public collections. Interior (1936, now at Salford Art Gallery), Girl With Cat (1935, at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne) and Mother and Child (1937, at Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand), as well as Self Portrait (1938), which is held in a private collection, are striking examples of her ability to create powerful, quirky designs enriched with wine-rich pigment uncommon in most English water colours.

Married in 1938

Frank and Kathleen were married in 1938. The following year he joined the staff of Wilson's boys' grammar school in Camberwell, south-east London (now in Sutton), rejoining it in 1945 after army service, and retiring in 1974. Much of Kathleen's war was spent with her daughter Hilary, in Stradbroke, Suffolk, where Frank's father had a grocery shop.

Return to Chelsea

After the second world war Frank and Kathleen returned to live in Chelsea, where before hostilities they had become friendly with the painter Theo Garman and his mother Kathleen. The friendship continued after the war, with Frank visiting the studio of Theo's father, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and meeting Winston Churchill several times.

Move to Brighton

In 1957 Wertheim moved to Brighton. After she was diagnosed with cancer, Frank and Kathleen in 1968 decided to join her and for several years Kathleen looked after "Aunt Luce".

Various exhibitions

Kathleen and Frank shared a show at Compendium 2 in London in 1972, and one in Brighton in 1975. In 1986 Kathleen was given a successful solo exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery. She continued to win new fans. When the critic Michael Shepherd reviewed British Art 1920-1960 at Blond Fine Art in 1987, among three works he singled out "with a freedom of handling well in advance of their times in Britain" was "Kathleen Walne's Nicholas Horsfield of 1936 (which could have been done by [RB] Kitaj yesterday)".

'Mixed Palette'

In 1997, Mixed Palette, my short study of Frank and Kathleen's painting lives, was published. Frank died the following year. Kathleen continued to paint into her 90s, a feisty character alert to what was happening in the Brighton art scene and beyond. She is survived by a son, Richard, Hilary and a second daughter, Mairny.


[• Kathleen Walne, artist, born 3 October 1915; died 30 June 2011]


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 214, January/February 2012]

This page was added on 09/02/2012.

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