Research – Kathleen Walne (1915-2011)

Kathleen's life and work

felt pen on paper horizontal timeline

Working timeline of Kathleen Walne’s life and work

photograph of four simple printed catalogues

Catalogues of Kathleen Walne’s work and archive material

The above timeline and simple catalogues were made following visits to Kathleen Walne’s family over a period of years (2017-2022). They are part of a slow process of picking up various pieces of information and capturing it for ourselves.

This helped us gain a deeper understanding of the social / political / personal impacts on Kathleen’s creative life such as:
Gender expectations
Need for financial stability
Second world war
Struggle for housing in post war London
Caring responsibilities
Space – living in a small flat with three children

Talking to her family we learnt how Kathleen’s speaking voice sounded. It was soft and she had a Suffolk accent. Slowly our sense of Kathleen got richer.

We were very fortunate to spend a morning with Kathleen’s sister (who was 103) a few months before she passed away peacefully in 2020. She told us stories of their childhood. We have a recording of this interview which we have shared with the family.

The significance of time and building a relationship of trust with Kathleen’s family has meant we have had access to hearing Kathleen’s voice more intimately – through spending time with them and her work and reading the memoir Kathleen wrote for her grandchildren.

Visiting museums and collections

People viewing drawings and paintings at a table

Kathleen’s work in Towner’s stores

We visited Towner Eastbourne and Salford Museum & Art Gallery to see Kathleen’s work held in their collections. Seeing more of her paintings and drawings and making connections to the working timeline we created helped us understand where and how she made work and what interested her.

a row of paintings propped against a gallery wall

Kathleen’s work at Salford Museum & Art Gallery

Kathleen’s work from the 1930s

Kathleen (right) on Minsmere Beach with her Ipswich Art School friends 1934

This was Kathleen’s most prolific period, she was still a youth. She had a lively and free childhood in Ipswich, but not without hardship, and went on to study at Ipswich Art School aged fourteen in 1929. Finding paid work was a necessity and in 1934 she went to work for Lucy Wertheim in her London gallery when she was just nineteen. Being amongst other artists in the gallery and working in the West End of London meant she would have been exposed to a lot of cultural influences of the day. She lived and painted in the basement of the building – she found inspiration in subject matter that was close to hand and used watercolour paint and drawing materials.

Lucy Wertheim had a significant impact on her life as an artist – Lucy bought Kathleen’s paintings as she made them and included her in group and solo exhibitions and public collections. Lucy was a gallerist and collector, particularly passionate about supporting young British artists.

The thirty year gap 1940 - 1970

Kathleen’s card to her friend Freddie which makes reference to the gap in her painting life

Following the period of living and working in Lucy Wertheim’s gallery, Kathleen’s creative life was interrupted by marriage and the Second World War. Kathleen primarily became a mother, carer and also worked as an auxiliary nurse. We have seen very few works by Kathleen made between 1940 and 1972, suggesting Kathleen only occasionally painted during this period.

We imagine when she moved to Brighton as a carer for Lucy Wertheim in the late 1960s that it would have connected her to her earlier creative life. After Lucy died in 1971 Kathleen started painting and exhibiting again.

Kathleen’s later creative life

The back of an older woman painting at a table

Kathleen painting in the garden of her Brighton home

In her later life Kathleen continued to draw inspiration from what was around her, painting people, family and still lifes. She became a keen photographer and sometimes took snapshots of images from the television which she would use to feed her work. A conversation with a close friend of hers enlightened us to the source of a series of paintings called ‘Hats’ that she made during the late 1980s (when Kathleen was in her early 70s). Kathleen would go into Brighton Art School and paint the millinery students. Her enthusiasm for fashion is clear and particularly plays out in this work. It is easy to imagine that living in Brighton at that time would have influenced her.

Kathleen worked at the kitchen table or in her garden, and she exhibited locally in the Brighton Lanes, in shop windows and friends’ homes. She made Christmas cards every year that she sent to friends and family. She maintained a personal archive and made sure her story was captured and shared both through Mixed Palette by David Buckman (a book about Kathleen and her husband Frank’s painting lives) and in her own unpublished memoir written for her grandchildren. Kathleen continued painting into her nineties.

From the mid-1980s the works by Kathleen that Lucy Wertheim had gifted to public collections were included in solo and group exhibitions at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, Towner Eastbourne, Wakefield Art Gallery and Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.

Residency at Towner Eastbourne, 12-17 July 2022

The residency took place for one week during the Wertheim exhibitions, A Life in Art: Lucy Wertheim and Reuniting the Twenties Group, 11 June 2022- 25 September 2022.

During the residency we created an installation of Kathleen’s work with our own work and displayed Kathleen’s archive material. It was a unique chance to have all the material in one room.

Vitrine with original artwork and reproductions

A display of Kathleen’s work, including her photographs and cards

We also asked questions that invited visitors to share their ideas about public collections and how they represent communities. We engaged visitors with the material on display in the room – listening to personal experiences and stories and the connections people were making to both Kathleen’s work and life and the wider questions in the room.

As part of our research for the questions we looked at acquisition policies from different collections – we were interested to see how they had changed over time. We shared a small selection of policies that are available publicly in the studio as examples.

Our questions

Photograph of questions hung on a wall with people looking at them

Our questions in the residency studio at Towner Eastbourne

How do you think decisions were made in the past of what is collected in our public galleries and museums?

How would you change what is collected and what we see?

Do you know or remember someone with a creative outlet in their life? What do they do?
How were they creative?
Is there a record?

Many visitors shared their responses to our questions on a noticeboard in the residency studio

Towner visitor responses to our questions

Residency workshops

During the residency we explored our idea of active research and invited people to work alongside us through an artists workshop day and a book group.

Photograph of women sitting at a table

Researching the women artists in Towner’s Lucy Wertheim exhibitions

Lucy’s Women workshop day used the material we were able to gather on the women artists in the Wertheim exhibitions at Towner Eastbourne. We worked together to draw out information and connections between the artists – for example where they were educated, exhibitions the artists had been part of, their social class, and the artist societies they belonged to. This raised questions about their lack of visibility, especially when exploring the early successful exhibiting careers many of them had.

In the book group we looked at excerpts from Lucy Wertheim’s book Adventure in Art that seemed most relevant to her role as a woman gallerist, collector and supporter of women artists. We also shared information on Lucy’s connection to Kathleen Walne. Participants were particularly interested in the power relationship between gallerist and artist.