In the studio with Sonia Lawson RA

Published 27 August 2015

Despite various challenges, including a leaking roof, Sonia Lawson RA is keen to return to her garden studio, says Fiona Maddocks.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Pointing up at the renewed rafters and down to a stack of rescued canvases, Sonia Lawson RA describes how a leaking roof recently put her studio out of action for several weeks. She is poised to start work there again. Nestling to the side of her roomy, red-brick Edwardian house in Leighton Buzzard, surrounded by rambling roses and a large enclosed garden, the studio has been her private domain for four-and-a-half decades.

    The wooden structure is engagingly ramshackle. You can see the sky – the light is mainly from roof lights – but not the garden, unless you crane your neck. Every object has a purpose – brushes, stretchers, little sacks of pigment waiting to be mixed up like bags of icing sugar, tiny bottles marked ‘soapy water’, empty ice-cream cartons, pencils, a book on Celtic art – but there are no other distractions.

    “We had been in the house a couple of years,” she recalls. “I persuaded my husband, Charlie [Congo], to build it for me. I had been working in the attic but bringing big canvases up and down was difficult. I just wanted somewhere that was all mine.” Trespassers have never been encouraged. “Back in the early days, friends of my husband” – a businessman with a plastics factory in nearby Bletchley – “were curious, but I said to Charlie, “I’m not a performing seal and I don’t want people gawping at me.” So this is perfect.”

    Acts of god, to use that startling home insurance term, are hardly unknown to Lawson. A house fire once forced her, her husband and daughter to move elsewhere for two years. Now, aged 81, she has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 15 years, her mobility restricted, her spirit far from extinguished by the extra challenges this presents. She has continued to paint but the last five years have been particularly hard. “I’ll have to find new strategies, perhaps work on a smaller scale.” She knows it will be “very difficult and slightly different”. She has an exhibition shortly in Harrogate, and a new monograph by Nicholas Usherwood, Sonia Lawson: Passions and Alarms, has been published.

  • Sonia Lawson RA in her studio

    Sonia Lawson RA in her studio

    Photo © Anna Huix

  • Lawson grew up, an only child of the artists Fred Lawson and Muriel Metcalfe, in the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by a lively artistic circle, among them the poet James Kirkup and the novelist J.B. Priestley. At first she learned chiefly from her parents’ example. “At school I won all the art prizes but my teachers said, “This is all very well but you can’t earn a living with it.” I thought, I’ll show them that I can.” Lawson went to Doncaster School of Art in 1951, and four years later to the Royal College of Art. She recalls that while all the men dressed soberly in grey trousers and pullovers, the women were more radical and adventurous, prepared to wear “funny clothes” – from boiler suits to boas. “At Doncaster I was, I think, the only girl. The numbers were better at the RCA. But attitudes were still narrow. I remember Carel Weight, who taught painting there, saying to me, “Do you think a woman can be a good painter?” And when you walked upstairs you’d get remarks like “I see skirts have gone up this year”. But it was all quite harmless.”

    Wartime memories have surfaced powerfully in her work over the years. The garrison town of Catterick Camp was near her Wensleydale home. “My early childhood was an era of great division. The women were at home, while most of the men were at war.” She gestures to a vivid, violent canvas, Northern Garrison (1986), with a powerful female figure in blue with flowing dark hair that might be Lawson herself, presiding over all like Liberty or Britannia. The work pulsates with influences and ideas, from the international – Mexican murals and Munch – to the domestic, from history to myth.

    These qualities are also visible in the jewelled Night in a Private Garden (2010) and in the bold androgyny of Marlene Dietrich (1984). With good reason she has coined the term ‘compressionism’ for her work, which bestrides abstraction and narrative with ease. “Above all it’s about handling paint. I love the plastic way one can mix it, cover a blank canvas, score it in different ways. It’s your own private medium, your trademark.”

    Against odds – including several falls and a broken arm – Lawson, still yearns to work, and has a gleam in her eye. “What do they say… the spirit is willing? Yes, I will try. It’s my job.”

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. Her lates book is Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks (Faber, 2014)

    Sonia Lawson: Paintings, Passions and Alarms is at Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate from 14 November – 7 February 2016. Sonia Lawson: Passions and Alarms by Nicholas Usherwood is published by Sansom & Co.

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