Obituary: Katharine Church

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The Independent Culture
KATHARINE CHURCH, the neo-Romantic painter, was described by John Piper, in his foreword for a 1988 retrospective of her work, as a "real painter". Her consistency of style remained true throughout her painting career.

Piper described it thus:

In the early days when I first knew her she had already discovered the personal style, dashing, generous, linear, with homage to Cezanne and perhaps Van Gogh, that she maintained throughout her painting life. Most of her emotional reactions in life are primarily visual and those reactions, though affected by beauty and charm, or even the idiosyncrasy of appearances, reflect the puritanical choosiness - some might say arbitrariness - of an artist.

Katharine Church was born in Highgate, north London, in 1910, with Bloomsbury connections. Her father was a barrister who was killed in the First World War and her mother was Elsie Neilson Lyle, a great socialite. Katharine's younger sister Margaret later became the first woman architect to be elected to the RIBA and married the Modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin, who designed many London buildings including the penguin pool at London Zoo.

Katharine Church studied art firstly at Brighton, then at the Royal Academy School and the Slade. In London in the 1920s and early 1930s she made many friends, the world appeared to be fun and lighthearted after the end of the Great War, and gifted painters blossomed.

She was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy during the early years of her career and in 1934, her painting of lilies at the Summer Exhibition was hailed by the Daily Telegraph as "one of the best flower pieces seen in recent years at Burlington House". Her first one-man exhibition was held at the Wertheim Gallery in 1933, she took part in the new English Art Club Exhibition of 1934 and she showed regularly with the London Group. She was exhibited by the Lefevre Gallery from 1937 to 1947.

In 1933 Church met and greatly admired the older and more mature painter Ivon Hitchens; he would take her on summer painting trips to Suffolk and on one occasion she invited the young John Piper and Myfanwy Evans to join them. The group was very compatible and the outcome of this painting holiday produced the happy marriage of John and Myfanwy Piper. Church was always influenced by the free style of Ivon Hitchens; it may be detected particularly in the fluid landscapes which she was so fond of painting.

In 1935 Katharine Church met and fell in love with the writer Anthony West, son of Dame Rebecca West and H.G. Wells, and they married in 1937, afterwards living at Katharine's studio off Maida Avenue in Little Venice. In 1938 they moved out of London to a small farm at Tarrant Hinton in Dorset, where later Katharine took on a family of London evacuees, the Magill children, from the Isle of Dogs. She painted a series of portraits of the children which show their anguish and shock at being in the country for the first time.

In the late Forties Frances Hodgkins, the New Zealand-born painter, lived near Church at Corfe Castle, and the two became great friends. In 1950 Hodgkins painted Church seated in a chair; this portrait has been left to the Tate Gallery. Amongst the Wests' great circle of friends were the painters Julian Trevelyan and his wife Mary Fedden with whom they spent holidays and painted. The last of the Bloomsberries, Frances Partridge, and her family were also frequent visitors to Tarrant Hinton, and in the 1970s Partridge and Church travelled to Russia together on a cultural holiday.

Katharine Church showed consistently throughout her career, notably at the Tate Gallery in 1953, in 1982 at the National Museum of Wales in "John Piper and English Neo-Romanticism" and in "Ladies of the Slade" at the Parkin Gallery in 1986. A retrospective of her work was held at the Duncalfe Galleries in Harrogate in 1988.

Describing Church's later work in Artist and Illustrator Magazine in 1986, Laura Gascoigne writes: "Verve is a quality that shines from Katharine Church's work and its brightness hasn't dimmed over the years. Two things combine to give it energy: glowing colours and devastating firmness of line."

At the Royal Academy she had developed a passion for the figure which never left her, and which she maintained in later years. This feeling for structure continued to infuse all her work, to such a degree that when she painted a flower, she almost endowed it with a skeleton. Foliage and blooms are broken down into forms with bold decisive, geometric marks which search out the true character of the plant without being led astray by its prettiness.

In 1964 Katharine Church moved to Sutton House, near Wimborne, in Dorset, hidden within a deep wood with an idyllic cottage garden. She commissioned the architect Rudy Mock to build a fine studio which sympathetically adjoins the old cob house. She held open house for her friends on the first Tuesday of every month where paintings and the art scene were discussed avidly. She painted more or less until the end.

Katharine Church, painter: born London 4 July 1910; married 1937 Anthony West (died 1987; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Wimborne Minster, Dorset 20 July 1999.

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