Katie Clemson: Printmaker inspired by light


Kay Christine Clemson (Katie Clemson), artist: born Temora, New South Wales 14 November 1949; married 1978 Alex Allan; died London 23 November 2007.

The artist Katie Clemson was a talented printmaker, teacher and sailor. She became fascinated with printmaking while a student at Central School of Art in London, and bought her own press, concentrating on lino-cutting. Her speciality was reduction prints, a technique she had learnt from Blair Hughes Stanton, whereby successive cuts are made to a lino block to build up an image from many layers of transparent ink. In some cases, she also etched the lino block with caustic to create atmospheric effects.

Brought up in Australia, Clemson delighted in the sunlight and colour of the landscape of her birth. She worked from her studio overlooking the Thames at Chiswick and always tried to live as close as possible to water, perhaps a reaction to the dusty countryside she had known as a child. She had an unerring eye for the myriad ways in which water reflects light. Her recent work captured the dream-like illusions of mirages and inland salt lakes through linocut prints. "I find the misty mood of that English half-light quite depressing. I am more interested in the in-your-face brightness of Australian light; I want the full-on colours and light".

She was born Kay Clemson in 1949 near West Wyalong, New South Wales, but later changed her name to Katie. A dynamic and vibrant woman, she explored Europe before settling in the UK in 1972. After a foundation course at Croydon College of Art, she studied fine art at the Central School from 1973 to 1978, where she was taught by Blair Hughes Stanton and Ian Mortimer. Her first show was in 1976, in London. From then on, she exhibited regularly in solo and group shows all over the world. Her work is held in public and private collections in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada and the United States.

Clemson took a teacher-training course in 1978-79 and taught as a visiting lecturer at a variety of art colleges, including Canterbury, Maidstone, Glasgow and Winchester. In 1988 she was co-author with Rosemary Simmons of the Dorling Kindersley publication The Complete Manual of Relief Printmaking.

In 1987 Clemson set up White Gum Press, a print workshop in the New Forest, and in 1992 she was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. In 2005 she conceived and curated an exhibition at Bankside Gallery in London called "The Artist and Radio 4". She was struck by the fact that her own work would trigger flashbacks to afternoon plays she had listened to when inking a particular colour, to a cricketer scoring a century in a Test match while cutting a particular patch of lino. Clemson discovered that lots of other artists listened to BBC Radio 4, rather than music, when working in their studios. She was invited to sketch live during The Material World radio programme as Quentin Cooper and guests discussed the nature of creativity.

Her last exhibition was "In a Different Light", at the Bankside Gallery, London, in November/December 2007. A joint show with her fellow Australians Karyn White and Edwina Ellis, it examined the artists' feelings of displacement and reflected on how their nationality inspires their work. Earlier in the year Clemson had returned to New South Wales; in preparation for the exhibition, she sketched the landscape she knew and loved and creating prints in her studio in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Aside from printmaking, Clemson was also an active sailor, rower and tennis player. She began sailing by chance while visiting friends on the Isle of Wight, and went on to compete in the Round Britain and Ireland Race twice, the second time in 1982 with her husband Alex Allan, a civil servant and diplomat. Clemson returned to Australia with Allan for seven years from 1997 when he became British High Commissioner in Canberra. This followed several years as Principal Private Secretary to prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair. Allan was recently appointed Chairman of the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee.

Clemson successfully combined diplomatic life with her artistic career. She had a healthily sceptical attitude towards politics and strong views on some issues. During the time of the French nuclear testing in the Pacific, Allan declined an invitation to a grand dinner at Hampton Court in honour of President Jacques Chirac because Clemson insisted she would only go if she could wear her "no nukes" T-shirt.

She got on well with the politicians Allan worked for but was not afraid to speak her mind, once phoning Nigel Lawson when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask him not to call about the Sunday papers until after 9am to give them a chance to sleep in. At Allan's farewell party at Number 10, she charmed the audience with her guitar and a song she had written about the trials and tribulations of her husband's working life at Downing Street.

Hannah Hawksworth

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