One house, three women painters

Katharine Holmes lives and works in the house where her mother and grandmother lived and worked too.
Tina Jackson meets the latest in a dynasty of artists

Tina Jackson
The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011

Katharine Holmes's grandmother, Constance Pearson

Katharine Holmes' house is filled with works of art from three generations of her family. Three women artists whose spirits inhabit the house where they all lived and worked for 70 years – and where Katharine now does the same.

The artwork created by this unique family of painters tells a compelling story about rural life in Yorkshire since the 1930s and the family that created it. Sitting in the kitchen of High Barn Cottage in Malham, North Yorkshire, Katharine says that when she was a child, she vividly remembers going to see her grandmother in the bedroom upstairs. "It was full of paintings, and an easel I still have. It was her bedroom-cum-studio. There was always something on the easel, paintings hung up all over. She used to let me play in there, and squeeze tubes of paint out."

Katharine's grandmother was the noted Dales artist Constance Pearson. Her bedroom, whose window looks out on some of the most breathtaking scenery in Yorkshire, is now Katharine's studio, and Katharine, in her turn a renowned Yorkshire artist, is the third generation of her family not just to live and work as a landscape painter, but to inhabit High Barn Cottage.

The narrative of her family's life is woven into the centuries-old grey stone building set in a harshly beautiful landscape. The house – as much a studio and gallery as it is a home – is filled with paintings by Constance, Katharine and her mother, Philippa Holmes. Its history is the histories of the women who lived and worked there. When Katharine was a child, it was a matriarchal environment where artistic creativity was taken for granted. "If you're a child, growing up with it in a house full of painters, with paintings all over the house, and people going out painting, it was just what you did. It was completely natural to me," says Katharine.

In the 1960s, when all three generations were at High Barn Cottage together, it was very much a house of women. "My father was the lone male," Katharine laughs. "They weren't battleaxes. But he spent quite a lot of his time in the shed, building boats."

Constance died in 1970, when Katharine was eight, but in the way of families, Constance and her life were central to the stories passed on through the generations. Constance Pearson, the matriarch of the family, was born in Leeds in 1886 to Quaker parents. Although she worked in the family grocery shop after leaving school, she won a scholarship to Leeds School of Art. Retaining the artistic links she made as a student, she painted constantly and in the early 1940s, when her schoolmaster husband, Sidney – a fellow student at Leeds School of Art – retired, they moved to Malham, and High Barn Cottage, thus beginning the family association with the place.

Constance quickly became part of the local landscape herself. In 2009, there was an exhibition of work by all three women at Leeds University's Audrey and Stanley Burton Gallery, A Malham Family of Painters. An essay in the catalogue for the exhibitionr describes Constance, who had always sought uninhabited rural scenes for her subjects, becoming a familiar figure in Malham, hungry to paint: "Tramping about in all weathers, her hat bound to her head with a scarf on windy days. She endured rain and snow traipsing out to Malham Cove or Gordale Scar."

Katharine has also painted these very same scenes; unlike her grandmother's gentler paintings, Katharine's pieces show the wild countryside as something more elemental; more sublime. "I paint weather and light," she says. She does not have to look far for either. She can see them from Constance's bedroom window, where she paints. The house and its surroundings are inseparable from Katharine's work. "It's right at the heart of what my paintings are about. It's a very important factor in my work that I've got this attachment – it's the place that I know and have lived in."

Although Katharine has evolved into a very different artist from Constance, she appreciates her grandmother's work for its own sake. Inevitably, though, Katharine's views are coloured by her memories. "I like what her paintings are about – the life going on in the Dales, the people and animals, and houses I knew and was in and out of. As a child, her pictures could have been illustrations in a story."

Constance's work is most numerous on the walls of the house, and Katharine's pieces are the largest and most eye-catching. But what of Philippa Pearson, the third Malham family painter? Born in 1921, Philippa trained as an occupational therapist, and during the second world war, her work involved rehabilitating servicemen through craft work. Later, she trained as a teacher, specialising in art and English at junior-school level.

She inherited her mother's artistic ability. Katharine points out a domestic scene, softly rendered in chalky shades, and the most intimate picture in a house filled with pictures of the landscape just beyond its walls. It faithfully depicts the pantry at High Barn Cottage, which Katharine shows me. Philippa, is seems, was a talented artist sandwiched between two fiercely driven ones. "Grandma had to paint, and so do I," says Katharine fondly, "but for Philippa, I don't think it had that same place. She loved to paint, but she had a very strong sense of family, she was very caring and capable, and it was that side of her that came to the fore."

Katharine loves the house and the strong personalities who have inhabited it. Later this month, the public will be able to enjoy it too, when she throws open her doors as part of the North Yorkshire Open Studios event.

"Sorting everything out, and working towards the exhibition, was quite an emotional process … to go through all this material, and this house, which had two generations before me. Things had been in the same place for years – certain paintings always somewhere – and actually, now, I can put them where I like. It's gradually taken a few years to feel that it's my home, and they don't mind any more. It's taken quite a while for that to sink in. But it's kind of lovely to have all these reminders of them."