Born in 1945, Linda Kitson studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where she was taught by Sir Quentin Blake. He has remained a close friends for fifty years and curated Kitson's current exhibition at House of Illustration. See it until 30 April 2017.
Linda began work as a freelance illustrator. Along with classmates from the Royal College she would travel around to meet art directors and editors, carrying a huge portfolio everywhere she went. In these early years she received commissions to illustrate articles and books for the Folio Society. She was issued a press pass by the Illustrated London News, allowing her the freedom to draw several important events such as political party conferences. During this period, she was invited to draw the BBC in action, and followed international orchestras, seizing every chance as it came.
I identified groups of people with whom I could stay and draw. In those very early days of learning to draw, you just follow the band. People accept this wandering numbskull, and say 'We're going here, come with us'. You just get swept along.
She stresses the need to live with and among her subjects, and to do several drawings in long sessions in order to get ‘fluent’.
She went on to draw workers in the print rooms of the press at Fleet Street, at a time of uneasy transition from moveable type to film.
It was very delicate, everyone was being hacked and sacked. Down in the print rooms they thought I was a time and motion study doing reports for the fourth floor to get people axed, and they were very suspicious of me. Well, you're there night after night, you show them the drawings, you drink their 'special tea' (i.e. tea with rum) and then they're completely used to you: that's the sort of thing I like. They learn very quickly that you are not critical, you are not a threat.
These illustrations, commissioned by The Times cartoonist Mel Calman, became an exhibition called ‘Newspapers and Newspeople’, opening in April 1982. At the exhibition launch, former war artist Leonard Rosoman, noting the speed at which Linda had to draw the people and machinery on Fleet Street, asked if she was ready to go to war…
Linda became the first female artist to accompany troops into battle. She sailed to the Falklands in May 1982, remaining there for a period of around three months, and returned with a huge collection of over 400 images.
I by no means saw the worst of it, but I had quick glimpses, and that's enough. I was quite battered by the experience. And it was difficult to draw because your hands were bound like a boxer against the cold; I conked out with hypothermia once and ended up in the hospital for a night. It was so difficult that it was the most I could do to get anything down. And the business of materials, which I was neurotic about, I’m hypnotised by them: I had to have an armband made for me by a sergeant to hold five types of black implements.
There was no way in which I could have entered into the battle sequences, as they were fought to a specific choreograph, & at nightime, so I would have been a risk to everyone. It was so sharp & short that the best contribution was to travel alongside the soldiers and give a domestic account of what they did day by day.
There is a school of thought that was very critical of what I came back with, but equally you can say all sorts of things which counteract that: this is not ‘news’; this is not a statement. I really have no preconception, and I'm entirely guided by what's going on. I'd be there for weeks and there would be over a hundred drawings of everything I stumbled across. It's the total message that counts.
She maintains across all of her work that it is not journalism, or even reportage, despite this often being the nature of the commission. Instead, she prefers to describe her work as a ‘witness’.
The Killing Fields
Following her renown as a war artist, Linda was commissioned to draw on the set of the 1984 film, The Killing Fields, which was filmed in Thailand and Cambodia, and documented the Khmer Rouge regime. She describes their choice of her, as a war artist, to provide artwork for a war film, as a kind of publicity stunt.
I know very well that David Puttnam (the producer) really wanted one ace picture for publicity: a really strong image. Of course, I can't do that; I would do ten in a day. And he said, "That's no good, but can we have a show at the National Theatre? Because it's obvious that you've not got a particular moment, it's all a running diary.”
The film gave Linda the opportunity to draw suffering – both real and acted – in ways that she had felt to be too inappropriate in the real war, in the Falklands.
She went on to draw mountainous landscapes, preferring France for the sheer space. Many of these were drawn independently, free of commission.
Landscapes are not easy. You go round and round, you take all the roads, and you can't see it from anywhere, or there's a wonderful place to draw from but there just happens to be a forest in front of it. But this was an antidote, I suppose, to bustling in and around urban crowds. Never mind love and sex and all the wonderful things, these were some of the best days of my life.
I was drawing by a river, and a fisherman came up and he asked me if I had a particular sort of worm, and he said, "Ah, c'est pas le même type de sport" [Ah, this is a different kind of sport]. He knew at once that it was a sort of activity, and I absolutely loved that.
Now, Kitson prefers to use the iPad, and sees this new way of working more as painting than drawing.
The way I do it, drawing is throwing a line around the edge of something mostly in black & white. I said, “There must be a way you can just do the shape with no detail”, and I’m so delighted as I've done that with the iPad. It is a new dawning.