Sonia Lawson ROI

Sonia Lawson ROI

Sonia Lawson RA Hon ROI RWS Hon RWA (1934 – 2023)

Photograph of Sonia LawsonThe only child of highly regarded painters Fred Lawson and Muriel Metcalfe, Sonia Lawson grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by a lively artistic circle of poets, painters and writers. She went to Doncaster School of Art and then, in 1955, the Royal College of Art. Although among young painters who were to become some of the brightest lights in 20th Century British Art, Sonia was an outstanding student at the RCA. Here she began to discover the power of abstraction which, combined with her innate ability to draw the human form, would enable her throughout her career to create paintings that could express human emotion beyond the means of conventional narrative. Here too she discovered the European films whose powerfully constructed imagery and ability to address fundamental themes of life and death were to have such a huge influence on her work. 

Sonia gained a First Class Diploma at the RCA, as well as a travelling scholarship which she took in the South of France. She was also commissioned to do two large abstract murals for the V&A Museum, and in 1960 was one of four young artists selected for John Schlesinger’s BBC TV Monitor documentary “Private View”.

Throughout her career Sonia pursued a fiercely independent path, and she was never afraid to allow her art to change according to what she was feeling and thinking during a given period of her life. Over the years her art took dramatic twists and turns, from the bold semi-abstraction of the RCA years, through the dark, harrowing paintings of the 60’s and late 70’s that cried out against the cruelties and violence of the modern world, via the lyrical, scintillatingly colourful homages to her family, especially her mother, to literature, history, the landscape and people of her beloved Wensleydale, through to the paintings of runic figures cut into dense, earthy, textured paint that compressed life into timeless tablets.

Sonia’s work defied any attempts by art critics to be fitted neatly into any art movement or stylistic pigeonhole, and prompted the distinguished poet and family friend, James Kirkup, to write to her: ‘yours is the kind of painting that can only be “described” by poetry’.

In the 80’s, she overcame the successive domestic traumas of a major house fire and a flood to pursue her career with characteristic determination and energy. She was elected to the Royal Academy in 1982 (having shown regularly at the RA Summer exhibition since the late 60’s), and in 1984 was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to be the official artist of The British Army’s Exercise Lionheart in West Germany. Sonia was elected to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Watercolour Society in 1985, and in 1989  was commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury for a painting to present to Pope John Paul II. Her work ‘St. Augustine Landing in England’ is now in the Vatican collection.   

As Nicholas Usherwood wrote in his 2015 monograph ‘Passions and Alarms’: 

She once remarked of herself that ‘I am in painting like a fisherman is part of the sea’, paint being the means by which to land her ‘catch’, her imagery, which lives in the element in which it is discovered and is brought out with all the attendant physical risks that implies. It is not a way of working that endears oneself to critics or dealers who tend to want to know what to expect next, as Lawson has found out, but it does make for the most exhilarating kind of painting imaginable.

Examples of work