Sonia Lawson – In memory

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Sonia Lawson – In memory

The ROI was very saddened in 2023 to hear of the lost of Sonia Lawson RA Hon ROI RWS Hon RWA. In tribute to Sonia, the ROI installed the triptych ‘Garrison Town’ in the north gallery for their 2023 annual exhibition.

Garrison Town. Oil on Canvas 1981- 84, 8′ x10′ Triptych

This painting belongs to an autobiographical and introspective period of Sonia Lawson’s career. In it she examines the complex and contradictory feelings brought about in her by war.

Sonia’s childhood memories of living in Wensleydale during the second world war were mostly of intense excitement. With the then huge Catterick army camp nearby, she recalled vividly how her quiet market town was suddenly filled with bustling, urgent activity and a feeling that important things were afoot: ‘a different pace – dances, talk of war, victory/defeat and a sense of camaraderie between the grown-ups, pulling against a common enemy for a communal cause’. Allied soldiers often visited the town: ‘smart Canadians and  Americans….seeming to breeze in bringing chocolates for the children and nylons for the young women – a sense of daring, sexy, romantic and a certain heroism’. 

These are the feelings that infuse the central panel of ‘Garrison Town’ with colour, life and light: a female form in white sounds a regimental drum; a splash of golden hair masking her face, while a girl in a red spotted headscarf, red blouse and blue and yellow skirt stands with her back to the onlooker, chatting to a soldier.

However, even as a child at the end of the war, Sonia was starting to become aware of the destruction brought about by armed conflict, and began keeping scrapbooks of images, cut from newspapers and magazines, that bore witness to the human misery of war. So, in the central panel the mood of youthful excitement is tempered by a sense of foreboding. The gay colours of the two young women shine out in stark contrast to the dark uniforms of the soldiers and the brooding backdrop of the fortified town gate, which give a feeling of strength and security but strike a more ominous note . The soldiers themselves, identified only by their N.C.O. stripes and shiny buttons, are virtually faceless – even the sergeant to whom the girl is chatting has what Nicholas Usherwood described as ‘a dog’s skull face’- and appear perhaps to belong more to death than to life.

The two monumental female figures that fill the flanking panels of the triptych confirm the sense of foreboding. They are rendered with a muted palette and look upon the central panel’s scene of gaiety like silent sentinels. They, along with the layering and massing of figures on a tight, frontally flattened plane in the central panel, show the influence of Max Beckmann, whose work Sonia had admired since her student days. In 1991 Sonia was to make a painting of these two figures under the title ‘Grieving Women’. The left hand figure also bears a strong resemblance to the figure of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, a film that Sonia described as ‘holding all the weight of passionate colour.’ 

Unlike in previous war and anti-war paintings, women are not portrayed as victims but as an active and integral part of the war. The Garrison Town is one readying for a call to arms, and women are the foundation of all: muse; nurse; lover; sweetheart; mother; comforter, and ultimately mourner.

With acknowledgement and thanks to Zoe Congo and Nicholas Usherwood.

Biography  – 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.