Words Cathi Undsworth
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“The Internet has revealed much that was hidden. It is its own dark mirror by its very nature of conjuring up secrets and knowledge. But not everything can be googled. There has to be mystery out there somewhere…”
“It was random, if not magical circumstances, that brought me here,” says artist Cathy Ward of Bloomsbury. “Family from many generations gravitated here, all within streets of each other, none born Londoners. My mother trained as a nurse at UCH in WWII and I’d grown up hearing how a bomb shattered her bedroom, killing her roommate. Her mother was a talented painter and attended The Slade, across the road, at the start of the century – quite something for a woman then. The Suffragette movement undoubtedly played a part in her ambitions.” Cathy’s works – which range from immense canvases of mesmeric monochrome megaworlds to tiny, ink-on-mother-of-pearl sculptures that seem to have the sea and sky captured within them – are so intricate in detail that they transport the viewer into a different realm. Something that echoes the fin de siècle ideas of The Yellow Book and the occultist Austin Osman Spare: the Bloomsbury of her grandmother’s age.
“I feel I’m a direct descendant from her struggles, she was my one beacon of hope as, growing up in the 1960s, a career as an artist wasn’t encouraged,” she says. “Her ambitions were in conflict with the man she married and she died at 40 after bearing nine children. Such was the fate of many women. I live among reminders of that: The Women’s Freedom League in Bury Place and Hawksmoor’s St George’s, the only church that would take the body of Emily Davidson after her death under the King’s horse.” Cathy herself arrived early in the 1980s: “I hung out in a Bohemian scene. I went to raves at the YMCA and squat parties in Great Russell Street opposite the British Museum. Marchmont Street had forgotten, dusty charms with a stock of eccentrics. I’ve been lucky to have known many artists, including the great sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. He gifted me pieces of his work in the late 1980s related to his vast iconic commission for Tottenham Court Road station. I’d never imagined decades later this would be my home stop. Every time I use that station I think of him and that association. It is magical. I’m still sad his entrance arches were omitted in the redesign, as everything he did was so interconnected. There was always something memorable about coming through them on the journey down to the underground.”
London is changing so rapidly; has the area been irredeemably damaged? “The city’s reconstruction has seemed almost as destructive as the Blitz this past decade,” Cathy considers. “It’s been a task for residents checking the planning notices. Over the past decade our small team, headed by Helen McMurray (South Bloomsbury Association) and Jim Murray (Bloomsbury Association), have helped preserve buildings. We’ve had jubilant wins and crushing losses. South Bloomsbury faces the most relentless building programme and we can’t predict the full effect of Crossrail.”
What are the things that keep you going? “Walking to The Wellcome via the green corridor of squares. Independent bookshops like Atlantis on Museum Street, Treadwell’s on Store Street and Maggs Rare Books’, now relocated to Bedford Square. On Great Russell Street, the most romantic art store, L Cornellissen & Son, which is delightful to just wander into and gaze at all the glass bottles of pigments.”
Which brings us back to Cathy’s work. The one thread that links it all seems to be the search for the magical. The first exhibition I saw by her, in collaboration with American artist Eric Wright, was at the Horse Hospital in 2000, the fairytale forest of Transromantik. “I went to the first exhibition at the Horse Hospital,” Cathy recalls, “Vive le Punk, with the clothing of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren. At the Horse, they set their own rules, screened cult films and grew an audience of writers, photographers, musicians and art oddballs which I am lucky to count as friends. When they wanted us to do an exhibition it was a real affirmation. Transromantik took two years to make and was one of the best experiences. Sacred Pastures with myself, Eric and Norbert Kox, was a great success. Later this year I will be presenting a solo exhibition. It’s a great honour.”
History plays a big part in Cathy’s output. Her TRYST exhibition featured Home Rites, a piece incorporating her corn dolly sculptures, alongside works by medium Madge Gill, whose automatic drawings were made to communicate with her son and daughter, tragically lost in the flu epidemic of 1918. “She is one of our most prolific women artists, though still relatively unknown. I have a definite interest in history of the intuitive, visionary and marginalised because is not part of academic or theory-based practice. The occult is similar, it plays on emotions and is associated with women, so it is feminist in its own way. I try and incorporate mystery into my work and make things that can function like talismans. If your work has meaning that is not the art world kind of meaning, then it can either be ignored or explained away with theory. But here has to be mystery out there somewhere…”
I love the fact that you like to bring in the work of other women whose contributions may have been forgotten, is that important to you?
“Yes, it is. It feels like we’ve come full circle in our conversation. So many women in past decades who were not given the chance, were disregarded or plagiarised. It still happens, but visibility is improving. If I’m given the opportunity to introduce more talented women, I will. One of the things I have learnt is patience, and that is a virtue.”
To read more about Cathy, go to her website