This inspiring exhibition pays tribute to the first female war artist

Argentinian pucaras at Stanley airstrip in 1982 / Linda Kitson

Small yet anything but insignificant, this exhibition curated by Sir Quentin Blake and others pays homage an old friend of his, Linda Kitson, who happens to be the first officially commissioned female war artist.

Linda Kitson: Drawing and Projects is opening tomorrow at London’s House of Illustration (which has currently been hosting the eccentric portraits and paintings of Jo Brocklehurst). Linda Kitson’s line drawings record landmarks moments in British history, including when the BBC turned 50 and –probably her most famous project – eyewitness reportage from the Falklands War.

The warm words of Quentin Blake - who has known Linda since she was a student at the Royal College of Art in 1971 - describe her work from commissions for magazines in the 1970s, to her drawings for The Times when it was located on Fleet Street before the Wapping Dispute, through to her current digital landscapes. Although Quentin's and Linda’s drawing styles are similar, he draws from memory but she prefers to draw what’s in front of her. 

After leaving the Royal College of Art Linda illustrated for magazines , one being the Illustrated London News , which then became her gateway to a range of interesting drawing situations such as festivals and orchestras on tour. However, ultimately "drawing precise answers to briefs was not really what she wanted to do".

Cello and Bassoon players in 1972 / Linda Kitson

Linda visited the BBC behind-the-scenes to illustrate a brochure marking its 50th anniversary, after being commissioned by art director Peter Campbell. Her brief was to visit every aspect of the BBC – capturing technicians and actors with an eye for their true characteristics.

After her next project for The Times, in which she drew both the operatives and machinery at all hours of the day and night, she was tapped on the shoulder by a member of the War Artists Advisory Committee to head straight to the Task Force. Within a fortnight she was on a plane. Originally she was given the task to draw life on the base camp, but "Linda was getting on so well with the military", that she stayed on with them into South Georgia.

Royal Marines 42 Commando Command Post at Blue Beach in 1982 / Linda Kitson

From there she operated with many units in and out of helicopters, drawing constantly. The drawings were spontaneous and informal – later described as “letters home”. Many of her drawings are now part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.

One would think Linda would’ve had her fair share of war by this point, but in an ironic twist, she was invited to draw the making of the film The Killing Fields in Thailand. 

"The drawings, perhaps needless to say, are convincingly real," explains Quentin in the exhibition. 

From this point, the exhibition takes more of a relaxed tone into the non-commissioned works of her career, featuring beautiful landscapes of rolling hills in France and Northern Italy. She was known to spend several weeks during her university years in France "hanging onto the side of a mountain".

Gorges du Tarn Aveyron 1988 / Linda Kitson

These paintings were often shown at her solo shows, but some commission work stemmed from this such as following the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada, and painting a large amount of English and Scottish castles, many of which hang in the House of Lords. 

Canadian Pacific Railway 1995 / Linda Kitson
Corfe Castle / Linda Kitson

What surprised me the most however, is how this cosy yet inspiring exhibition draws to a finish – with Linda’s current work. Under the preconceived notion that Linda’s paintings were all historical, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Linda is not only a role model for women, but for embracing change. 

As Quentin explains himself, "It is perhaps rather surprising when an artist who has so relished the whole range of tactile marks on paper is able t transfer to such a different medium as the iPad." 

A landscape painting of modern London, named The Gherkin, shows Linda’s new way with colour and composition. Her observatory role from the Falklands War is seen once again in her enthusiasm for urban architecture. 

Linda Kitson: Drawings and Projects runs from March 3 to April 30 at the House of Illustration’s Quentin Blake Gallery – a permanent gallery established last year of changing exhibitions curated by him. Find out more here.

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