Stapleford Granary are delighted to be the sole supplier for prints by artist Karen Pittaway in the Cambridgeshire area. Kate Romano spoke to Karen about her work.
‘I have little storyboards running in my head’ says Karen Pittaway; ‘I like ordinary lives, things that other people might not find so interesting, and those lives play out in my paintings’. Known for her joyful and nostalgic paintings of lively town scenes, Karen grew up in Newnham on the west side of Cambridge. Her father was a groundsman for Gonville & Caius College and the historic buildings of Cambridge feature heavily in her work. ‘I understood how the college system worked and that's what I tried to bring into the pictures’ she says.
The catalyst for a new painting is often a walk. ‘I love buildings and I need to find something that speaks to me’ says Karen. ‘I’ve always been a gazer and I look up a lot. I like to take a slightly aerial perspective - you can fit more in that way! I also remove vehicles for the same reason; more room for the buildings. And whilst I might play with things and move them around, it's never so much that the scene becomes unreal. Even the shadowing I use is not correct, but I put it where I want it to be. I think the pictures are like a memory of an image.’ She admits to being influenced by the paintings of L.S. Lowry: ‘I love his grey leaden skies, but I can’t seem to do it myself… even when I try to create a darker painting, it ends up cheerful. I like to paint places that I feel very comfortable in so I think there is an inevitable cosiness to the pictures’.
Pittaway’s characters inhabit a slightly theatrical world that seems to straddle the past and present. Like Lowry’s figures, they are always small. Unlike Lowry, there is a lot of movement in Pittaway’s paintings. In Lowry, everything seems fixed to the canvas; smoke and flags are immobile and people move in shoals or swarms, head counts on their way to the factory. Pittaway’s characters cycle, punt, sell, trade, chatter, hurry; they are all individuals with their stories to tell. There are plenty of ‘real life’ characters too: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (as they were at the time) feature in Summer Market (2018) along with their children. Snowy, a well-known Cambridge eccentric who rode a bike with a basket full of tame animals (much to the delight of children) is immortalised in a few of the pictures. (Walter ‘Snowy’ Farr (1919 - 2007) was awarded an MBE in 1995 in recognition of his charitable fundraising). Karen’s father is in most of the paintings, cycling or pushing his bike, as he did in his later years. ‘He was my agent in Cambridge and maybe it's my way of thanking him’ explains Karen. ‘Mum is in a couple of them too. Usually I'm not in the paintings… I don’t know why... I think it's because I am always the observer’.
Lowry once dragged a sceptical critic around Manchester on a bus to demonstrate the accuracy of his paintings. Yet they somehow appear as a toy world with little sense of his presence or proximity. Though not physically depicted, Karen Pittaway is deeply rooted in her painted theatres of everyday life surrounded by Cambridge landmarks stacked up like stage sets. It’s a small, familiar and resolutely local world, but a big-hearted one.
Kate Romano, June 2023
Visit the Granary cafe to view and purchase Karen Pittaway's prints