Arriving at her parents’ home in Dunfermline this summer, artist Caroline Walker experienced an unusual kind of deja vu: the sense of walking into one of her own paintings. Having just put the finishing touches to a new series of works inspired by the house and her mother, Janet, she headed north from her studio in London to visit her family in Fife.
‘The day before I came to Scotland, I was finishing the last painting, of my mum hanging out washing behind the house, and two days later I was hanging out an almost identical load of washing in the same place,’ she explains. ‘I was looking at the washing basket and the pegs and the monkey puzzle tree thinking, “did I paint that right?’”
Walker’s new exhibition, called Janet, opens at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh in October. Since she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2009, her work has been shown all over the world and is in various public and private collections, but this is her first solo show in Scotland. While her earlier paintings used locations and models to create fictional narratives, in recent years she has ‘started to shift away from inventing things to looking at real life’.
Her particular interest is in women’s work and women’s lives. She has painted refugee women in London flats and hostels, housekeeping workers in hotels, women at work in nail bars or glimpsed through lighted windows at night: a tailor bent over her work, an office worker at her screen, a waitress sweeping up after her shift. But Janet has brought her closer to home than she ever expected.
‘When I was working on paintings of women working as housekeeping staff in hotels, I was talking to my mum a lot because she never seems to stop cleaning. My granny was a cleaner, and her mum was a cleaner as well. My mum has never cleaned anyone else’s house, but she is always cleaning her own.
‘I was making paintings of women at work, and my mum was at work too. Although women’s lives have changed a lot, they are still doing this hidden, domestic work. I had a moment where I thought: I’ve been looking everywhere else, but there’s something interesting right here.’
That brought her back, armed with a camera, to the house where she grew up in Dunfermline, in which her parents have lived for 40 years. She photographed her mother over the course of a year, engaged in various tasks around the home and garden, and used the photographs as a basis for drawings, then paintings. We see Janet hoovering, dusting the tops of pictures, watering the rhododendrons or laying the table, as in the Fleming Collection’s recently acquired work Study for Table Laying, Late Morning. Walker captures ordinary things, quietly observed and beautifully painted.
Walker says: ‘I think the political and social aspects are always there as an undercurrent in my work, but I never want it to feel like I’m hitting people over the head with it. In the hotel housekeeping series, it is more obvious: who are these women, how well are they paid? Women still do a lot of unpaid labour in homes, but for my mum, this is the life she wanted. She decided not to work after she married. She got her dream house and has very much enjoyed spending her time looking after it.’
Walker is well aware of the artists who have portrayed women’s domestic work in the past: the genre painters of the Dutch golden age, Vermeer’s quiet maidservants, folding cloth or pouring water in the light of a high window, the 19th-century French realists and impressionist Mary Cassatt, who painted a series of works showing women working in the home and caring for children.
Like them, she is bringing painterly concerns of light, colour and atmosphere to bear on subjects once thought too ordinary for a painting, valuing the work being done, hinting at the stories hidden in daily activities. ‘Some of these paintings are on a scale that would have been reserved, historically, for grand subject matter,’ she says. ‘But this happens all around us every day, there are hundreds of thousands of women doing this stuff, and it has to be done. Why shouldn’t it be looked at?’
Sometimes, a painting captures Janet through an open door, or lighted window, wrapped up in her task in her own private world, oblivious to the presence of the artist. At other times, she faces the viewer, as if engaged in a conversation. Walker laughs. ‘A lot of the photos were no use at all because we were chatting away, but that’s something I’ve enjoyed looking back at them, because I can remember what we were talking about.’
And what about Janet’s view of all this painterly attention? ‘She’s a bit incredulous, a bit embarrassed about it, though I think she has got more used to the idea. I think she likes the paintings of the house and the garden, it has been her life’s work, she sees that in it rather than herself.’
Caroline Walker: Janet runs from 3rd October until 18th December at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. Visit here for more info.