Times Obituary

From The Times Obituary
June 26, 2008

Kenneth Lawson: artist and set designer

Kenneth Lawson enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an artist. Born in 1920, he started painting seriously at the age of 16 and in 1942 his work was hung as part of an exhibition of work by the ‘London Group’ in Burlington House. This group of artists sprang from a group of Impressionist painters working in Camden Town, a founding member of which was the eminent artist David Bomberg (1890-1957). During this exhibition Lawson’s work received high praise from art critics and successful exhibitions followed at major galleries in London, including the Redfern Gallery, Cork Street, The Leger Gallery, Bond Street; and The Leicester Gallery, Panton Street.

The celebrated artist Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) was commissioned to produce a huge painting for exhibition in the ‘Land’ pavillion at the Festival of Britain, on London’s South Bank, in 1951. He had not previously worked on anything so large and sought Lawson’s help; Lawson was himself quite accustomed to transferring small-scale drawings to large-scale canvases. Measuring 14ft x 11ft, the painting, entitled ‘The Origins of the Land’, was created at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, and has remained there ever since its initial showing on the South Bank. Unfortunately, during its exhibition, the painting was slashed by a vandal. On Sutherland’s request, Lawson successfully restored it.

One of Lawson’s treasured possessions was a book, The Work of Graham Sutherland, on the title page of which is inscribed “For Kenneth, without whose intelligent and calm help The Origins might not have been done! From his friend, Graham Sutherland, Menton 1/7/70″. The success of the collaboration on The Origins of the Land resulted in another project in 1952 and 1953 when Lawson worked with Sutherland on the drawings of the world’s largest tapestry, which was made in France and later installed at Coventry Cathedral. Lawson was the only assistant Graham Sutherland ever had. Lawson’s original mentor, when in Dulwich, south-east London, was the Royal Academician James Fitton, who remained adviser and friend until his death in 1982.

Having lived first in Dulwich, London, where he survived a hit from a V1 flying bomb in World War 2, Lawson lived in Chelsea and Knightsbridge before joining BBC TV in 1956 which necessitated his move to the north west of England. Once settled there his wife and two children soon joined him. His creative flair was to make a big impression on the world of television. He became “designer-in-charge” with the then newly formed BBC Television Service Production Unit and was responsible for such major successes as Top of the Pops, The Good Old Days, and The Ken Dodd Variety Shows, as well as the Harry Worth and the Val Doonican series. In total he designed more than 1,500 well known TV productions for the BBC. Ken thoroughly enjoyed his work and after normal retirement age he continued to work for the BBC as a freelance design consultant until he was 70.

Lawson’s career was also absorbed by the world of theatre. Working as scenic artist and designer at many prestigious theatres including The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He designed seven operas, including Tosca and Madame Butterfly, for the South Yorkshire Opera Company at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

Lawson enjoyed travel and spent time in France, Italy, Madeira, Portugal and Grand Canary. In recent years he spent his winters in the milder temperatures of Menton in the South of France. He remained a prolific painter and his travels resulted in many paintings of the landscapes and seascapes that he loved. Lawson’s paintings were produced with a unique vision and experienced hand. His loose and expressive brush strokes depicted the emotional elements of nature rather than its structure.

Lawson was a tall, handsome man with immense charm and charisma. Much loved and respected by his many friends and colleagues, he never sought the limelight but would always ensure that others received recognition. His work was shown not only in London but also in Manchester and Salford Art Galleries and is in many significant collections in this country and abroad.

Although he separated from his wife more than 30 years ago they were never divorced. Lawson is survived by his wife, Joan, and by their son and daughter.

Kenneth George Lawson, artist and TV and theatre set designer, was born on August 23, 1920. He died of cancer on May 23, 2008, aged 87.