Catherine and her twin brother Ronald were born on June 27th, 1904, in Harpenden, a small village near London. There were two older brothers and sisters. Her family, who were related to the Yarrow shipbuilders, were financially very well-off. After her father’s untimely death in 1912, all vestiges of discipline disappeared; her mother suffered from long periods of depression and the children were left to run wild. Eventually Catherine was sent away to boarding school where she admitted to being ‘a terror’ and very naughty. She found the whole education system very silly with its dedication to turning its students into young ladies. Her rebellious spirit was very much in evidence and she was expelled from several schools, much to her mother’s disapproval.
Although she was accepted by, and studied drama at, RADA for a short time, where Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were among her contemporaries, she had developed a dislike of Britain and all things British, feeling stifled by conventional society. At twenty she moved to Paris with a deep longing to learn. She had been to Italy and Spain and decided to study architecture, taught by a private teacher who told her to go and learn to draw. This is when she first discovered where her interests lay. Her studies were interrupted when she accompanied her mother on a journey around the world that took place over eighteen months visiting the Far East, New Zealand and Australia.
Catherine, now in her early twenties, then went to live in the South of France where she and a lover shared a house with the poet, Pierre Reverdy, who became a close friend and mentor, and taught her about poetry, art and food. She said of this period that she felt she was learning to live for the first time.
In her mid-twenties she moved to Paris. She told of a conversation with Jean Renoir, the film maker, who said to her that Paris between the wars was un sacré miracle. It was a café world where Catherine, the young, vibrant, beautiful English rose, came to know many of the artists of the time. She found amongst these artists a recognition she was never to find in England and they generously supported and nourished her gifts.
She resumed her drawing and painting studies and learned engraving at the now legendary Atelier 17, the studio set up by William Stanley Hayter in 1927. It was here that she met Giacometti, one of the great loves of her life.
Some of her work from this period survived the war and forms part of the existing archive of her large body of work.
Catherine eventually managed to persuade the Master potter – José Llorens Artigas - who taught Joan Miro and Picasso – to accept her as an apprentice.
She remained friends with Artigas until his death in 1980.
Throughout her life Catherine battled with anxiety and depression. For a time in the 1930’s, after a disastrous love-affair, she went to live in Zurich where she met Dr C G Jung and was befriended by his daughter, Gret, who was very kind to her. She spent time in a clinic in Morges where she was helped by a man she described as a rebel Freudian. He encouraged her to paint – striking, rather disturbing images – of a soul in torment.
Back in Paris, as Europe marched inexorably towards war, Catherine and Michel Lukacs, who was to be her lover and companion for the next ten years, were caught up in the turmoil, neither of them wanting to leave. However, in 1940 they narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation, leaving Paris in Catherine’s car, which she drove (without brakes!) south to Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche where they persuaded her long-time friend Leonora Carrington to accompany them, a journey described by Carrington in her book: ‘The House of Fear’. They eventually reached Lisbon and, like many of their friends and fellow artists, boarded a ship bound for New York.
Yarrow and Lukacs lived in New York from 1940 to 1948, where she was again a contemporary of the surrealists who like herself, sought refuge in America after fleeing France. Friends and fellow artists included André Brèton, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Stanley William Hayter, Alexander Calder, the Chilean artist Roberto Matta, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington. Up to this stage of her life she had been financially supported by her family but, with the outbreak of war, funds were no longer available and Catherine, for the first time in her life, was forced to earn a living. She continued making ceramics, became friends with Carol Janeway (ceramicist and author) whom she mentored and instructed and with whom she probably shared a studio. In April, 1943, she exhibited ceramics alongside paintings and drawings by Max Ernst at the Julien Levy Gallery.
From June 12- July 1943 she exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s ‘Art of this Century Gallery’ in ‘The Women’s Exhibition: 30 women surrealist artists’ alongside Leonora Carrington, Louise Bourgeois, Pegeen Vail and Gypsy Rose Lee. In December 1944 Catherine exhibited terra cotta necklaces at the Willard Gallery, located at 32 East 57th Street, New York City.
Records exist of Catherine spending time in the summer months, holidaying south in the Hamptons, north of New York, in north-western Connecticut, (Kent Hollow). Winters were spent in the city.
Peggy Guggenheim, on return to the USA and marriage to Max Ernst, moved to East Hampton. Catherine is documented as having worn the first ‘bikini’, a hand-knitted two-piece bathing costume, at one of these beach parties. Diarist Anaïs Nin makes a cruel reference to Catherine and her partner Michel in her New York (1940 – 48) diaries that caused Catherine huge distress. The accuracy of Nin’s descriptions, and her motives, are open to speculation, given that she tended to be salacious on many occasions. Perhaps Nin’s meanings are best revealed in one of her own quotes: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”.
A more settled group of artists had moved to north western Connecticut (e.g. Gorky, Tanguy). A letter written in 1947 by Jeanne Reynal to Mougouch Gorky describes:
The friction that existed between Catherine and Louise Bourgeois is documented from the latter’s perspective in a 1995 interview with an art historian. Louise Bourgeois made 30 slender carved wooden figures in the time period 1947 – 49, which are now owned by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. One was titled ‘Portrait of CY’. Bourgeois had made a representation of Catherine in 1947, a five and a half foot tall bronze post, painted white, in which she hammered nails at approximately the level of the human heart.
New York writer and photographer Milton Gendel illustrated the camaraderie and fun that also existed.He recalled:
The New York Times, in December 31st 1945 (page 15) describes an apartment fire in which a young woman died. Catherine and Michel lived in this building, and narrowly escaped over the rooftop to an adjacent building. They lost all their belongings, and a pet cat in the fire. Now penniless, Catherine was inspired to work in leather and created a unique and original collection of shoes, sandals, bags and gloves which were taken up by Bergdorf-Goodman and other 5th Avenue stores. They became very popular and were photographed for Vogue Magazine. This enterprise enabled her to fund her return to England in 1948.
Catherine found it very difficult to be back in London where her relationship with Michel was frowned upon and she deeply missed her friends and contemporaries. Eventually she bought a large house in St John’s Wood where she was able to have a studio and workshop.
In June 1950, an exhibition of her paintings was held at the Hanover Gallery, London. The catalogue preface by Mary Hutchinson is a touching description and insight into Catherine’s work at the time and also captures the essence of her originality and the unique style that marked her work in the years to follow:
CATHERINE YARROW lived and worked in pre-World War II Paris, one of the most exciting periods in art history, where her friends and fellow artists included Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Stanley William Hayter, Isamo Noguchi, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Man Ray, Brassai and others.
‘Max Ernst and Giacometti were very good friends and they were both artists who gave me enormous encouragement and support as an artist.’
- Catherine Yarrow
‘First of all he didn’t want me there more than once a week; then twice a week. I finished up going everyday! He was a wonderful teacher and it absolutely changed my life – this pottery, this occupation and the craft.’
- Catherine Yarrow
on José Llorens Artigas
In 1952 Yarrow exhibited ceramics at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London alongside other ceramicists. Her unusual and distinctive pieces inspired the London born potter, Eileen Lewenstein, and she and Catherine became friends.
During the ’fifties and ’sixties Catherine experimented a great deal, producing a large body of work, breathtaking in its variety yet all with her unique stamp: mono-prints, pastels and abstract forms in which she experimented with different textures eventually arriving at the idea of mixing sand with colour and producing some of her most striking images.
At the same time, she was trying out different types of kilns: she believed that wood; coke and oil-fired clay was much more alive than electricity and eventually built an oil-fired kiln in her Hamilton Terrace mews garden in which she continued firing her hallmark ash-glazed high-fired stoneware until 1988 when illness made it no longer possible
All of her pottery during the sixties was hand-built.
In the 1960s there were several exhibitions of her pottery alongside Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie at the Marjorie Parr Gallery in London.
In the mid seventies her primitive French potter’s wheel, which had been on loan to her friend and student Janet Allen, was returned to her and each year up to shortly before her death she produced small collections of thrown bowls and dishes along with many hand-built objects.
In the sixties, Catherine befriended the Jungian Therapist, Buntie Wills. As with many highly creative people, Catherine’s gifts went hand-in-hand with great personal suffering. Although she had met Jung in the forties, she confessed to not understanding at all what he was talking about. With Buntie Wills she began to understand the meaning of her psychological difficulties. Wills encouraged her to avoid working from the unconscious and instead to draw from nature and the earth. From the mid sixties onwards her paintings began to reflect a new discipline. She began to paint seasonally, spending days studying and making literally thousands of drawings of trees, flowers, landscapes. Only when she felt she had ‘come into relationship’ with her subjects was she ready to bring out her brushes and palette and paint the luminous water colours that mark this period.
Her experiments with sand and other textures continued and her work began to reflect her growing interest in eastern mysticism and spirituality. She added crushed sea shells to her palette and some of her most beautiful work emerged in these final years.
During the sixties, money ran out. She sold the big house, converted the mews garages belonging to the house into studios, created a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom upstairs, cut the garden in half and moved to 18 Hamilton Close where she lived until her death. This was a Bohemian sanctuary of creativity in stuffy St John’s Wood which her many friends and students delighted in visiting. She built her last oil-fired kiln in the garden, somehow managing to obtain planning permission, and regular firings continued up to a few months before her death. The experience of tending the fire that would need to reach 1300c – ‘white heat’ – before closing was one that students and friends who were lucky enough to be there, will never forget.
Catherine, although largely unrecognised by the conventional English art world after the 1960s, drew around her a large group of young people for whom she became a source of inspiration, encouraging them to discover their own creativity. She was a valued teacher, acknowledged as such by Carol Janeway in New York: Janet Allen, Cecile Elstein; Sally Kohler, Martin Robinson, Hugh Rance and Mon Slinn in the UK, among others. At one time Ewen Henderson – now acknowledged as one of the most important ceramic artists of the 20th C., worked alongside her in her St John’s Wood studio. He recognised her very strong influence on him during this time by including some of her work in the Pandora’s Box Exhibition at the Crafts Council, London in 1995 after her death.
Recently some of her work has been acquired by The Victoria and Albert Museum; Buckinghamshire County Museum and Paisley Museum in Scotland.
1960s - 1990
“We spent last week with Catherine (Yarrow) in Connecticut. She has a house for sale and is a sort of guardian of it and lives in a tiny little wooden building. All this found for her by her new found and now lost friend Louise Bourgeois, who has the barn of the building and has made something very French of, though in a way a prison. We were Isamu (Noguchi) and his girl, Michel Lukacs, Urban (Jeanne’s husband) and Pupchen (her dog). It should have been mad instead we were marvellously relaxed all of us and bathed in every stream we could find, and then once in the sea. We took over Catherine’s house that is the bathrooms and swarmed like the banshees that we are.”
“In Matta’s sitting room … his wife had varnished the floorboards in chrome yellow, and that set off a wave of floor painting creating memorable images such as that of Carrington and Yarrow on their knees chanting that they were a coven of witches doing women’s work, as they swung their paint brushes. The women dressed in keeping with the men’s ethnic interests, so they tended towards leather skirts (…) and barbaric jewellery – bear claw necklaces and heavy Indian or African bracelets and anklets. They were so distinctive that Catherine Yarrow, ceramicist, when she went up town to see her dealer and her analyst would speak about putting on her disguise, which meant any kind of conventional clothing”.
"...Carrington and Yarrow on their knees chanting that they were a coven of witches doing women’s work, as they swung their paint brushes."
- Milton Gendel
'Catherine Yarrow worked for some years in Paris and also in New York but seems to have come from farther – from the East, from sand, deserts and from islands, from jungles, from the Cyclades – singing a song.
The song is her own and it is made of what she sees as she goes along – a tree, a garden, a village, an eye, a smile or a whole inspired face. She picks out these things which her instinct finds and she sings of them exactly as she feels about them, and the tone is pure and haunting like the song of a bird – one of her own birds – as it notes an object on the wing.
She has recognized on her travels Giacometti, Klee, Picasso, with sympathy and admiration, but they have not – as the saying is – ‘influenced her’; they have encouraged her to proceed on her way with integrity. She is not one of those who add numbers to numbers, another person, another house, another saucepan, to those who encumber the earth; she has remembered one thing or part of a thing or a combination of things at a second of time, in a certain light, and she has put them in an order or at an angle which pleases her and they are on canvas now. Her lines have a lovely flow; her colours might be called ‘exotic’; her shapes and spaces have a constructive rhythm. These are the melody, the key and the movement of the tune she sings, which, in its many variations, entice those who cannot express themselves and which they will wish to listen to and to capture. '
'She picks out these things which her instinct finds and she sings of them exactly as she feels about them, and the tone is pure and haunting like the song of a bird – one of her own birds – as it notes an object on the wing.'
- Mary Hutchinson, Hanover Gallery
‘Although a skilled thrower, Eileen Lewenstein was inspired by the experimental possibilities of hand-built work . . . A friendship with the potter Catherine Yarrow, a fellow Hampstead resident and a maker of totemic forms with idiosyncratic decoration, encouraged Lewenstein to explore more sculptural pieces, and she combined hand-building, moulding and throwing as seemed appropriate.’
- The Independent, March 26, 2005
Click on images to enlarge
Catherine Yarrow in her 80s Photograph: Raj Kothari
Catherine Yarrow with Pierre Reverdy in South of France
Morges 1 c.1936
Catherine Yarrow with Michel Lukacs
Terracotta bowl c.1945 New York
Catherine Yarrow in a two-piece bathing costume
A Pear Tree Stands c.1960, sand and colour
Totem 2 1950 Photographed by Brassai
Monoprint 5 1956
A crowd c.1960, sand and colour
Large thrown bowl
Laburnum Tree 1988, watercolour
Victoria Jenssen of Cleveland, Nova Scotia, for generously sharing research and information about the New York period of Catherine's life while researching material for her upcoming book: 'The Art of Carol Janeway: 1913 - 1989'. (Nova Scotia Whiteside Press).
Beth Gates Warren and Marie Difilippantonio, authors of an upcoming book on the Julien Levy Gallery and the artists who exhibited there.
Worth, P. (2011) Catherine Yarrow – A Biography
Raj Kothari 1987 taped interview with Cathrine Yarrow
Text compiled by: Mary Ann Ephgrave
Photographs of Catherine's work: Juliette Meacock
Webdesign: Mark Wilson
© 2013 - 2020 Catherine Yarrow. All rights reserved
Oil-fired kiln in the garden at 18 Hamilton Close
Kiln chimney at 18 Hamilton Close
Sand and crushed sea shells
Ceramic necklaces Willlard Gallery, New York December 1944
Exhibiton at the Hanover Gallery, 1950
Leather collection by Catherine Yarrow Photographed by Vogue Magazine New York c.1945