Kate Milsom is a history addict. Since she was a girl, she has loved scrutinising the Tudor and Stuart portraits in London’s National Portrait Gallery, admiring their intricate lace and patterned fabrics and imagining the sitter’s story.
Intricacy and story-telling are key to Kate’s own paintings, which are a beautiful blend of collage and oil paint, the boundaries between which aren’t always visible. Each work depicts one or more historical characters surrounded by animals and birds in opulent, elaborately patterned settings consisting of tranquil landscapes, lush vegetation, period architecture, internal organs and maps.
Most of the figurative elements in Kate’s work start life as illustrations in magazines and books, which Kate roots out in secondhand shops, online and through a trusty stable of friends and acquaintances, including the local rag and bone man. These range from vintage art history periodicals and gruesome 1950s anatomy books to modern-day interiors magazines. She leafs through, cuts out and hoards the pictures that catch her eye or make her smile. Once she’s selected her favourite figures, Kate spends hours researching them to build up a picture of their lives. With a wry smile and a vivid imagination she later transposes these facts into an alternative portrait; an invented image of the subject’s internal and external reality.
Kate usually works on three of four paintings simultaneously during her lengthy and fairly complicated preparation process. Using rabbit skin glue, a piece of muslin is wrapped over and adhered to a sheet of board, then given a day to dry. Next Kate applies five to six layers of homemade gesso, a mixture of rabbit skin glue and whiting (ground up fish bones), which fills her studio with a foul stench she’s grown used to. Once the gesso boards are dry (another day later), Kate sands them with the finest grade of sandpaper. This produces a smooth, porcelain-like surface that is ready to receive the first layer of oil paint.
Having decided on a rough layout for her cut-outs, she applies oil paint in bands of colour. The collage process starts around four days later, once the thin layer of background paint is completely dry. Kate arranges the paper elements on the painted board and begins sticking them down, carefully lifting and layering where necessary, using a technique she has fine-tuned over the years, inspired by her book-binding experience, to avoid the paper bubbling. She leaves this to dry for a day before she begins the actual painting and over-painting, using oil paint combined with Liquin, an additive that speeds up the drying time, allowing her to build up translucent layers of colour. She paints in a missing arm here, a blood-red artery there, enhances or changes the colour of hair, facial features and clothing, overpaints and replicates her signature floral patterns, and overpaints the maps – maps that are usually Italian and more often than not of Venice, where the idea for her unique style of collage/painting was born. Kate grew up surrounded by maps (her father is a geophysicist) and uses them as a motif to represent the interwoven paths of our interior and exterior worlds.