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Drawing of the Regent’s Canal in 2002 by Käthe Strenitz

Regent’s Canal, 2002 by Käthe Strenitz © the family of the artist

​London’s industrial archaeology in prints and drawings by Käthe Strenitz

For the graphics collections at London Metropolitan Archives we are privileged to have received from the family of the artist 39 drawings and 18 prints by Käthe Strenitz.

Covering a wide span of dates, from the 1950s to the start of the present century, they nonetheless form a visually cohesive group united by the artist’s fascination with the detritus of London’s industrial past.  All the subject material that she could hope for was contained within the post-industrial hinterlands of King’s Cross, a terrain where at that time railways lines, canals, gasholders, goods sheds and disused machinery dominated every vista - with no coffee outlet, and scarcely a person, to be seen.

Jeremy Smith explores the life and work of this important artist and her distinctive record of London’s industrial past.

A King’s Cross story

Käthe Strenitz roamed this fascinating territory for almost forty years, starting in the 1950s following the purchase by her husband of a former tripe factory on a site to the south of the old Caledonian Market. The revived factory became a subject for her drawings, but she was more frequently lured by the brick and iron geometry of the King’s Cross railway lands, producing pictures that are snaked by railway tracks, tunnels and bridges or by the sweep of the canal.

These are the features recorded by her strikingly confident line-work, whether as pen and ink drawings (many touched with delicate grey washes) or in watercolour, or in large bold colour woodcuts. When she ventures away from King’s Cross it is only to follow the Regent’s Canal up to Camden Lock, or to explore and sketch in the low-key back streets of Islington, or else to find another rich source of industrial architecture amidst the riverside cranes and gantries of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey.

The spiky patterns of gas holders and machinery contrast with the random scruffiness of discarded objects or vegetation, and any people that might occasionally appear in her work are wraith-like silhouettes passing silently through the landscape. Her love of patterns is shown too in her meticulous studies of electricity substations with their filigree networks of power lines and transformers. Only in later years does she turn her attention to more populated suburban streets, drawing the semis, petrol filling stations and churchyards in the area of the family home in Finchley.

A refugee in London

Käthe Strenitz arrived in London in 1939 as a Kindertransport refugee, separated from her family in the Sudeten lands of Czechoslovakia. She was only 16 and difficult years followed, living in hostels and working on farms. Only later was she able to study drawing and printmaking at Regent Street Polytechnic.

For the archive, the newly acquired works capture the desolation and beauty of a part of London that is now entirely changed. Indeed, drawings that Käthe Strenitz made less than twenty years ago are now extremely difficult to identify topographically, and LMA will need to use all the expertise at its disposal (and detailed maps) if it is to catalogue them with any precision.

The Käthe Strenitz collection

The new artworks join our existing collection of her works, consisting of drawings and prints presented to us by the artist herself.

Our neighbours the Islington Museum and Local History Centre have several Käthe Strenitz works including oil paintings, and Guildhall Art Gallery holds one of her very few City of London subjects. She has been exhibited at Bankside Gallery, the Boundary Gallery and the Ben-Uri Gallery and most recently at Islington Museum (‘Islington on Canvas’ December 2017-February 2018). Some of her drawings will be specially featured within the forthcoming book by Peter Darley 'The King’s Cross Story: 200 years of history in the railway lands'.

Sadly, Käthe Strenitz died in August 2017 and it is with extreme gratitude that LMA acknowledges the help and generosity of her family in arranging for such a fine and distinctive London collection to be held here.

Published:
16 May 2018
Last Modified:
07 June 2019

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