Cathie Pilkington: Working from Home. Tense and surreal exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery

Cathie Pilkington RA is a sculptor whose works encompass various techniques combining high art and what was traditionally considered as craft, such as carving and modelling. Her trademark sculptures are doll-like figures, made using a mixture of materials. Like the twentieth century Surrealists the artist also works with found objects. The interest in Surrealism and the surreal is present in the installations. Incorporating dozens if not hundreds of assembled elements, Pilkington’s artistic interventions are intriguing, sometimes witty, but more often unsettling.

For the exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery the artist took over most of the top floor of the historic part of the Gallery. The curious title of the exhibition can function as a play-on-words. Keeping in mind the original context of the building, which was intended as a domestic space, the artist used original fixtures and objects from the vast Pallant House collections and then planted her own creations among them. Hence Working from Home. Pilkington’s paintings, prints and sculptures are complemented by Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture and artworks by modern and contemporary, mostly British artists. Pilkington’s all-encompassing installations incorporate, among others, sculptures by Henry Moore and paintings and works on paper by Eileen Agar and Paula Rego.

view of the entrance to the exhibition – works by Cathie Pilkington Twinkle and Pieta 1: Playing Dead (photo: Ground Impressions)

Strategically placed at the entrance to the exhibition the statue of a little girl titled Twinkle (2014) looks deceitfully innocent and inviting. When looked at from distance while climbing the staircase, it distantly resembles wooden figurines of angels and embracing couples often found in gift shops. Once the visitors take the bait and proceeds into the room right behind Twinkle they enter a set of rooms which wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film. By appropriating the space of the historic Queen Anne townhouse, Pilkington’s exhibition unites seemingly conflicting notions of the private and the public. The artist perceives sculpture as distinct from painting in a way that ‘it lives in the real world’ and it is best placed to tackle big universal themes.[1] These ideas are very much at the base of the exhibition.

Dolls and other sculptures are scattered around four rooms and are loosely gathered in themes. Pilkington’s take on Michelangelo’s famous sculpture group, also inspired by Henry Moore’s work on display (Suckling Child 1930) is Pieta 1: Playing dead (2018), which dominates the first room. The room’s theme is rather ominous – Playing dead, after the sculpture. Look around and you will see that behind the seemingly sweet façade of the motherly figure is a second, scary face. In the fireplace are piled bodiless dolls’ legs. This space speaks of vulnerability, protection and grief and their place in our lives.

Cathie Pilkington: Working from Home exhibition, view of Still Life room (photo: Ground Impressions)


The Still Life room has the most haunting aura hanging in the air. The selection of objects cramped inside this room looks like out of a horror movie set. You get the feeling that the doll sitting by the mirror might suddenly turn her head towards you. 


Cathie Pilkington: Working from Home exhibition, view of Good-Bed-Bad-Bed (photo: Ground Impressions)

Good-Bed-Bad-Bed is laid out around the original 18th century Hepplewhite four-poster bed. In this room there are references to women, their objectification and violence towards them, but the installations also respond to more positive associations we have with beds – pleasure, intimacy, privacy and maternity. One of the most noticeable inspirations behind the dolls in this space are works by Degas, (such as his well-known hyper-realistic statue Small Dancer Aged 14 in the Musée D’Orsay, Paris). Pilkington’s homage to the French artist is her series Degas Dolls.

One visitor wrote in the comment’s book about their disappointment caused by the lack of labels throughout the exhibition. Normally I would agree, but in this case it must have been a deliberate choice on behalf of the gallery and the artist. Cluttering the space with individual labels would almost certainly ruin the effect the artist wanted to achieve, as Pilkington’s intervention in the 18th century part of building is more than the sum of its parts. For the visitors who wish to know a bit more about the works on display, there are folders with information about all the objects and paintings available for individual rooms complete with photographs of each work.

On a separate note I felt the images used by the gallery in promotional materials might be a bit misleading in relation to the actual content of the exhibition. Twinkle and Pieta 1 were both used as poster-girls for the exhibition, together with the rather ambiguous title these sculptures appear more neutral and appealing than the majority of the works on display. I was positively surprised, and really enjoyed this curious and eerie display, but some visitors seemed put off once they encountered some of the less-cutesy dolls.


Cathie Pilkington RA was born in 1968 in Manchester. She studied Silversmithing at the Edinburgh College of Art (1985-91) and then Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, graduating from there in 1997. In 2014 she was elected as Royal Academican (RA) and is currently the professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art. She lives and works in London.[2]


Cathie Pilkington: Working from Home is at the Pallant House Gallery from 6 October 2018 until 31 March 2019. The exhibition is a part of RA250, a nationwide programme which last year celebrated 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Pallant House Gallery is in Chichester, West Sussex.

Header image: Cathie Pilkington – Three Graces (2015 clay, fabric, wood and paint)




Read more:

More images and information on the artist’s website:

An illuminating interview with the artist discussing her Degas Dolls:

Very interesting video featuring the artist discussing her installation Top Shelf:

Read more about the gallery building at the Pallant House Gallery website:

Exhibition page:

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