photo: Alastair Grant
Kai arrived at The Rowley Gallery over 30 years ago, I can’t be sure of the exact date, but her name back then was Kathy. And to all who knew her in pre-Rowley days she always remained Kathy. But there was already another Cathy at The Rowley Gallery so she abbreviated her name to Ka. That was her Chinese name. But pronounced Kai, so that was how she spelt it thereafter. To avoid confusion.
Or Confucianism, as she would often have it. She was full of great malapropisms. Best, and most confusingly, was her insistence that Perspex was actually Perplex. She was constantly perplexed, no matter how many times we told her it was spelt perspex. She even had customers convinced, and they would ask for perplex instead of glass. Most perplexing! She had an inventive way with words, and it translated into a great fluency with materials in the workshop. Despite beginning with no experience of picture framing, she had plenty of hands-on initiative, and very quickly picked up all the necessary workshop skills. She became the finest gilder, applying water-laid gold leaf with a sleight of hand dexterity that could take your breath away. She liked to find new ways of framing, and the challenge of working with a customer to create a specially unique frame to enhance their particular picture. She enjoyed the interaction as a framework for a conversation. She enjoyed sharing her time with people.
Eventually she moved into the flat above the shop and raised a family there. She became the Rowley Gallery’s centre of gravity and kept us all in check. She hosted lunches on staff birthdays and Christmas parties in the workshop, she loved children and was always the first to rush up to the shop to serve them. For school fetes she organised anonymous painted postcard sales, encouraging submissions from a wide range of artists, even Lucian Freud got an invitation.
And somehow or other, probably more by accident than design, she always looked kindly on anyone whose name began with the same letters as hers. So, over the years, we’ve had Karen in the workshop, and Katy and Kat. There was another Cat but she spelt it wrongly, as did Cathy and Catherine. Then Ka took up kayaking (she never could stop talking) and later dinghy sailing on the Thames. And then cycling, swimming, netball, kickboxing and running. She was stronger and fitter than any of us.
But in January 2019 she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Amazingly she took it on the chin and carried on. She persevered with great stoicism and endurance, the workshop was where she worked out, she just wanted to keep on working as long as possible. But by the time lockdown came on the 24th March she had already stopped. We last heard from her on 23rd May when she sent us all a WhatsApp message wishing Dominic a Happy Birthday. She died four days later at home with her family at her side. We will miss her more than we know.
Kai always liked to get stuck into her work. She was a great picture framer, and she was the finest gilder, she was our guiding light, she kept us on the right track, brought us back down to earth if we got fancy ideas, and she always kept us in the black.
🖤🖤🖤 🖤🖤🖤 🖤🖤🖤
Kai Yin Lam, 24 November 1962 – 27 May 2020
Beautiful photo – so sad for you all and her family. I met her briefly when I visited the gallery last year and I remember her lovely smile – and she was beside a pile of frames just like that.
In the days following Kai’s death we have received messages of condolence from many of The Rowley Gallery’s friends, artists and customers.
A wee homage to someone who’s away… Kai would always get exasperated how long it would take me to write an invoice when stuff sold at the Rowley Gallery… another person I would see once a year, if that, but it’s so terribly sad to think she’s no longer here… cheerio…
Arriving at the Rowley Gallery, with a drawing, a print, or a small painting in the folder under my arm, I always had a good idea of what I wanted the frame to look like. But I always knew exactly what would happen. I would unfurl the treasure from its packaging and lay it down for Kai to look at. I would explain what I would like. And then the process, identical on every visit, would begin. She would suggest something simple. And then she would suggest some other idea. None of these would remotely resemble what I had suggested, or what I had in my mind’s eye. Very quietly, and without you really noticing at all, she had taken control. Another suggestion would be added to the first. A piece of frame would be put forward, an idea of colour for the edge, or a bit of inlay to give the image depth within the frame, another colour there. Once a fillet painted silver illuminated and transformed a dark night painting within an elaborate black frame. And before long you would simply be nodding agreement. All this happened imperceptibly. It was your role to provide the occasional nudge of an alternative. But you knew that Kai’s instincts had you beaten. She knew you well after many other frames made in the past. But whereas you might have arrived with an idea or two she was now seeing what the perfect frame for the image would look like. She could see what would make the image sing. It was a very formal process. I was always ‘Mr Bruce’. The email telling me the finished frame was ready was always signed ‘K.Lam’. After we had agreed what the frame would be like and she had calculated the cost I would leave the gallery and walk down the road. And the same thing happened every time. After a hundred yards it would suddenly dawn on me that what we had agreed upon was absolutely nothing like the initial idea I had in my mind before I arrived. But, on past experience, this didn’t worry me. Not at all. A few weeks later when you went back to collect the completed picture you knew that as it was unwrapped you would see your picture had been transformed. There was a magic to it, and it had nothing to do with you.
An Ian Hamilton Finlay print of a poem by Apollinaire, of rain/tears falling, was transformed by the use of a green-painted fillet.
Michael Corsar’s Clyde Nocturne is transformed by the use of a fillet painted silver.
The dark message of another Ian Hamilton Finlay print is emphasised by the painted edge.
The formality and frivolity of a drawing of baseball players by Ronald Searle is given gravity and levity by the bevelled frame and the simple black-painted line.
A great picture framer and finest gilder. Thank you for your expertise, friendship, patronage and telling it how it is. Condolences to your daughters, family, friends and colleagues.
The first time I met Kai, she greeted me like a friend, as if she had been waiting for me to walk in the door of the gallery. Whenever I returned, not very often but a couple of times a year, either with a picture or just to say hello, I was greeted by her and by Chris with the same warmth. She was so alive that I cannot really understand that she will not be there. I knew she had been ill but had no idea of the seriousness of it. It was typical of her that her conversation was not about herself. I am sad not to have said goodbye but I can see that this is what she would have wanted. So I say goodbye now, in friendship, Mary.
Such sad and shocking news, I will miss seeing Kai at Rowley so much… I am so sorry and really heartbroken, for her family and everyone who knew her. I will miss her, please let me know if there is anything I can do and if, eventually there will be a memorial x
This is so sad. I’m terribly sorry. I’m sending love, prayers and deepest condolences. Love to everyone connected with the Rowley. I first walked in to the Rowley with two drawings and a small painting which I wanted framing. The drawings were going to a drawing competition. I went in, nobody was around so I looked at some of the work exhibited. I knew some of the artists and had been a student with others, it felt right. There was a support of a romantic landscape tradition and a support of observed and recollected painterly work. At the end of the gallery was a small flight of stairs leading to an office with a good selection of books and a framing workshop beyond. I heard a voice, “won’t be long” it was Kai. Just then Chris came from upstairs asking how he could help. I had already put my two drawings on the large table, “who did these, they are great…” Then Kai walked in covered in gesso, “bloody ‘eck…” and so our relationship began. Kai had time for a cuppa and a chat in the workshop. She said what she thought of the work, which sometimes was hilarious but mostly was to the point and supportive. “Oh the windows are a bit off in this one.” She made me laugh. She wanted to hear news of my family especially when they were in South East Asia, she knew my children and asked after them, and she engendered the Rowley family, and I am so happy to be a member. She will be missed and remembered with love and fondness.
Oh that’s such a shock, I had no idea. I am so so sorry, she was such a lovely person. It seems such a short time ago we were chatting about running. Thinking of you all at Rowley. I have attached below a few words about Kai. I hope this is ok.
As one grows older more and more lovely friends and good people who have been part of my life as an artist have left us. Most of these are in late age but Kai was far too young to leave us.
I have been showing at the Rowley for many years and Kai was always an integral part of my many happy visits to deliver work and have a chat. She was always there downstairs in the busy framing workshop greeting me with a smile and an offer of a cup of tea. I remember my first nervous visit to the gallery to bring paintings and there she was putting me at ease with Chris both friendly and helpful. Kai was part of a gallery that looks after its artists treating them with respect and kindness.
I always enjoyed my visits and my conversations took on a new slant when Kai took up running. Being myself a now ageing runner I was so pleased to see Kai take it up with such enthusiasm. As I have got slower she had got faster. Our esoteric running conversations revolved around races, training and injuries.
Kai was a modest, kind and happy person who obviously loved her life at the gallery. I will always miss her on my gallery visits expecting to see her working downstairs on a beautifully crafted frame and greeting me still with her warm smile.
Deeply sad to read this news. I am so sorry that she has left this earth. You must have been devastated by this loss, and I send you a few thoughts that I remember about her.
As a rule I used to arrive at the Rowley Gallery infrequently, and at a later time than I had said that I was to arrive. Kai would emerge from the back regions of the framing workshop with a smile and a friendly welcome. She would be in the middle of doing something to a frame, expertly, so was dressed accordingly for this task. However, she would stop her work, saying ‘And it is Mr Gibbs, hello there!’
Several times she helped me beyond the call of duty, especially once when my wood engraving required to be framed and delivered to the RA for Summer Exhibition entry. This was at short notice, and included an envelope with all the forms and labels, to be attached to the framed print. I was in Scotland, of course, sending this print down to London by post. Kai did all of this for me with considerable grace and good humour, for which I am eternally grateful.
I shall remember it, as well as her consistent interest, friendship and support for myself and my work over many years.
I’m so sorry to hear this. How very very sad this is. Kai was so lovely, a wonderful person. My condolences to Rowley and Kai’s family.
Dear Chris, Here are a few thoughts about Kai. I don’t know when I first met Kai. You had made a studio visit to me and said you would show work at the Rowley Gallery. I am guessing that was at least twenty years ago. When I took the work to the gallery some time later would be when I met Kai and the rest of the team. She was immediately welcoming. She and yourself had made a place where I felt at ease. Because The Rowley Gallery is a place that is both a workshop and an exhibition space its character is one I feel familiar. A place that stuff is made. Always when I dropped by Kai, usually Kai, would offer tea and a warm welcome. About six or seven years ago when my daughter Naomi was about eight or nine, I brought her to meet you both. Kai had chocolate fingers ready for her and made her feel so welcomed. I guess being a mother she knew how that made a difference to someone as young and shy as Naomi. It was a lovely visit with Naomi shown the whole place including your hide away upstairs.
The sense that this was a place to feel at home I guess might also have been to do with Kai living over the shop. It was her home. Paul Finn refers to being part of The Rowley Family. This is something very special. Kai was always ready to stop for a chat however busy she was. I love that I can come down those steps into the workshop with it’s gesso and gold leaf and glass and wood. Things being rubbed down and painted ready for assembling into such beautiful frames. I will miss her quiet warmth. It was part of her way to make me at least feel that this place was not about money and business so much as a place to share pictures and if something sold that was an added bonus.
I hope her family are coping with their loss. So young to die. I will miss her. Love, Andy.
PS: Puzzling as to how to make drawings for Kai. Then thinking of her liking for the Thames and boats I did these four drawings. Boats have been such important symbols at the time of death. The Egyptians used them. Vikings used them. Somehow the image of a ship cast out on dark waters has universal meaning…
I was so sad to learn of Kai’s death. My memories of her, from my visits to the Rowley Gallery, were of her always beavering away gilding frames, but making time to provide tea for her visitor, and on special occasions getting in the ginger biscuits. My connection goes back to 2008 when Kai and Chris set up the print room, she was always so genuine in her interest in the work. I will miss seeing her cheerful face when next I visit.
Like others, I found myself in a state of shock when I learned of Kai’s passing. I hadn’t been into the gallery for a while and so hadn’t had the chance to see her. As with some with a similar diagnosis Kai chose to keep the news private, sharing with a select few as is their right. I will be forever grateful to the Rowley Gallery and Kai for supporting my work. I feel the true measure of a gallery is if they are actually prepared to purchase their artists work themselves.
One particular memory of Kai that stands out for me is eight years ago when a fraudster used the gallery to pass a forged £50 note. Rather than throw the worthless note away it was suggested that I make an artwork with the note – creating something positive from the experience. I cut three butterflies (Metamorphosis) from the note and presented it to the gallery to be sold for the sum of £50. Kai decided to buy the artwork herself and in a twist of irony, given that she was a master framer, chose not to frame it, leaving the butterflies to flutter freely instead by her bedside.
I hope that the presence of the butterflies was able to afford Kai some comfort before she left us. In tribute to her memory I present a companion piece – Metamorphosis-For Kai. As a spiritualist I believe (and have been given proof and solace that) death is merely a metamorphosis – the transition from one state of being to another. As we move forward I have no doubt that Kai’s presence will continue to be felt within the gallery. I once again offer my sincerest condolences to Kai’s family, friends and colleagues at the Rowley.
I am totally heart broken Chris. I came round before lock down but she was not seeing anyone. I have been coming round a lot the last few months to look through your window. As I really needed to see her as my elder daughter passed away in February. I am heartbroken for Kai’s two lovely daughters. I really loved Kai and she was such a good person.
Please pass on my message to her lovely children. Kai will always remain in my heart as I truly loved her. I am so heartbroken. She and I would spend so much time together discussing our daughters. I hope she finds Molly and they can meet somewhere up there.
That is awful – I’m so sorry – she wouldn’t have wanted ‘goodbyes’ but I would have said a silent one to her if we could have met.
She was amazing – I would never have guessed she was ill. I’m so glad it was peaceful – could her family be with her? The children must be grown up now?
I’m happy to have known her over so many years – I felt we were friends, though she insisted on calling me ‘Mrs Knox-Peebles’ come what may. I’m grateful to her for the way she was – always calm, and so brave never to give her secret away.
It must have been very difficult for all of you – knowing and not being able to say anything but you will have supported her in the way she wanted.
Please give my deep condolences to her family – I didn’t know them, but I always wanted her to bring them down to Hove for a day by the sea and to see all the beautiful frames she had made for us over the years.
We are shocked and deeply saddened by this very distressing news. Kai will be very fondly remembered by us. We consider ourselves very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her over what must have been about 30 years. We always enjoyed talking and laughing with her, and listening to her very expert advice. I cannot remember ever collecting anything from the gallery that disappointed us. It was always the opposite. I am sorry to say that over the past year on numerous visits it never crossed our minds that she might be unwell. That of course is a testament to the very impressive way that she must have coped with her illness. Kai will be very missed by us both.
Our thoughts are with you and your family and Kai’s family at this very difficult time.
I look forward to being able to see you very soon when I hope there will be happier times.
Julia and Michael Pruskin
I am immensely saddened to hear this. She was an exceptional person: bright, sensible, imaginative, extremely talented, with an excellent sense of humour. I shall always remember her with gratitude and admiration. What a terrible loss for all of you. My sympathy is with everyone who loved her.
I saw the flowers yesterday and my mother told me the news. I’m so sorry for you all and her family; I hope it was peaceful.
It was always fun to work with her: she had a different idea every time and it was never wrong.
Rowley Gallery has been an integral part of my life for the past two decades, and that means Kai was too. I can’t count the number of paintings and prints and photographs that she framed for me. There is something ineffably special about the Gallery, which Kai personified. Genuine, caring, and quietly, unassumingly brilliant.
Each day during lockdown I would walk past and sadly clock the “Closed” sign, until one day I saw flowers and candles burning in the window. What a beautiful tribute to an ephemeral soul.
I’m shocked. Kai was such a lovely person. I hate to think of her suffering. And her poor daughters! Hugh and I have been in New York since late January and won’t be back until July. If walking past the gallery will be hard for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I’m so sorry… It’s hard to imagine anyone more likable than her. And I loved her little lisp. It was enchanting.
I am devastated. I have known Kai for over 15 years; she was a wonderful person, with a wit that was second to none. Visiting the gallery was a joy; it was not a business to me, but a meeting with friends. I and many others will always have Kai’s beautiful work as a reminder. Please pass on my condolences to her husband and daughters and to Dominic.
I simply can’t find the words to express how sorry I was to receive the very sad news that Kai had died. Please pass on my condolences to her family and everyone at The Rowley Gallery.
Over the years it has been such a great pleasure to seek Kai’s advice, to watch as she cast her impeccable eye over the latest work and then to shoot the art breeze. As I write, I’m surrounded by her truly lovely work, all of it stunningly beautiful. I will miss Kai terribly.
I have just heard of Kai’s death. What a shock, though not for you both, sadly obeying instructions not to tell us. I am more sorry than I can say. It is always a pleasure to come into Rowley Gallery, Kai and you all so uniformly welcoming, cheerful, efficient, helpful, and putting up with us all with ready humour. I shall miss Kai as the exemplar. A dear person, who I would regard as a friend, who took so much trouble to interpret wishes.
My frames will always have the bittersweet pleasure of being reminders of her, and you all backing her up. I write in much sorrow.
I knew Kai as a long time client of the Gallery.
We built a rapport and it became tacitly understood I dealt exclusively with her.
She had an independence of taste and judgement, very much her own person.
I looked forward to sharing her opinion of the latest arrivals, whether a Japanese woodblock print, a Muafangejo, or a Stern painting. We shared enthusiasm and occasionally a raised eyebrow.
She had an inimitable sense of exactly what was right for each art work.
At first I would debate the choices, after all these were my treasures, but finally I came to simply give her the item knowing she would perfectly suit it.
If I sometimes selected a card, I think the Gallery has about the best selection available anywhere, she would waive away payment.
I liked her very much.
Only now returning to London, I am aware of this very sad news, I am shocked.
I shall miss our encounters, her style and self possession.
The works she has done for me now seem imbued with a particular specialness.
My sincere condolences to those who love her.
Please accept my sincere Condolences. May God Rest Kai’s Soul in Peace.
Kai has been in my daily morning prayer. She was a wonderful warm and caring being, who will be missed by all who loved her and knew her.
It was always a pleasure working with her, and I always knew she would do the very best to frame my paintings.
Strangely, she kept coming to my mind last week, and I had wanted to phone, but realising that Rowley’s would be closed, did not.
Please convey my sincere Condolences to her daughters as well.
You always knew where you stood with Kai – she was funny, honest and always interested in how everyone was doing. She loved to hear about the family and what we’d done on holidays. Whenever I visited the gallery she would be busy working – probably gilding or talking to customers. She relished the banter in the workshop. Last year she did a beautiful gilding job on a piece of goldwork embroidery for me. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Kai.
I can’t believe she’s not here anymore. I am so sorry for you and her family/her girls. I just loved her and thought she was fantastic and will miss her hugely and that can’t be anything compared to what you’re all feeling. It all seems horribly unfair. You were such a great team and she seemed like such a brilliant mum… I remember talking to her about my mum dying (sadly at a similar age to her when my sister and I were presumably the age her daughters are now) and she was so understanding and kind but also so practical and philosophical in her outlook. I just remember her as being so unfailingly positive.
Oh my goodness, I can’t believe what I just read on Instagram. Kai! I had no idea that she was ill. I’m so so sorry. What to do? What to say? I send you a hug and a ceramic tile.
What a sad sad thing… that news has just stopped me in my tracks. Wow! I’m struggling to get my head round this! I can’t claim to have known Kai well but she was always happy to see me and talk about my dog, cheese making and growing vegetables, a genuine lovely person. She would always go out of her way to help in any small way she could, I’m so sorry that we will never have that chat again, and will miss her Warmth. Please pass on my deepest sympathies to all that loved her. The world has lost a Beautiful kind soul.
So sorry to hear this sad news… thinking of you all @therowleygallery where she was amongst such good friends and colleagues.
Oh gosh that makes me so sad to hear!! I’m so so sorry for you all!! ❤️❤️❤️
I’m going to miss my dear friend Kai more than words can say ❤️
So shocked to hear this and so desperately sorry for her family & the Rowley Gallery family too. It was always a delight seeing her and she will be sorely missed by all who had the good fortune to know her x
Really shocked and saddened to hear this awful news, I had no idea. Kai was such a lovely person. Sending love to you all.
Sorry to hear. I’ll always remember her as kind & helpful.
I am so sorry, so heartbreaking. Sending so much love to all xx
I’m so sorry to hear about Kai. Condolences to her family too. She was a lovely lady and great to work with! I’ll remember her fondly… I feel a long way from London but I do think about her every day since I heard the news.
Such sad news! Kai was such a kind and wonderful person, I enjoyed working with her at the Rowley Gallery. Lots of love to you all xx
That is such sad news. I’m sending my love and condolences to you and all the Rowley family xxx
One of the most incredible persons I have ever met. With all my love ❤️
Portrait of Kai by her husband, Alastair Grant.