Frances Walker: Coastlines

Publication: The Times.    
September 2014

Veteran artist, Frances Walker, who was born in Fife in 1930, is sometimes referred to a ‘landscape painter’ and although this label has some validity, it is only a partial description of her approach. The title of an important retrospective show in Aberdeen, in 2010, Place Observed in Solitude, came closer to finding a more fitting  narrative. In a career extending for more than six decades,

Walker has also created portraits, still-lives, townscapes and interiors, in addition to seascapes and island studies.

Walker attended Edinburgh College of Art in the immediate post-war period. There, one of her teachers was Sir William Gillies, part of whose subject matter she has inherited. Gillies painted in a rich and vivid palette whereas Walker uses a sparser, leaner, muted range of colours.

Frances Walker has worked further afield than Gillies ever did.  These places include some of the loneliest and remote spots on the planet, such as Antarctica, Greenland and the furthest reaches of Scandinavia.

However, she neither seeks nor avoids isolation for its own sake. Her work, in a wide variety of media, is often a commentary on humankind and our historical interaction with wilderness.  By necessity and definition these quiet, assured prints, watercolours, oils and pastels are composed at the periphery. 

Walker’s skill ¾ in her observance of mountains, stones, rivers, the ebb and flow of tides ¾ is to include humanity, but in a way that comments on our own transience and ephemerality. Sometimes a small figure can be glimpsed in the distance against a vast sweep of sky; and a hut or house, almost dissolving back into the land, is set at the edge of her vision.

The show, curated by Royal Scottish Academy President, Arthur Watson, assumes an altogether narrower focus, concentrating on the islands, and western and northern Scottish seaboard.  Watson met Frances Walker when a  student at Grays School of Art. Years later, Watson began a long collaboration with the older artist, at Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen.

A number of these earlier prints can be seen here including the etching and watercolour Achmelvich Shore, (Sutherland) dating from 1980.  Walker has used a controlled line to give just the right amount of detail, so, far from being a generic image, it is an identifiable place. Typically, she has placed a small west Highland croft-house near the edge of the composition. The print’s companion piece, Shore Pool, Achmelvich,  is situated at the other side of a gallery window that frames a view across the Tay.

A significant aspect of these works is their format and orientation. Although some are traditional, others, such as The Dun Burn (Tiree) have an elongated, horizontal form.  These recall an early definition of panorama, ‘a painting on a revolving cylindrical surface’ because they suggest a ‘wide angle’ view.

Here, Walker seems to suggest that the periphery of our vision is also worthy of consideration. As such, it’s a striking metaphor.

These glimpses of the Scottish littoral offer a tantalising insight into the work of a highly significant artist and teacher.