Ruth Nicol: Three Rivers Meet

Publication: The Times. 
February 2015

When the Scottish Parliament reconvened, in July, 1999, Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, The Beginning of a New Song, was read aloud:

Let our three-voiced country
sing in a new world
joining the other rivers without dogma,
but with friendliness to all around her.

Crichton Smith is one of seven poets celebrated by Ruth Nicol in an ambitious series of large paintings of Scottish landscape, poetically entitled Three Rivers Meet. 

The show’s title refers to a real place, as well as acting a convenient metaphor. Hugh MacDiarmid, the father of the Scottish literary renaissance, who grew up in Langholm, claimed he could identify each of the town’s rivers (the Wauchope, the Ewes and the Esk) by sound alone.

Crichton Smith’s reference to the linguistic and cultural  riches of Scotland is clearly part of Nicol’s frame of reference. But the artist reveals other aspects of the elegant metaphor: her family memories and the influential role of painter and teacher Sandy Moffat.

Moffat taught at Glasgow School of Art where he was most recently Head of Painting and Printmaking. He has been widely credited with responsibility for the resurgence of figurative painting there.

His painting, Poet’s Pub (1980), is a composite group portrait of some of Scotland’s most celebrated modern writers. As well as Crichton Smith and MacDiarmid, the painting also depicts  Robert Garioch, George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Sorley MacLean.

Nicol describes ‘Poet’s Pub’ as the ‘driver’ of her current project. She travelled extensively throughout Scotland, visiting the places most associated with each of the writers, where she absorbed the light, colours, landscape and genus loci through sketching and photography.

These powerful, immersive paintings are compelling because of their scale, their crafted assuredness and the way they convincingly convey the essence of place.  

Norman MacCaig famously spent his summers in Assynt, in the north-west Highlands. Nicol’s response is not to paint Suilven, the area’s most distinctive mountain. Instead she offers a panorama seen from the small fishing port of Lochinver. Human habitation intrudes but the majority of the canvas is dominated by sea and sky. 

Water, in the form of cloud, river and sea, is an important element in all of these works. In ‘Strathclyde Distillery, Edwin Morgan’ it takes the form of  the river Clyde as seen from Glasgow Green.  In ‘Holyrood, Robert Garioch’ it can be seen in the banks of cloud above Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. In ‘Stromness, George Mackay Brown’, it is the town’s harbour and the Hoy Sound beyond.

Nicol’s approach is tangential , with unexpected, nuanced detail. Paradoxically, despite being a form of portraiture, these paintings are entirely devoid of people. They are, however, full of human presence ¾from the patchwork of roads and crofts in ‘Bayble, Lewis, Iain Crichton Smith’ to the terraced rows of whitewashed cottages in ‘Plockton, Sorley MacLean’.

These paintings form a fitting tribute to a prominent teacher and a generation of leading writers. They show, that in the right hands, the medium of paint is as valid and vibrant a form of expression as it ever was.

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