Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89

January 2014

Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89


Between 1984 and 1989, the artist Sue Jane Taylor recorded the life, on shore and off shore, of the men who were involved in oil production and the fabrication of structures  related to the oil industry.  This essay sets out not to document this work as such, but rather, to set Taylor’s work in a context of Scottish art and, more widely, the general history of art as it relates to the depiction of human beings as they conduct, often in extremis, hard manual and physical labour.


Part One

Scottish art falls, by and large, into the category of the genteel, epitomised by the belle peinture of the mid-twentieth century Edinburgh School which dominated ways of seeing Scotland and its landscape. 

The products of this way of seeing and thinking about the world, essentially as an aesthetic exercise in colour, composition and form, are still very much with us, as evidenced by the majority of work seen, even now, in such institutions as the Royal Glasgow Institute, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. 

But running parallel to this world of landscape, seascape and still-life there has been a different, alternative vein in Scottish art.  Scotland industrialised early; its reserves of coal, iron, labour and its developing communications infrastructure encouraged a rapid urban expansion in the 19th century when traditional ‘heavy’ industries such as coal mining, ship-building and foundry-work reached their peak. 

The advent of the First World War further led to even heavier industrial activity – in particular on the Clyde – where massive man-power and resources went into the construction of some of the biggest engineering structures the world had ever seen.  Muirhead Bone (1876-1953 ) recorded Glasgow’s late nineteenth century expansion and its continuing activity during the 1914-18 war.  The etching ‘Cranes: Start of a New Ship’ (1917) or ‘Building a Liner’, of the same year, are  typical examples of Bone’s work at this time. [ILLUSTRATION] They show the energy and activity of a working shipyard where the workers are dwarfed by the sheer size of the structures they are toiling to complete.  Other artists, too, have worked in this tradition.  Around the time Bone was working in Glasgow as a war artist, John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) spent six weeks in 1918 painting in Portsmouth Docks.  But here Fergusson is not concerned with mimesis or representation.  He is, rather, more interested in the compositional opportunities allowed by this (to him) new working environment. Fergusson’s paintings of submarines, destroyers and the docks are general where Bone’s are precise, and colourful where Bone’s are hard-edged and monotone.  Before Fergusson and Bone, William Bell Scott (1811-1890) had depicted industrial Britain in such works as ‘Iron and Coal’ (1861), popular in part because of the relative rarity of its subject matter.

It should also be remembered that one of the most talented painters to have emerged from Scotland in the past twenty years or so, Steven Campbell, was employed as a steel works maintenance engineer for seven years prior to entering Glasgow School of Art.  Art work completed for the sleeves and cover of Sting’s ‘The Soul Cages’ (a tribute to the singer’s father “first son of a riveter’s son”) in 1991 testifies to Campbell’s rootedness in this tradition.  And like Stanley Spencer before him Campbell invests the imagery of the shipyard with religious and spiritual metaphor.  Writers too, most notably Anthony Alvarez in his poetic travelogue from the 1980s, Offshore, have depicted the strange otherness, hardship and world of interdependence which exists in such ‘artificial’ communities.  Other Scottish-based artists, in particular Kate Downie, have delighted in depicting with verve and passion the glories of Scotland’s engineering.  In her work relating to the  Forth rail bridge Downie rightly sees a poetic and sculptural configuration (as well as a purely functional one). [ILLUSTRATION]

The English painter Stanley Spencer was assigned the task of recording the life and work of the Lithgow shipyards at Port Glasgow during the Second World War. Spencer’s work as an official war artist was the subject of a major exhibition in Glasgow in 1994 and another in Edinburgh in 1999. And it is to these works, in particular, over and above those of Bone that we should look in establishing a precedent for Taylor’s vision.  For where in Bone’s images the men are reduced in scale and hence importance (in later years he refrained almost entirely from depictions of human activity) Spencer presents us with close up images of toil, sweat, dirt and heat.  This is labour in the raw: the very human experience of the gut-wrenching physical activity of ‘The Black Squad’ (riveters, blacksmiths, platers, burners, punchers and welders) .  Spencer made himself a part of this world; his work identifies with the working men and women he represents in his stylised but oddly realist images.  Spencer as an educated middle-class, diminutive southern English intellectual made himself at home and was accepted and admired in an environment diametrically opposed to his own: so too did Taylor as a young woman in a threatening, at times hostile, and frightening male environment make herself at home, and also ultimately found acceptance.


Part Two

There was, perhaps, an inevitability to Taylor’s decision to depict the life and images on the various oil-related installations she visited during the 1980s, due in part to growing up in the Black Isle a part of Scotland which was affected physically and economically by the developing oil industry.

An influx of money and labour from the urbanised central belt brought new housing, better roads and the kind of disposable incomes unimaginable only a few years before.  Young men whose only options in previous years would have lain in either farming or moving south in search of better jobs found they could stay in the place of their birth, earn good money, buy fast cars and drink, often to excess.  The mixture of new blood and new ways was not always a positive thing.  And in many places the age-old cycle of the agricultural year and man’s dependency on the land and his symbiosis with nature was shattered forever.  But this is no nostalgic lament and Taylor for one is philosophical about such change, believing that the ill-effects are balanced by the benefits.  Others, notably the Easter Ross writer Bess Ross in recent  work such Farm Land and, thirty years before, John McGrath in The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil depicted such enormous cultural and economic changes on small communities.

For a young, visually aware person growing up in such an environment, the effect of these notable physical changes and interventions on the landscape must have been enormous.  One can imagine in Taylor an admixture of fascination and trepidation, gazing at the vast male-built, man-inhabited world which such structures represented.  Taylor admits, too, a kind of quasi-eroticism in her attraction to this world of men, machinery, steel and flame.

Part Three

Taylor trained at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and followed this with post-graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.  Gray’s was a natural choice for a young, gifted artist from the Highlands of Scotland.  At Gray’s she was taught design by Fred Stiven, Ainslie Yule and, later, printmaking by Gordon Bryce and drawing by Frances Walker.  This was a liberal curriculum allowing breadth, depth and scope for personal experimentation.  It is difficult to exaggerate the effect of such a training on a young artist; these teachers were part of a continuing tradition in Scottish art where the crafts of drawing and painting were allied strongly to observational and compositional skills.  It is also no exaggeration to state that in Scotland, the links between this kind of approach and world of mathematics (in particular geometry), architecture, design and engineering were particularly strong.  Stiven for one, himself heavily influenced by the Russian Constructivists, was fascinated by geometric forms and the patterning achieved through their juxtaposition; in a sense his work was a form of engineered artistry.  From these teachers Taylor learned important basic principles: she cites  the ‘golden mean’ and the fundamentals underlying the practice of modern masters such as Le Corbusier, as being of particular significance.  They both are, especially so in relation to her later work where an understanding of architecture, structure and proportion are vital to conveying the type of engineered forms which so excited her.  Although no-one could reasonably argue that such thinking pervaded the design of oil-platforms and other related structures, such a grounding in the case of Taylor was fundamental to her ability to render them convincing in print and drawing.

She has stated that the craft of drawing and representation is central to her approach.  Such an awareness is obvious when considering not only her depictions of man-made structures but also, importantly, the human form.  Such a thorough grounding in what many still regard as the fundamental precepts of an artist’s training was unfashionable for a period, its merits seem obvious. 

When Taylor moved, at the age of 22 to study for a post-graduate diploma at the Slade she recalls a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere with an exciting city to explore.  At the Slade which, significantly numbers Stanley Spencer amongst its alumni Taylor studied print-making under Barto dos Santos who was a powerful personality and an inspiring teacher.  Significantly, Taylor recalls Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, (again, an alumnus of the Slade) in his capacity not as a teacher but as external assessor:  “I will never forget his amazing, big sculptural hands – just like his own sculptures – and his huge, solid, strong head resting on this massive strong body.” [1] Although Paolozzi’s physical appearance obviously left an impact, his importance as artistic influence cannot be denied. 

The critic and academic, Dr. Andrew Patrizio, has written extensively on industry and engineering as it relates to art in Scotland. and it is striking that in a discussion of Paolozzi’s early years in the port of Leith in the 1930s, Patrizio argues convincingly  of the effect on the artist:  “the considerable industrial presence of Leith Docks with its large steel-hulled ships, loading areas, stacked cargo, cranes and the like, would have made an impact on the young Paolozzi that was later reflected in his approach particularly to sculpture, which uses materials and techniques rooted in heavy industry.”[2]

Part Four

While becoming more involved in the subject of the worker in oil-related industries Taylor wanted to look into how other visual artists portrayed the theme of the worker, particularly in more recent art history. Courbet, Millet and Gauguin were obvious artists to look at as their work ranged from more romantic subjects, such as peasants in the fields, to a much starker and brutal reality.

Perhaps rather more surprisingly the inter-war German artist, Kathe Köllwitz provided an influence not only through her “powerful portrait studies but also her agility and natural ability to transfer these skills to etching and lithography. And her observation of the marked, scarred faces of the toils of poverty and working life at that time.”[3]  Taylor also cites the 18thcentury Italian printmaker and etcher, Giambattista Piranesi, as a powerful model, in particular “his incredible, fantastical images of imaginary prisons…., creating such powerful towering structures in the form of the  etched line.”[4]  In Piranesi’s fantastical studies we see an imagination – informed by architectural understanding – creating detailed drawings of prisons, squares etc. 

Again, perhaps less obviously but in an entirely consistent way, Taylor points to Henry Moore’s, mixed-media studies of miners from the early years of the Second World War.  Like Bone during the First World War, Moore (the son of a miner) was appointed an official war artist.  Taylor admires the way in which Moore used line to create such strong, powerful three-dimensional working figures. 

The list of influences on Taylor is as broad as it is deep but it would be impossible not to mention here Joan Eardley who, like Taylor, worked for part of her career on Clydeside but moved to more peaceful conditions in the north of Scotland.  Eardley was transfixed by the influence of the se and her habit of working en plein air obviously appeals to Taylor.  Another artist of the sea is Turner. Taylor admires him for his “free style of painting watercolour from the open air, expressive and experimental for his time. His method and way of recording and experiencing the natural elements … such as strapping himself to a mast in extreme rough weather out at sea.”[5] In common with Moore, the Polish artist, Josef Herman, portrayed the working man in the form of Scottish and Welsh miners.

As a student at the Slade she became fascinated by the concept of “The Northern Landscape” and wanted to travel around Scandinavia. In 1984 Taylor  was awarded the Swedish Institute one year scholarship to study at the Konsthogskolan in Stockholm.  Edvard Munch in particular had a deep influence and there is clear thematic association with Taylor’s work, as was demonstrated in a touring exhibition ‘Munch and the Workers,’ – which was shown at The City Art Centre[6] in Edinburgh in 1985 and included not only depictions of agricultural and agrarianlabourbut workers in an urbansettingundertaking constructional labour. 

In all of these cases, and in the work of many others besides (including Taylor’s) there is an important dimension: that of empathy with the worker and an identification with him, as if he and the artist were involved in some communal project linked via the activity of work.

Part Five

The body of work contained within the time period under discussion (1984-89) is large by any standards, amounting to over four hundred photographs, drawing, prints, paintings and sculptures.  Outlined above are some of the generalities relating to this.  However, it seems at this stage to consider in detail a small number of images, linking them to the general themes.

The Oil Man and the Stag (1989)  [ILLUSTRATION]

This etching completed in 1989 represents the Scottish oil industry in allegorical as well as literal terms.  The image of sardonic worker in blue hard hat (on which are inscribed the words ‘Oil Man’) and spotted kerchief is juxtaposed with the head and antlers of the stag.  To one side is a dark and windblown tree, forever recalling Norman MacCaig’s description: “The ideal shape of a circle/means nothing to you: you’re all/ armpits and elbows…When the salt gales drag through you/ you whip them with flowers…”[7] The work relates to a number of others completed at this time, including ‘Crann Dubh’ (Black Tree) which shows two men in proximity to another lone, dark outlined skeletal tree. The motif of the stag (well known from the kitsch of Landseer to the politicised, Socialist polemic of McGrath) might symbolise Scotland but, as with the tree, it stands for the much more general and fragile concept of nature, pitted against humanity’s need for work, wealth, fuel and profit; here old and new, industrial and organic, clash in a seemingly intractable opposition.  As well as invoking such powerful symbolism and all its attendant allusions, Taylor pictures her worker as identifiable, with a face.  This is her habitual approach and suggests empathy, understanding and her compassionate need to represent the ‘human face’ of technological progress.

Rigger 1 (1987) [ILLUSTRATION]

This etching dating from 1987 is more iconic and thus generic than ‘The Oil Man and The Stag’ and is a deceptively simple yet arresting image.  It shows the head and upper torso of a rigger clad in a  hooded red protective suit .  Although identifiable, the noble face with its straight nose and thick moustache recalls Romantic imagery of the warrior or adventurer, for all the world like some of William Allen’s exotic paintings of Circassian warriors painted during the early decades of the 19th century.  As if to emphasise the nobility of this warrior pose, the harness attachments on the rigger’s survival suit are deliberately blurred, assuming the role of ornamental buckles or even the brooches on the plaids of medieval Scottish Highland chiefs.  Although the colour scheme here is simple: red and black, the way in which it has been employed shows not only an assured compositional sense, but also the effect of colour on the senses.  For here, the red of the survival suit is allowed to ‘bleed’ beyond the confines of the etched outline of the figure, expressively suggesting movement and emotion.  This study relates directly to Taylor’s fascination with Munch who used colour in a simlarly symbolic way, in particular in his series of ‘jealousy’ paintings. [ILLUSTRATION]

Studies for ‘Kromer Hat’ (1993) [ILLUSTRATION]

Taylor first visited John Brown’s shipyard (now U.I.E) on Clydebank in September, 1987.  At one point in a series of visits to the yard, as her diaries make clear, work had almost dried up for the yard but 86 men had been retained for small contracts and care and maintenance.  Although the old cloth bunnets so vividly and memorably depicted by Stanley Spencer had long since vanished, ousted by health and safety regulations and replaced by the Hard Hat, the humour and individuality – what makes us human – of these men had asserted itself in the form of differently coloured hats for different trades.  As a further development, the Kromer Hat had made its way over from Milwaukee, primarily as a safety item. However as well as their safety aspects (they are fireproof and their peaks protects the back of the neck from sparks, and the welders’ heads from the chafing of the helmet straps) they come in a variety of patterns and colours.  This, coupled with the colourful array of bandanas, inspired the title of Taylor’s 1993 project which culminated in the unveiling of the Kromer Hat worker’s head “presented to the people of Clydebank”.  Although the head was modelled on Roy Callaghan, one of the welders, there is as well as this distinctive acknowledgment of humanity, a dedication to all workers from this industry, and beyond. 

Piper Alpha Memorial [ILLUSTRATION]

As with other sculptural commissions, including the 1991 tribute to the 187 workers who lost their lives on the Piper Alpha platform in 1988, Taylor worked towards her finished piece through a painstaking process involving a series of sketches and more finished and detailed drawings.  This underlines her approach which puts the craft of drawing and the skill of observation at its centre.  In a way, and in retrospect, is now seems obvious that her previous work had led to this point.  Taylor points out how it was almost fated that she should undertake such a project:

“It seemed all my visual work and experience in visiting all these oil related sites was in preparation for this work. The fact that I was an invited guest by Occidental – its owners – for a week on this platform almost exactly a year before the disaster and met some of the men who died that night was an inevitable fate.”[8]

Although at first glance the grouping of the figures seems casual and random, their poses and the orientation of the sculpture is highly significant.  The three figures – defined as ‘central’, ‘roustabout’ and ‘survival suit’ face, respectively, North, West and East.  Each carries subtle but strong imagery which raises the work beyond mere monumental sculpture.  For example, the east facing figure, who represents youth and movement ,wears on his left sleeve  a sea-eagle motif, native to the North Sea region and a deliberate, some might say provocative, alternative to the North American eagle.

Such complexity therefore underpins Taylor’s approach and typifies her bold and uncomprising stance, born of understanding, empathy, craft and a highly defined artistry.


Edinburgh, September 2002

[1]Taylor, Letter to Giles Sutherland 21/9/2002

[2]Patrizio, A.., Ph.D. thesis, The University of Edinburgh, 198?, p. 286

[3]Taylor, S. J., Letter to Giles Sutherland, 26th Spetember, 2002



[6]Taylor’s touring exhibition ‘Oil Worker Scotland’ was itself shown here in 1989

[7] MacCaig, N., ‘Praise of a thorn bush’, Collected Poems, pp. 302-303

[8]Taylor, S.J. Letter to Giles Sutherland, 8/10/02