Essays

Tim Stead – Obituary

The Independent
April 2000

Tim Stead MBE: Sculptor and Furniture Maker

Recent visitors to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh cannot have failed to notice the towering presence of the Millennium Clock whose hourly chimes draw an audience fascinated by its kinetic theatricality.    This, and a number of other major public art commissions, are part of the legacy of the sculptor and furniture-maker Tim Stead who died recently after a long illness.   

Tim was a larger than life character whose ideas and presence touched the lives of many.  His work and activities were multi-faceted and interdisciplinary, embracing craft, fine art and community involvement.  He also had a highly developed business sense which allowed  him to establish and sustain a thriving workshop in his adopted home in Blainslie, in the Scottish Borders.   From this base, which was a home as well as a place of work,  he produced – along with co-workers and apprentices – a range of idiosyncratic furniture which over time evolved into a distinctive style.  But because of the sheer natural diversity of the material in which he worked – mainly indigenous hardwoods such as elm – the work was never repetitive.  Each set of chairs, and every table, dresser or chest of drawers,  had a distinctive personality – a partnership between the raw material and the maker.

Tim believed passionately  that his role as an artist was to unlock the beauty of the natural material and share its secrets with others.  In this aim he succeeded  brilliantly for his work proved immensely popular with many diverse people. The success of Tim’s work  was not difficult to fathom for he often said that as an artist he wanted to let the wood speak for itself.  This stated desire to take a back seat was, more often than not, modesty; in fact, his role as an artist was crucial in shaping, presenting and interpreting his material.  His work was popular because he recognised humanity’s instinctive and archetypal  need for tactile expression and aesthetic enrichment.  

One of Tim’s early commissions was for Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow where the robust, organic forms of Tim’s tables and chairs still give the cafe its particular character.   Other large-scale projects included the North Sea Oil Industries’ memorial chapel at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen; here, he achieved that rare thing – highly crafted work of aesthetic value, which successfully managed to accommodate the sensitivities and sensibilities of a wide cross-section of the community.  A specially commissioned work for Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art is typical of Tim’s ideas because it allows the viewer  to participate in the artwork.  The work has been built into an existing alcove near the stairwell of the neo-classical building; it consists of shaped wooden forms which create a corbelling effect, rather reminiscent of the Neolithic chambers found in Orkney and which so fascinated Tim.  A small ‘peephole’ allows the seated viewer to peer down, unobserved,  to the galleries below.   Oàrkney also proved the inspiration for Tim’s contribution to the ‘Scotland Creates’ exhibition held in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1990.  In a lift-shaft in the middle of the gallery’s floor Tim recreated  –  in wood  – one of the 5000-year-old stone houses in the village of Skara Brae.  It was an act of typical madness and characteristic fun which stole the limelight.

Sculpturally, Tim’s work did not appear to derive from any particular art historical tradition, although the ideas of Brancusi, Beuys and Hundertwasser, amongst others, were central to his vision.   His furniture owed something to Art Nouveau,  in particular, Macintosh, Majorelle and Horta;  his training at Glasgow School of Art was influential in this respect.  Early on, he rejected Conceptualism particularly in the way it was practised at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where he completed the early part of his training.  An early work, ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’, contains most of his essential vocabulary , later expanded and refined.  The piece shows items of worn driftwood  bound together with rope, spectacularly off-centre and asymmetrical.  Tim loved the natural processes which  eroded and shaped the world and this piece was a personal metaphor, redolent with the infinite possibilities he would later explore.

Tim’s home life was essential to his creative processes.  With typical humour, he named his house ‘The Steading’ and in a very real sense the interior of the house became an extension of his personality, a constantly evolving organic artwork, where wood predominated in many fascinating shapes and forms.  Most visitors entering there for the first time found it breath-taking and awe-inspiring; on leaving they emerged to a world which was, by comparison, duller and more pedestrian.

Tim’s guiding ethos in life was to put in more than he took out; because he realised that trees were central to his own life, both ecologically and economically, he helped found a community woodland near his home.  The funds to purchase Wooplaw came in part from Tim’s inspired idea to make a wooden  axe-head  for each day of 1986 – these he subsequently sold.  This community involvement also extended  to his role of co-founder of Woodschool in Ancrum, based on the idea that a plentiful supply of local, indigenous timber could be used by the increasing number of furniture makers emerging from art schools and colleges.  The project has proved an enormous success, attracting interest from around the world.  It is an enduring testament to Tim’s vision for sustainable economic activity based on local resources.  It was this community involvement  which  led to his being made an MBE earlier this year.

Tim was generous with his time and ideas.  My own experience illustrates this.  One day, almost ten years ago, I telephoned him out of the blue as a total stranger, to talk about his work.  He invited me to his home and  I found myself im?mediately at the centre of a warm  family life, full of lively discussion.  Soon after, I found myself collaborating on a book about his work.  In it, Dr David Bellamy wrote: ‘When I die, I would like my ashes to be cast into one of the woodlands of the Border Country which gives Tim and many other people so much joy and inspiration.  Then I might have a chance of becoming part not only of a living tree but also a product of a future ‘new wood age’ worker in whom this book has sown seeds of inspiration’.  Many seeds have indeed been sown and it is a fitting and poetic thought that Tim’s last wish was to be buried in Wooplaw, the wood which he loved and helped to create.

Tim is survived by his wife Maggy and their children Emma and Sam.


GILES SUTHERLAND

Born in Helsby, Cheshire, 27th March, 1952
Married Maggy Lenert, July 14, 1972
Graduated Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham 1974 and Glasgow School of Art 1975
MBE, January, 2000
Died in Edinburgh, 21 April, 2000

The Stead Obituary

The Scotsman
April 2000

Tim Stead died on April 21, 2000 at the age of forty-eight following a long fight with cancer.  He was buried in Wooplaw Wood – part of a community woodland he had helped to found – on Saturday April 29  in a simple, moving ceremony.  I was invited to contribute an obituary to The Scotsman and wrote the following:

The death of Tim Stead has deprived Scotland of one of its most prolific and eclectic artistic talents.  To the many people whose lives he touched, his presence and influence was always meaningful, frequently challenging and usually great fun.  These three aspects also informed his work both as a sculptor and a furniture-maker.  For Tim, wood — the medium in which he worked for more than 30 years — was a wondrous and miraculous gift from nature.  He passionately believed that as an artist his role was to unlock the beauty of the natural material and share its secrets with others.  In this aim he succeeded brilliantly for his work proved immensely popular with many diverse people. The success of Tim’s work was not difficult to fathom for he often said that as an artist he wanted to let the wood speak for itself.  This stated desire to take a back seat was, more often than not, modesty; in fact, his role as an artist was crucial in shaping, presenting and interpreting his material.  His work was popular because he recognised humanity’s instinctive and archetypal need for tactile expression and aesthetic enrichment. 

He also recognised the desire of others to own his work and so, beneath what appeared at times to be a slightly disorganised nature, lay a shrewd business sense which allowed him to establish and sustain a thriving workshop in his adopted home in Blainslie, in the Borders.  This allowed him to design and assemble — along with various apprentices, co-worker s and volunteers — his range of idiosyncratic and individual items of furniture.  Over the years a distinctive style evolved, given impetus by an early commission for Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow where the robust, organic forms of Tim’s tables and chairs still give the cafe its particular character.  Tim’s output was never less than voluminous — a direct result of his capacity for hard physical work, so much an element of woodworking.  The result is that his furniture has been acquired, collected and cherished by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals and organisations.

Tim’s work as a furniture-maker could not be separated from his ideas as a sculptor; the relationship between the two was always symbiotic.  He joked that he was addicted to wood and that his furniture-making allowed him to support the habit.  He described his work as a sculptor as ‘play’, for he recognised that this activity was not confined to children. Although, as adults, we might describe it as ‘creativity’, the processes and function are essentially the same. 

Sculpturally, Tim’s work did not appear to derive from any particular art historical tradition, although the ideas of Brancusi, Beuys and Hundertwasser, amongst others, were central to his vision.   His furniture owed something to Art Nouveau, in particular, Macintosh, Majorelle and Horta; his training at Glasgow School of Art was influential in this respect.  Early on, he rejected Conceptualism particularly in the way it was practised at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where he completed the early part of his training.  An early work, ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’, contains most of his essential vocabulary, later expanded and refined.  The piece shows items of worn driftwood bound together with rope, spectacularly off-centre and asymmetrical.  Tim loved the natural processes which eroded and shaped the world and this piece was a personal metaphor, redolent with the infinite possibilities he would later explore.

Few people when confronted by his giant, elm chess-sets with their towering tusk-like pieces, or his massive thrones constructed from segments of pale ash could have failed to be moved.  These pieces appear fantastical, the result of an imagination and talent given free-rein.  Yet there are quieter works which invite close inspection and derive from a relationship with his material which seems spiritual.  Pieces like ‘Vanished Gods and Banished Gods’ and ‘Spawning Voyage’ are essays in the exploration of self and humanity.  They appear on one level as three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, inviting touch and involvement; they engage the hand and the eye (beside any piece of work at one of Tim’s exhibitions could be found a notice ‘Please Touch!’).  Because works such as these were cut from a single piece of wood, usually burr elm with its intricate grain and figure, the process of dismantling and putting together really was an exploration.  Again, these works could be read in several ways — on one level they were great toys, but philosophically they involved the artist looking back to his own seed and source and inviting others to do the same. 

Tim’s popularity as an artist was both reflected and increased by a number of large public commissions.  These included the North Sea Oil Industries’ memorial chapel at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen; here, he achieved that rare thing — highly crafted work of aesthetic value, which successfully managed to accommodate the sensitivities and sensibilities of a wide cross-section of the community.  Elsewhere his work for the Museum of Scotland had immediate and lasting appeal — I recently witnessed a group of schoolchildren engrossed by his doorway to the education department.  In the same building the enormous Millennium Clock — recently completed in collaboration with the Russian sculptor Eduard Bersudsky and a number of others — draws a fascinated audience to the kinetic theatricality of its hourly chimes.  Other equally involving works by Tim are to be found in Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art and in the recently refurbished Hamilton town centre, the site of a major public art project.

Tim’s guiding ethos in life was to put in more than he took out; because he realised that trees were central to his own life, both ecologically and economically, he helped found a community woodland near his home.  The funds to purchase Wooplaw came in part from Tim’s inspired idea to make a wooden axe-head for each day of 1986 — these he subsequently sold.  This community involvement also extended to his role of co-founder of Woodschool in Ancrum, based on the idea that a plentiful supply of local, indigenous timber could be used by the increasing number of furniture makers emerging from art schools and colleges.  The project has proved an enormous success, attracting interest from around the world.  It is an enduring testament to Tim’s vision for sustainable economic activity based on local resources.  It was this community involvement which led to his being awarded an MBE earlier this year.

One of Tim’s favourite poems was ‘Since feeling is first’ by e. e. cummings; I can think of no better and more apposite epitaph.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis[1]

There were a number of other obituaries published in the national press.  Alex Fraser, writing in The Guardian commented that “A mighty tree has been felled before its time: but Stead planted seeds for more than trees.” [2]  Julian Spalding in The Herald said that “It is very likely that Tim Stead ….will come, in time, to be regarded as one of the most significant sculptors in post-war Britain.” [3]  It goes without saying that these sentiments reflect the high esteem in which the man and his work were held. 

One of the most personal recollections of Stead’s life was by the arts impresario and friend of the Stead family, Richard Demarco.  Writing in Artwork, Demarco contributed the following appreciation:

Tim Stead’s death at the tragically early age of 48 was a severe blow to all those who believe that the life and work of an artist at this time when the new millennium is beginning should be about the regenerative and healing powers of art working in harmony with nature.

Artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Joseph Beuys come to mind as makers of art which gives hope to future generations.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Temple Garden of Little Sparta in the Lanarkshire Hills is a great gift to future generations, so too is Joseph Beuys’s sculpture ‘Seven Thousand Oaks’ now flowering into maturity in the city of Kassel.

Tim Stead’s ‘Community Woodlands’ which are flowering near the village of Blainslie in the summer of the year 2000 will surely operate as the handiwork of a sculptor who loved, protected and extended the life of trees as a gift to all those who are continuing his life’s work through the fast developing community woodlands movement.

Tim Stead was born in Helsby in Cheshire, one of three brothers.  He was educated at Heronwater Prep School in Wales.  Here he leaned to the natural world and the love of nature at Leys School, Cambridge and Nottingham School of Art, where he had the good fortune to be taught the art and craft of working in wood by Frank Lindlay.

The old Scots word ‘makar’ could be applied to both Frank Findlay and Tim Stead because they were literally ‘Makers’.  They both delighted in making manifest their ideas in wood.  This delight is succinctly expressed in a poem which Tim Stead felt obliged to write entitled “Making/Taking/Breaking/Waking”:

To change the form

Create a shape

Is like drawing rabbits out of hats

Without the tricks.

There is tension

Between destroying the given piece

Its partial destruction

And the moment where it draws itself together as new –

Making footprints not scars;

Imposing form but with harmony;

Eroding with tools and imagination

Compelled by the excitement 

Of creating something which wasn’t there before

Realigning and composing the elements in moment like music

That echoes on.

His post-graduate studies were at Glasgow School of Art.  There was nobody like Frank Lindley there, but it was in Glasgow that he met Maggy Lenert at the farewell party she was giving at the end of her year’s teaching at a school near Barlinnie Prison.

She did not return to Luxembourg because she and Tim were married and settled in the idyllic setting of an old Border farmhouse, high on a hill above Lauderdale.  Maggy Lenert was not only a teacher of French, she was also a highly talented artist – and it gives me pleasure to think that she and Tim are exhibiting at the Edinburgh City Art Centre as part of the exhibition ‘70 Over 2000 on the Road to Meikle Seggie’

This road led to Blainslie as it did to Little Sparta as two locations near to Edinburgh which question the places where art is housed in the shape of galleries and museums.

Murray and Barbara Grigor gave Tim Stead the opportunity to rethink the genius of the prehistoric builders of Skara Brae in their exhibition at the McLellan Galleries in 1990.

In 1993 he was given his most significant one-man exhibition which he entitled ‘The Botanic Ash’ under the aegis of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His most testing commission was the Memorial Chapel to those who died on Piper Alpha in Aberdeen’s Kirk of St Nicholas.  He created 40 chairs, a lectern, a communion table and a minister’s chair and added a rood screen which separated the chapel from the rest of the Kirk. 

He worked incessantly through all the days of his adult life and it was typical of his single-mindedness that he should have given himself the task of making a wooden axe-head for each day of 1986 and by selling these to help raise the £40,000 to purchase the first community wood.

If you visit the National Museums of Scotland in Chambers Street you will be intrigued by the Millennium Clock Tower which came to life on January 1, 2000.  It is a construction in wood, metal and glass and is a celebratory monument to the 20thCentury encapsulating the hopes and fears which were provoked over the past 100 years.

The makers of the tower were listed as Eduard Bersudsky who is defined as a sculptor- mechanic; Tatiana Jakovskaya, a theatre director; Anica Sandström, a glass artist, Jürgen Tübbecke as a clock-maker and Maggy Stead-Lenert as an illustrator and, of course, Tim Stead as a sculptor-furniture maker.

This list defines the team spirit which Tim engendered whenever working with fellow artists, scientists, engineers, environmentalists, mechanics, craftsmen and school children.

He was much loved and commanded respect from all those who were privileged to know him and benefit from his love of life and art.[4]


[1]‘The Scotsman’ April 26, 2000

[2]  ‘The Guardian’,  April 29, 2000

[3] ‘The Herald’ April 29, 2000

[4] ‘Artwork’ No. 105  August/September 2000

Edith Simon

Moderation Be Damned
June 2005

This major essay appeared in the publication Moderation Be Damned which celebrates the life and work of the exraordinary artist and writer, Edith SImon.  The publication, which was organised and facilitated by the photographer Antonia Reeve also  is lavishly illustrated and also conatins a contribution by the artist’s sister, Inge Goodwin.

Edith Simon’s Art

I Introduction

Edith Simon’s life brilliantly encompassed a number of careers: book illustrator, graphic artist, novelist, historian, essayist, painter, sculptor, draughtswoman and translator. Her output was prodigious and prolific – her career as a writer alone would have satisfied more modest talents. However, in her late forties she turned from writing full-time to making art, an occupation that again turned out to occupy her time and talents fully. A catalogue of more than eight hundred extant works in a wide variety of media testifies to her passionate dedication to developing her art.

In the minds of most, Edith Simon’s work will be remembered for the medium in which she excelled and had developed and made her own – the ‘scalpel painting’.  Simon had originally termed this ‘papercut bas relief’, but for good reasons opted for a much more vigorous and slightly threatening label. The technique is explained in more detail below but essentially involves using successive layers of cut paper to create images. The images have a three-dimensional quality that becomes more pronounced when viewed under specific lighting conditions.

In an undated manuscript written around 1976 Edith Simon set out some of her ideas for a book which she hoped one day to write about her own idiosyncratic approach to art-making. The sub-title of the proposed work was ‘An Art Book with a Difference’. The short text, with its didactic and discursive approach, is revealing of the artist-author in a number of ways:

In the beginning was, not the word, but image. Visual art gave birth to language, religion, ideas, science, technology: the lot; and from the first accidental hand print till the coming of photography and wireless transmission, the artist worked for people … But then the camera imposed a rigid template on the world of appearances and the new media gradually monopolised communications. The third eye, that sees beyond immediate appearance, became dimmed; older arteries of communication grew clogged. The artist and his audience ceased to be in step. People became ‘other people’, no longer tacitly including the image-maker himself, who now had to say, in effect, ‘to hell with you, I’m doing my thing’ or perish.

Simon discussed what she believed also to be a unique aspect of art: the ability to see beneath the surface of the thing itself. Simon’s philosophy of art-making is important in another aspect. It introduces the idea of the audience as a crucial component of her approach. Art does not need an audience to exist; but it does need one in order to be shared. By way of explanation for her gradual move from writer to visual artist she contrasts the isolation of the former with the more public exposure of the latter:

The slow sometimes isolated and sometimes non-existent feedback from books contrasted with the instant and immediate apprehension of the purely visual object. Although in all these lines of endeavour one starts out without an audience and is in no way deterred by this, the tremendous new stimulus of an unexpected audience … helped … me to express what I felt I had to say about life … in … compact visual shorthand …

In an age where the specialist is revered and the generalist regarded with some suspicion, Edith Simon was a maverick figure. She had never baulked at the idea of challenging convention:

I was … trying to do what I most wanted to do in the teeth of a then ruling fashion that led me to the techniques by which I learned most and which in other ways too became rewarding: paper-cuts, continuous-line, rope sculpture, plastics.

The focus of this short study is, therefore, Simon’s work as an interpreter of religious themes and as a portraitist; these two areas bring her fascination with people together with her passionate historical, philosophical and spiritual interests. Such a study, confined by space and time, cannot do justice to the entirety of Simon’s oeuvre as a visual artist; the approach has been to prioritise depth of comment and analysis over breadth.

Many aspects of an artist’s life can inform their art: upbringing, training, family, relationships and life in general. Edith Simon was born in 1917 into a Germany that was at war; the privations of that society and economy were part of her familial experience. Her emigration to England at the age of fifteen was a common experience for many Jewish middle-class intellectual families. This diaspora, although tragic on one level, made our society all the richer.

Edith Simon did not suffer personally during the rise of National Socialism. However, even though she records no anguish or fear at the experience of leaving Germany (she returned within months to complete her Reifezeugnis) her work was informed at a sub-conscious level by events she witnessed or heard about. In terms of early artistic influence the works of Helmut Hügel (one of whose works Simon’s parents owned), Lovis Corinth and Oskar Kokoschka had a lasting effect. Throughout her life the artists of the Renaissance also held a great interest. Indeed, one of the defining treasured moments in Simon’s career was when she visited the Sistine Chapel (then under renovation) and was invited to climb onto the scaffolding to look at Michelangelo’s masterpiece and to ‘touch the hand of God’. But a good artist wastes no experience in the pursuit of their art and all facets of Simon’s world informed her work; and much also formed its subject matter.

Simon’s work has been widely collected, indeed to such an extent that only around forty works remain in the possession of her family – the rest have been dispersed to an avid and enthusiastic audience of international collectors, from public institutions to private households such as that of Alison Elwell-Sutton whose collection is both highly representative of Simon’s work, yet unique and deeply personal. Public collections include the University of Edinburgh, the John Innes Centre (a posthumous portrait of Sir Rolland Biffen, founder of the Plant Breeding Institute, Cambridge) and The City Art Centre, Edinburgh. It is, therefore, one of life’s curiosities that at the time of writing none of Simon’s work has been bought for a national collection. This despite specialising in portraiture for three decades in a city whose Scottish National Portrait Gallery purports to reflect the activities of its artists and citizens.


II Religious Themes

Although Simon’s artistic output has ranged over a wide number of media and explored an equally diverse variety of themes, particular constants have re-occurred at regular intervals throughout her career. One of these is her treatment of religious subject matter; this particular fascination has also been apparent in her career as a writer. Her novels and historical studies have included titles such as The Golden Hand, The Reformation, The Saints and Luther Alive. A number of key works deserve particular mention.

[MS 7202 ‘Jesus and the Fig Tree’ ]

This sculpture illustrates the passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus ‘curses’ a fig tree in the presence of his disciples:

Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, ‘Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.’ And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, ‘How soon is the fig tree withered away!’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.’

Theological interpretations of this event differ; some believe the fruitless tree was used by Jesus as a parable or metaphor for the nation of Israel. Simon saw the passage as representing Christ’s fallibility and earthliness:

The incident of Jesus cursing the fig-tree was always of particular interest to me because as far as I know it’s never been depicted in religious art … in interpreting it people usually skate over it … but in contrast with all Jesus’ other actions being a pure tantrum, as it were, [it is] the behaviour of a man in conflict and obviously extremely worried … it seems to me to be the nearest thing to factual evidence of such a person.

The theme and the questions it poses are important, leading Simon to give the subject a more compelling reworking in 1991 [PC 9115].

The majority of the viewing public and the critics received Simon’s textile work favourably and enthusiastically.  Writing about Simon’s 1973 ‘Adventure Show’ at The University of Edinburgh’s Chaplaincy Centre, Martin Baillie observed:


….These sculptures make the show and if they are not art, then one can only paraphrase a comment of David Hume on philosophy, so much the worse for art. I enjoyed this show enormously….Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit on a green sward thrown over an iron bedstead; a monument to a well known art impresario complete with column and goat; an elegant seated dancer; Beethoven and Mozart as a child prodigy….the Annunciation with the Virgin kneeling, one hand to her breast, the other with nervous fingers plucking at her robe – this, in its fashion, is as moving as medieval painted-wood sculptures. 

The following year ‘The Observer’ gave an upbeat notice of Simon’s ‘Open House’ show at the Andsell Gallery, London  which it described as “…by far the wittiest, most flagrantly frivolous art show in London for some time.”  The reviewer continued:


Mrs Simon …works with the most  unlikely materials, mainly on theatrical or erotic themes most appealing are her life-size, rather rag-doll figures made of stuffed delicately-painted canvas – a huge Beethoven (‘The Deaf Man’) standing silently next to a piano at which sits a tiny figure of Mozart behind the score of a sonata; a couple sewn together at the lips and groin.  The bath at the gallery was painted by Mrs Simon with a nude girl inside and another climbing out up the wall and over the tiles; and most spectacular of all are two large armchairs with quilted upholstery – a male and a female nude painted sitting on each one.

Despite the prevalence of such favourable reaction, other observers seemed less convinced.  Reviewing Simon’s work on BBC Radio, David Miller noted, somewhat testily: “How else could they [the life-size dolls] be described? Fun pieces, perhaps?  I can’t take their limp uncertain forms seriously, and they could, through time, degenerate to something akin to a soiled eiderdown.”  

Such opinions were in the minority and can be seen as the outmoded opinions of commentators who still, apparently, viewed Simon’s blend of sculpture and craft as ‘women’s art’ and as such was seen as being inferior to the then predominantly male pursuit of the ‘fine’ art of painting. Such blinkered views may, in part, be explained by the peculiarly snobbish British  attitude of valuing ‘art’ over ‘craft’.  While the former is often revered as the product of unique processes, the later has frequently been seen as an “artisan’s” activity, reproducible if only the necessary skills could be acquired. 

The views of Miller, and others, highly prevalent in the early 1970s, may also partly be explained by that fact that such textile work could be safely relegated to the “lower” realm of “woman’s art” and were, therefore, taken less seriously than paintings and sculpting in more ‘traditional’ materials such as metal and stone.  The work of women artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Paula Rego and Judy Chicago – all of whom have used textiles with great power – constructs an overwhelmingly powerful case against such attitudes.  Like these artists, because of her inherent skill as an object-maker and her gifts of observation and draughtsmanship, Simon was able to bridge the gap between the so-called crafts on the one hand and the ‘fine’ arts on the other. 

Simon’s rare ability in this area has been seldom recognised.  Art critics, generally raised on a diet of the academicised fine arts have been, therefore, both unable and unwilling to give Simon’s work the notice it has so clearly merited.  One exception to this more or less hard-and-fast rule was W. Gordon Smith who devoted an entire programme to an  examination of Simon’s figurative textile sculptures in 1973.  Such a treatment obviously signified that in at least one case, proper notice had been given to the work of a remarkable and unique artist.


In ‘Crown of Thorns’ [RS 7302 ], a three-dimensional study of the Crucifixion,  the medium is a single coil of rope, solidified in a particular position to create a three-dimensional effect where the ‘negative’ empty spaces are as important as the ‘positive’ filled ones. The rope sculpture – a technique which Simon pursued for a number of years in the 1970s – is a logical extension of the continuous line. Explaining her fascination with this method Simon commented:

It seems to lend itself very well to expressing movement. The discipline of having to get round the object in an unbroken line forces concentration … you’ve really got to consider what you are doing and how you are expressing form …

It may also be that Simon had been influenced in this technique by the work of the Polish artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930), whose work was shown in Edinburgh in 1972.  [image of Abakanowicz’s rope sculptures ]. Abakanowicz’s imagery was typically dark and suffused with images of suffering. Additionally, the Polish artist’s choice of subject matter may have also influenced Simon’s approach – even at a sub-conscious level. Stylistically there are also links, as Abakanowicz’s work is figurative and deeply expressive, as is Simon’s. Scotland, traditionally averse to such dark, painful imagery, undoubtedly found works such as ‘Crown of Thorns’ difficult to stomach given the nation’s preference for the kind of belle pienture espoused by the Edinburgh School in the first half of the twentieth century. One notable exception to this general rule is John Bellany, whose early paintings tapped directly into the kind of pain, suffering and violence which belle peinture implicitly denied. It is perhaps no coincidence that Simon was a some-time admirer of Bellany and completed a portrait of the artist and his wife in 1989. Simon’s choice of imagery and the force with which it is expressed would seem, therefore, to have much more in common with the northern European and particularly German tradition of image-making. Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim can be said to represent this tradition of iconic pathos and Simon’s work – with its conscious and sub-conscious roots in the Germanic tradition – must be seen in this context.

Further explaining her approach Simon commented: ‘The whole point of the Crucifixion was the voluntary sacrifice so that suffering by itself seems not enough in referring to it. So here is Christ crowning himself with a crown of thorns rather like Napoleon when he made himself Emperor …’  In the New Testament it is, of course, others who ‘crown’ Jesus:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spat upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. 

By transforming a passive event into an active one Simon reinforces the idea of self-sacrifice – an action, in effect, willed and sanctioned by Christ himself. Much of the force of this work however derives from the apparent tension created by the medium and its subject matter. Rope is traditionally associated with execution by hanging and indeed one of the earliest extant artistic images of the Crucifixion – an ivory relief dating from c. 420–450 – shows Christ on the cross, adjacent to the figure of Judas, hanged by a rope. The confounding of expectation, even by subliminal methods, is a deliberate technique employed by Simon to create the jarring, uncomfortable sensation experienced when looking at ‘Crown of Thorns’.

[PC 8913 Crucifixion: An Alternative Scenario ]

This study is a natural successor to ‘Crown of Thorns’, executed as a scalpel painting. Since the early fifth century, depictions of the Crucifixion had become common in western art. The subject has held a fascination for artists as diverse as William Blake, Titian, Tintoretto, Albrecht Dürer and Francis Bacon. It is a truism that each artist brings his or her own interpretation to such a subject and these representations are inevitably the result of prevailing contemporaneous factors such as social context, purpose and fashion. The early twentieth century saw a new kind of realism entering the treatment of religious subject matter, best typified in terms of the Crucifixion by the German artist, Lovis Corinth (1858–1925). Corinth’s raw, uncompromising handling undoubtedly appealed to Simon and it has been observed that the artist had an influence on Simon’s early artistic development. 

Simon takes Corinth’s approach and develops it. Unlike most depictions of the event, Simon’s does not attempt to encompass the whole story in her scenario but, instead, focuses on Christ himself. Inge Goodwin, the artist’s sister, has pointed out Simon’s method by stressing that ‘the idea of ‘An Alternative Scenario’ is that Christ had the power to save himself and descend alive from the Cross, rejecting his own crucifixion. Instead he chose the Crown of Thorns and the Cross to fulfil His (God’s) purpose and save Mankind.’  Most images of the Crucifixion locate the artist and viewer at ‘ground level’ so that the figure of Christ on the cross is elevated; and, as a corollary, the audience must look up, both figuratively and literally, to observe the event. This approach relates to the elevated concept of ‘Christ in Majesty’. Simon turns this convention around by positioning the audience (and herself, as artist) at eye-level with Christ. We are therefore obliged to read the work in a way that is essentially different from many other artists’ treatments. By looking the crucified figure in the eye, Simon brings us close-up to the harsh, brutal reality; this is akin to cinematic technique where a camera mounted on a ‘cherry picker’ moves in and up towards a figure. Part of the considerable power of this work derives from the pervasive feeling that Christ, should he wish, could pull the nails from his hands and free himself.

[PC 8505 The Creation of God and Heaven and Hell ]

How do we gauge when any artist has reached the apogee of his or her career? This is a complex question because implicit in any answer is the idea that all preceding work is merely a series of stages (presumably ever-improving) on the path to aesthetic truth while all following work is in some kind of decline, reached after a highpoint.

Without wishing to imply or assert either of these notions it is, however, possible to state that, with the execution of ‘The Creation of God and Heaven and Hell’, Simon created a masterwork which was more ambitious and complex than anything she had made previously.

Limited only by the power of her own considerable imagination and the constraints of space imposed by the studio, Simon nevertheless created a significantly sized work (measuring 6’ x 10’) whose physical scale was matched by the complexity of its design, composition and content.  Discussing the Judeo-Christian mythology of the Creation (and in her characteristic style) Simon explained some of the thinking behind the work:

Possessed of such unbounded inventiveness as confronts us everywhere in nature, such a Creator would never have been content to fashion humankind after an existing prototype in his own image. No, it was the limited imagination of Man that saw the needed deity as a mere magnified reflection of himself, for better or for worse.
   This concept seemed a challenging subject for allegory, for a pictorial shorthand statement of something that in words could run to volumes.

In discussion with W Gordon Smith some ten years previously, and elsewhere, Simon had explained her differing approaches to the respective practices of writing and visual art. Although both had similar satisfactions, the notion of immediacy in relation to visual art provided great affirmation: ‘You can take someone by the scruff of the neck and say you’ve got to look at my picture … and they can’t help but see it but you can’t force anybody to read a book …’  The idea of creative urgency and immediate communication had suffused Simon’s desire to make ‘The Creation’ and, as she pointed out, she viewed the work as ‘pictorial shorthand’ for a complex series of ideas and feelings.

The basic approach of the work proposes that the opposing notions of heaven and hell are two sides of the same coin; and, further, that heaven and hell are entirely subjective: ‘For it is soon clear that anybody’s personal heaven is likely to contain hell for someone else.’  Perhaps this was Simon’s attempt to illustrate the Existentialist belief of Jean-Paul Sartre that l’Enfer, c’est les autres’.

Simon sets up a number of opposing images and proceeds to unify them pictorially and philosophically through a series of motifs, including the image of the birth-giver and the octopus. In her use of the representation of the earth goddess, perhaps the oldest of deities, epitomised by such ancient sculptural forms as the ‘Willendorf Venus’, Simon asserts that procreation is the ultimate goal of all life; while the use of the octopus emphasises that, even in the midst of life, death is all around – as the female octopus retires to die after giving birth.

Elsewhere in the work a skier plays in the snow and ice while another person freezes to death and, continuing the theme of mutual opposition, a sunbather relaxes while a drought victim slowly dies. The powerful and disturbing portrayal of the act of rape suggests that in the ecstasy of the rapist there is the simultaneous and wholly opposing suffering of the victim. In the act of violation the woman looks towards a laurel bush – this image refers to the Greek myth where the nymph Daphne was transformed into a laurel bush so that she might escape being raped. Yet within the bush there is a lone figure – an onlooker who is neither wholly detached from nor actively involved in the act he is witnessing. Here, Simon seems to be suggesting that the figure represents ourselves: constrained, unable to act, impotent: ‘a wistful onlooker – one who is undesired, unfulfilled and thus dwells in heaven and hell, peace and hopelessness, at one and the same time.’

As a writer and artist, Simon took her inspiration and ideas from an eclectic range of sources; she was a wide reader and this life-long passion reflected the interest, love and excitement she felt for the world around her. Scientific ideas – as much as the arts and humanities – were never far from her frame of reference; it is not insignificant in this respect that her long, fruitful and supportive marriage was to Dr Eric Reeve an eminent geneticist at the University of Edinburgh.  It is therefore appropriate and consistent that in ‘The Creation’ Simon employs the images of Charles Darwin and Leonardo Da Vinci to represent God and the Creation; they represent what CP Snow called the ‘two cultures’ of art and science’  here united as one, reflecting the integration of art and science represented by Simon’s own marriage. Each of these figures holds a mirror in which is represented, respectively, a serene and a wrathful deity. Emerging from this compound image is a Möbius strip on which the artist has represented a food chain and cycle of life.

Compositionally ‘The Creation’ is based on a series of diagonal parallel lines – these consciously echo techniques used by Renaissance masters such as Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo. Structure was important to Simon and reinforces her belief in ‘freedom through constraint’. In other words, the discipline of working within an existing set of rules paradoxically allows greater freedom of expression. [include diagram as seen in ‘Moderation be Damned’ catalogue ]

Through these varied references and the conscious acknowledgement of artistic precursors it would seem that Simon was positioning herself in a respectable art-historical lineage. Such referencing should not be seen as fanciful or over-ambitious; this was acknowledgment of our universal inheritance and her attempt to build upon it.

The desire to express action, emotion, and concept in a simultaneous non-linear narrative is by no means without precedent and by implication therefore not an unreasonable ambition. The deliberate lack of a specific focal point allows the viewer’s eye to move at will over the work. Simon well understood the idea of structuring the audience’s viewing experience, for her exhibitions were laid out with such ideas in mind. Here, however, there is no obvious narrative thread. The intention was therefore to bombard the audience with a number of powerfully charged visual elements seen in no particular order and by doing so suggest the scientific idea of the Chaos of the universe. Techniques such temporal and narrative distortion were, of course, the basis of Modernism. There is, however, real excitement here in the dynamic expression of ideas, feelings and imagery – a series of qualities which can be found across Simon’s oeuvre.

III Edith Simon as Portraitist

From the evidence of Simon’s earliest extant work (including her juvenilia) it is clear that her forte lay in the depiction of individuals. Works such as ‘Aunt Cilly’ [DP 3203 ], ‘Walter’ [DP 3301 ], ‘Dolly’ [DP 3302 ] and ‘Inge’ [DP 3901 ] reveal a precocious talent – all were completed during her teenage years. Collectively they reveal a flair for observation and an ability to convey more than the bare physical details of the sitter. These are important aspects of a two-fold definition of successful portraiture, as Professor Shearer West has pointed out: ‘While a portrait can be concerned with likeness as contained in a person’s physical features, it can also represent the subject’s social position or ‘inner life’, such as their character or virtues.’  Stylistically, these works owe a great deal to German Expressionism – perhaps an unsurprising fact given Simon’s early upbringing in Weimar Germany.

These early works – executed in a variety of media, from ink and wash to oil paint – concentrate on Simon’s immediate family. By definition these were individuals whom she knew well and to whom she had easy access. Such an approach is not surprising, particularly when one considers the financial and social restraints then operating on a teenage girl in London in the early 1930s. As well as differing in their respective media these portraits reveal a stylistic development which corresponds to changes in Simon’s circumstances and her exposure to artistic training and other external influences.

As the artist’s sister, Inge Goodwin, points out in her introductory biographical essay Simon briefly attended (on an informal basis) the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1932 and, following that, the Central School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London. Here her precocious and latent talent was exposed and developed but it is not possible to attribute specific stylistic developments in her work to particular teachers or methods taught at the various schools Simon attended. It is however possible to see a movement from a tentative, yet powerful work such as ‘Aunt Cilly’ (1932), through to the bolder more assertive style of ‘Self Portrait’ (1934) culminating in the stylised yet haunting image of Inge Goodwin, ‘Inge’ (1939).

The visual art of portraiture and the literary art of biography, both of which Simon practised, share a number of important qualities. Both attempt to describe an individual in terms that extend beyond mere surface information; biographies often contain visual portraits (photographs, paintings etc.) and portraits often contain visual clues as to the status, occupation of the sitter, even to the extent of sometimes using written information in the work itself to convey additional information. However, whereas a portrait nearly always deals with temporal stasis, a written biography often includes the entire course of a person’s life. It is no mere coincidence that Simon excelled in both; for a time they were complementary activities but as Simon’s long and distinguished career as fiction writer, biographer and historian waned, so reciprocally her career as a visual artist evolved. There had been almost a thirty-year gap in Simon’s activities as a visual artist, although she did pursue visual art on a part-time basis, describing herself quite literally as a ‘Sunday painter’.

Between the late 1930s and late 1960s Simon’s artistic productivity, although limited in relation to her subsequent prolific output, amounted to over forty works. As Inge Goodwin points out these works were done at a time when Simon was engaged in a full-time career as a writer as well as bringing up a family of three children. Her achievement as an occasional painter and artist is therefore not insignificant given the strictures within which she operated. The majority of these works are portraits and studies of people (the two genres, it should be noted, are distinct). They show dancers (studied from life at a nearby ballet school), family members and friends. They range across a number of media but comprise mostly drawing and painting. A study of a young woman ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) [DP 5901 ] is perhaps typical of Simon’s approach at this time.  It shows a reclining figure in a slip with a towel wrapped around her head – indicating that she has recently bathed. The work is sensitive and conveys something of the character of the woman in question, in particular, her erotic sensual beauty. The setting is stylised and the floral background adds to the impression of delicacy and femininity.

Inge Goodwin notes that Simon’s earliest scalpel paintings date from 1967 [PC 6701 Jay Reeve aged 13]. Inevitably these early essays in a medium which is, apparently, unique to Simon were unsophisticated by her later standards. Another early work in the same medium entitled ‘Hatted Girl’ (1972) [PC 7201 ] again shows the emergent technique.  Completed in three colours the work displays many of the facets which Simon was to develop more fully in later years. The portrait achieves a likeness as well as conveying something of the sitter’s character: jauntily sporting a cap and necklace the young woman appears as confident as she is fashion-conscious.

It is unclear how Simon first began to develop her technique of scalpel painting. Its relationship to the more purely three-dimensional technique of sculpture (which she had practised since 1969) is important because it presents a more workable, if no less technically complex, medium. The development of scalpel painting can also be traced back to Simon’s use of the continuous line : this was explored purely as a drawing technique which then led on, several years later, to sculptural works formed with a single length of rope [RS 7301; RS 7302 FULL CAPTIONS NEEDED]. Such increasingly adept handling of layers of colour also owe much to Simon’s early career as a book illustrator and graphic artist [illustrate examples of these including ‘Somersaults’ and ‘Diderot’ FULL CAPTIONS NEEDED]. These skills were certainly enhanced and developed by her early association with the Artists International Association whose members included a number of gifted illustrators and artists such as Alex Koolman and Cliff Rowe.

The starting point of Simon’s scalpel paintings was also a line drawing: preparatory studies always formed the basis of these works and they were almost always executed on large sheets of paper drawn with a thick black marker pen which allowed Simon to concentrate on the more telling features in the subject. Her consummate skill in drawing and sketching allowed these preliminary studies to be completed quickly and effectively with a high degree of accuracy.

Simon often took less than an hour to complete several preparatory studies. Antonia Reeve, the artist’s elder daughter, observes that Simon’s ‘visual memory meant that even if one study was inaccurate in one or other detail (and the majority were very life-like) – she could remember how it differed from the sitter and therefore keep the likeness in the master drawing for the scalpel painting’.

In 1973, Simon herself explained the approach:

The Continuous-line drawings were the first step, exploring form and leading the eye round the picture in one fluid movement; each drawing consists of a single line, unbroken from start to finish … Invisible masses are caught within the outline, with startling plasticity. Next the Papercuts move into the third dimension with the added amenity of subtle changes arising from different angles of illumination – thus these pictures may be varied even by simply transferring them from one wall to another, as well as by lamps placed in different juxtapositions to them.

Discussing the technique of scalpel painting, Simon’s husband, Dr Eric Reeve has observed:

Wanting to introduce a three-dimensional element into her paintings, she thought of the brilliant and completely original idea of setting up on a hard board a number of sheets of paper, each of a different carefully chosen single colour and each of the same size, and fastened by staples round its edges to the board, which was then held vertically by the easel. A master drawing was traced through to give a faint outline of the picture onto the top layer of coloured paper. This tracing did not remain on the final picture, any visible tracing marks being removed.
   The real work then began, first by revealing a few areas of particular colours required in the final picture cutting through and removing the layers above, and then working through the picture in stages. Numerous scalpels were required, in the form of blades which could be attached in turn to a suitable handle, and important points are: a) it is essential to arrange the colours in the right sequence for the picture, as otherwise it will be impossible to complete due to a particular colour being impossible to bring out at some point where it is needed; b) one would think it almost impossible to complete the whole process without making errors of position or depth in the cutting process, such as would force the artist to start again; yet in the high proportion of her scalpel paintings which I have observed her making as I came and went from our house and looked into her studio very quietly, I have very rarely found that she has made a mistake.

It is important to distinguish Simon’s apparently innovatory technique from other related processes such as découpage. An art form with a long history, contemporary découpage essentially involves creating decorative surfaces on pre-existing objects using paper cut-outs.  As Simon’s own technique progressed and evolved its methodology inevitably became more complex. She devised a series of self-imposed rules within which she felt bound to operate, advancing her long-held ethos of ‘creativity through constraint’:

… with papercuts, a master drawing is made from sketches. Then the colours are selected. It makes a great deal of difference how many colours there are and in what order they are put together, one on top of the other. The sheets are stapled and placed vertically on the easel. Cutting by scalpel is from the outer, top layer through all the rest, exposing what is needed where. It requires much control and can be very laborious. ¬It often takes as much time in making step by step decisions as in carrying these decisions out. No amount of planning can allow for all the questions and possibilities that arise in the actual process. It is as if the work gradually revealed its secrets in the act of being explored. Each sheet must remain in one piece though perforated, maybe, to the extent of lace. Portions may be modelled and interwoven, but no separate bits can be cut out and stuck on. The end result goes into a specially constructed frame of the necessary depth and is totally durable. 

With portraiture, Simon had clearly found her vocation. It was not an easy route and she felt unable to be both a full-time writer and a full-time artist. Explaining the change in her career she wrote: ‘Once upon a time I forsook art for writing, because I did not know what I wanted to say, except in words … When later on revelation struck and I went back to art, I found that my artistic values were unfashionable and my artistic abilities under-developed. To be any good, you have to keep at it, with total application of all your powers.’  Simon’s realistic attitude in relation to her artistic powers is matched by her commitment, not only to succeed but to excel.

The circumstances surrounding the execution and presentation of a portrait can be complex; involving a sitter, artist, commissioner and audience. However, at the heart of the process, and integral to it, is the relationship between the sitter and the artist. Although constructing a portrait in the absence of the sitter is not rare, it is certainly less common than when the artist and the sitter are in close physical proximity, for example, within the artist’s studio. One such example of the former situation is Simon’s posthumous portrait of Matthew Nelson [PC 9202 ]. Nelson, an admirer of Simon’s work, was a gifted student of Computing Science at Stirling University who had died after a long fight with cystic fibrosis. Simon was commissioned by Nelson’s parents to complete a portrait of him after his death. At the time Simon recorded that this was the greatest challenge of her career to date. The portrait was based on photographs and her experience of visiting Nelson’s home and study.

Simon’s favoured location for the initial stages of her composition (a master drawing) and subsequent development where she worked with a scalpel and sheets of coloured paper, was often in her sitters’ homes, studios and places of work. It was only in the late 1980s that Simon started to make use of photography as a visual recording medium and to work increasingly from her own studio.

The interaction between sitter and artist is a crucial aspect of portraiture. It is this as much as any other factor (compositional sense, power of observation, artistic ability) which contributes to the success of the work. Simon explained this process as like being ‘steeped in hypnotic empathy with the subject for the duration, every time …’  Sir Timothy Clifford, who sat for Simon twice, observed that ‘Edith asked me to sit for her on two occasions and I was delighted to do so. I suppose I cringed somewhat at seeing my own likeness and didn’t buy either piece, mainly because they were large and wouldn’t fit in my home. I recall Edith worked very quickly, using a line drawing and photographs.’

[PC 9812 On Your Bike – Giles Sutherland ]

My own experience of sitting (or rather, standing!) for Simon was, I suspect, both typical and unique. We had met at an exhibition opening and rather out of the blue she suggested that I sit for her. At the appointed time I arrived (by bike) at her studio in my cycling gear. Immediately she insisted I wear this and pose standing with my bicycle. It was certainly an unorthodox, although entirely welcome, approach. Simon explained that in order for her to work properly I should talk but that she must be silent: ‘… my sitters are asked to speak while they pose. People go slack and frozen-featured when allowed to sink into ruminant torpor … I like the subjects … to choose what to wear, because of what this will tell us about their self-regard.’

So, for the space of two or three hours, I stood intoning a relentless monologue. I have no recollection of what I talked about but I understood that as well as the visual stimuli set before her she also relied, however subconsciously, on the impression she formed of me through my own speech and mannerisms. Simon spent the time quickly sketching a series of line drawings with a thick black ink marker pen; but she refused to let me see the results. Several months later she had completed the work to her satisfaction and I was invited to inspect it. I can only record my pleasure with the work, particularly the facial likeness, the intricacy of detail lavished on the clothing (gloves and trousers) and of course the presence of my ‘prop’ – the bike. In truth, I was flattered, not only with the end result but also by being asked to sit in the first place.

IV A Focus on Portraits

From around 1980 Simon’s work increasingly tended towards the medium of ‘scalpel painting’ while other media such as video, ‘mobile sculpture’, ‘ropescapes’, ‘scrollworks’, ‘see-throughs’ and ‘2½-D pictures’ became less prevalent. ‘Kissing the Wind’ [PC 7912 ] of 1979, shows a female figure on all fours partially submerged in water, with tousled hair and head aloft. This is a convincing study and although there appear to be certain technical deficiencies in relation to anatomy, Inge Goodwin explains that ‘Edith could be entirely accurate/realistic as to anatomy and proportion, but deliberate stylised distortion for a purpose is surely a component of modern art.’  Although not a portrait (it lacks the personalised detail which would allow it to be termed as such) the work’s overall composition, balance and increasingly deft handling of the medium (here the number of layers of paper has increased to six [CHECK] illustrate the fact that scalpel painting was increasingly Simon’s medium of choice. A much darker work ‘[TITLE]’ [PC 8006 ] completed the following year is a more abstracted, simplified image. It shows a cloaked figure with a skull-like head holding a bag. The apparition – for that is what it appears to be – stands on a pavement or quay in darkness while a strange light illuminates the background. The subject is in fact Sir Gerald Elliot,  one-time chairman of the Arts Council. Inge Goodwin comments that ‘what fascinated Edith was the conjunction of eye-patch, kimono and handbag.’

Simon was always a social animal; her love of and interest in people and her position as the wife of a well-connected Edinburgh University academic ensured access to a particular stratum of Edinburgh society. Increasingly, members of this circle became the subject of her work and what had previously been studies of people in general became progressively more oriented towards portraiture: studies of specific, identifiable individuals contextualised by their clothes, surroundings and other ‘props’.

[PC 8105 ] ‘The Descent’

One such early work is ‘The Descent’ which shows its subject, Andrea Targett-Adams who ran an up-market PR agency, descending a staircase in an elegant Georgian interior. The practice of portraying subjects within a specific setting reflecting the sitter’s occupation or social status has a long lineage. Although her formal training in art history was limited Simon, nevertheless, had a highly sophisticated understanding and knowledge of such matters. Although there is no specific documentary evidence to categorically prove the assertion, Simon would almost certainly have been aware of works such as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) and Gerhard Richter’s ‘Woman Descending the Staircase’ (1965) – only Richter’s work could approximate to the label ‘portrait’ (it shows a blurred ‘photo-painting’ of the opera-singer Maria Callas). Simon’s and Richter’s works share some startling similarities. They both show elegant, sophisticated and well-dressed mature women descending a flight of stairs. But whereas Simon’s subject looks straight at the viewer, Richter’s take is more tangential. Although the media differ widely, both works portray an identifiable individual within a certain context; and both give a number of clues as to the social standing and preoccupations of the subject.

[PC8705 Dr Elizabeth Mason ]

Dr Elizabeth Mason is well-known figure in the Edinburgh social and arts scene. She is a colourful personality and has led a full and eventful life.  It is therefore entirely apt that such a figure, whom Simon had known since 1947, should form the subject matter of one of Simon’s portrait scalpel paintings.

The portrait shows the sitter – in typical attire – resting in a large red armchair. The subject’s head is turned fully to face the viewer and, somewhat atypically for one of Simon’s portraits, shows the head disproportionately larger than the rest of the body. This, one can speculate, is a device employed by the artist to focus the viewer’s attention on the head, the ultimate focal point of the majority of the artist’s portraits. Dr. Mason’s hat – large, red and extravagant – acts as a device which both illustrates and symbolises the larger-than-life personality of the sitter. However, it would be a mistake to consider the use of red for both the chair and hat as a technical short-cut in the construction of the work. Simon was seldom interested in developing easy solutions. Indeed, it is clear that the opposite was true: she continuously set herself technical challenges which she effectively had to surmount before the work was deemed a success by the artist. The Mason portrait is a case-in-point because the red of the hat and the red of the chair differ in tone: the latter is lighter and pinker in hue than the former. The jarring tonality may have been Simon’s method of commenting on what she perceived to be the sitter’s personality. Why indeed do something the easy way when a more complex solution would present greater challenges and, as a corollary, greater rewards?

[PC 8704 Lord John McCluskey ]

This ‘double’ portrait, completed at around the same time as the Mason portrait, shows the Edinburgh-based judge, Lord John McCluskey.  McCluskey held the post of Solicitor General for Scotland between 1974 and 1979 and at the time of portrait was a Senator of the Court of Justice. The work shows McCluskey in two different but complementary roles: one domestic and one professional. Clearly, the sitter’s domestic and social role has been emphasised by showing Lord McCluskey seated in a relaxed pose; to the rear, smaller in scale, and tonally more subdued is his professional self. He is attired in formal dress, including the long robes and wig which form part of judicial regalia. The clearly distinct juxtaposition of the two ‘selves’ is a useful device – although not without precedent. Paul Wunderlich’s portrait of George Sand, for example, presents two ‘faces’ of the nineteenth century novelist.  However, in Wunderlich’s work one of the faces is blank, prompting Richard Brilliant to observe: ‘… identity and naming are inextricably bound together in portraiture … the picture implies a dialectic, turning on the name, that logically requires the viewer to be far more cautious about taking portraits, any portraits, at face value …’  Although it would be difficult to argue that Simon’s work sets up a dialectic, the portrait does allow simultaneous comment on and portrayal of two entirely separate roles: public office and private citizen.

[PC 8929 A Bouquet for Helen and John ]

As Simon’s reputation grew and her work became more confident and ambitious, her talents as a portraitist became increasingly in demand. Often, work was created on the basis of commissions, either mediated by a third party or directly from the sitter or sitters themselves (info here about how the work was commissioned). In relation to the genesis of the portrait of John and Helen Bellany, Simon commented: ‘Motivation, format and title for this double portrait burst upon me in one lightning stroke, in joyful reaction to a new phase in John Bellany’s paintings … The key colour, too, was in the package. It could not be anything but yellow, partly in compliment to the subject, partly because yellow seems to me to touch off the phantasmagoric nerve in me.’

Simon considered situating the couple amid Bellany’s art works or showing Bellany himself in the acting of painting (as she had done previously in her portrait of Sir Robin Phillipson [PC CHECK ]); but that seemed too literal an approach. The portrait was essentially a tribute to the Bellanys’ marriage and to John Bellany’s status as a respected painter – thus the idea of a floral tribute, included in the title of the work. A number of motifs suggested themselves to Simon in the process of constructing and composing the work. Two derived from the idea of equestrian portraits – a form of high accolade since Classical times. The first specific art-historical reference, seen in the fabric of the sofa in the foreground (and echoed in the patterning of Helen Bellany’s dress) was to Simone Martini’s fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano in Siena.  Continuing the equestrian theme, Simon positioned a partial silhouette of Verrocchio’s Colleoni statue in Venice behind Bellany’s head.  The third motif was the addition of what Simon describes as ‘wand-land’ trees which were common in Renaissance quattrocento backgrounds. In a typically light-hearted and modest way, Simon related how these various elements had occurred to her: ‘Horse! Equestrian monuments, Society’s ultimate accolade … Not a bad furnishing fabric, at that, for something that originated in a sofa. Complete with stylised flowers, leaves, stalks, twigs, moreover, for the ‘real’ bouquet to shade into. Thank you, Subconscious.’

[PC 8912 Sheena MacDonald ]

Simon’s portrait of the well-known journalist Sheena MacDonald was completed in 1989. The main conceit of the image involves the kind of visual complexity in which Simon delighted – it shows the broadcaster as a reflection in a mirror; beside this mirror image stands a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair. By implication, we understand the chair to be a prized possession, because although aligned to one side of portrait it nevertheless assumes an important position in the overall composition. In turn, this prop allows us to attribute certain traits and qualities to the sitter: expensive and cultured taste, the desire to collect and the will to display acquisitions. That the sitter is portrayed before in mirror suggests other qualities: confidence, self-regard and even, perhaps, vanity.

The device of the mirror within a portrait has a long lineage in the history of art. Most famously, perhaps, the mirror was used as a device by Jan Van Eyck in his ‘Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami (The Arnolfini Marriage) in 1434. But whereas here the convex reflective surface is used as a way of including the artist himself in the work (and thus recreates the portrait as, additionally, a self-portrait) Simon’s purpose is different. The mirror does not show the artist, only the sitter, and again, unlike the Van Eyck there is only one created image of the sitter. Simon, it should be noted, also alluded to Van Eyck’s masterpiece, in her double nude portrait, ‘Marriage’ which shows a nude couple holding hands with a mirror in the background reflecting the artist.

[PC 9803 + PC 9102 Sir Timothy Clifford ]

The former Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Timothy Clifford, posed twice as a sitter for Simon – in 1991 and 1998. The first portrait entitled ‘Cliffhanger’, shows Clifford seated on an armchair which itself is perched vertiginously on the landing of a staircase – the setting is in fact the rear stairway at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. The chair appears to be almost ready to topple from its precarious position taking its hapless occupant with it; he, however, nonchalantly looks on, head resting on one arm, legs comfortably crossed. The setting is not unlike the Targett-Adams portrait [PC 8105 ]; above is an elegant cupola, and the Albacini portrait busts. In the foreground and, therefore, correspondingly larger and more prominent, is a portrait bust of Apollo (god of art and war). The tone of Simon’s work is characteristically witty and mischievous; the work reveals an ambiguous attitude towards the sitter. She wrote:

… the portrait is a companion piece [to ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ [PC 9103 ]] … demon king to good fairy perhaps … in each the central figure occupies a mere third of the total space … In real life … the directorial throne does not occupy the physically commanding position it has here – where it could either bar access altogether or eventually come to grief. The latter possibility is denied by the incumbent’s attitude, at once imperious and relaxed. Withal there is in his face some vulnerable sensitivity, a soft-shelled nakedness …

Previously, Simon had hinted at this type of approach: ‘… [it] … doesn’t mean the portrayal will be all sweetness and light, sugar and spice. Empathy isn’t necessarily sweeping approval. The creative equipment includes a form of X-ray illuminating hidden aspects.’  The title of the work ‘Cliffhanger’ therefore is a coded message telling us that the artist was well aware of the sitter’s political manoeuvring and his apparently precarious tenure of a public office held so idiosyncratically and controversially by its incumbent.

V Self-Portraits

Throughout her long career Simon completed a number of self-portraits. In terms of art history this sub-genre has, arguably, as long a lineage as portraiture itself. Inevitably, the field is vast; but it is a truism that most figurative artists, especially those who have worked on portraits have, at one time or another, turned their expressive and observational powers away from others and towards themselves.

Edith Simon was, therefore, no exception to this general rule. Her earliest extant self-portrait dates from 1934 (‘Self-Portrait’ [DP 3401] ). This is a compositionally assured work, vigorously executed in thick oils; stylistically it is akin to the work of artists such as Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1988)  and Lovis Corinth,  both artists Simon admired. (Kokoschka and Corinth self-portraits) These studies were painted within a decade or so of Simon’s own self-portrait and both are perspicacious and revelatory. Physical verisimilitude aside, both attempt to probe the psyche and reach below the surface. Simon’s portrait also takes this approach; it is not a mere superficial copying of style and composition. It should be noted that Simon’s work was completed when she was only seventeen years of age, while Corinth’s and Kokoschka’s were painted when these artists were sixty-six years old and fifty-one years old, respectively. Despite this, the Corinth portrait especially and Simon’s bear some similarities – the angle of the sitter’s head in both is similar: slightly askew, and turned in half-profile. But Simon’s is a more intense close-up whereas Corinth’s field of vision extends to include the various accoutrements of his vocation: easel, brush, and palette. The older painter’s occupation and status seem assured while the younger artist is less emphatic and altogether more tentative in terms of defining her self-identity.

A work completed more than forty years later takes up where the earlier self-portrait left off (‘Self Portrait’ [PC 7602] ). It shows the artist as an artist, complete with easel and pen or brush, in her studio. Here she looks straight out of the image and holds the gaze of the viewer.  In a typically erotic gesture, one breast is shown, deliberately revealed and this, at least in geometric terms, forms the centre and focus of the work. Through this physical gesture and, therefore, by metaphorical extension, the artist emphasises the emotional self-exposure inherent in self-portrayal.

Simon returned to the theme of exposure in a work entitled ‘What is Truth?’ [PC 9202 ] which she described as a ‘composite’ self-portrait. The eight[CHECK?]-layered scalpel painting shows five separate versions of the artist, all framed within one composition. The question posed in the work’s title is a valid one and the issues it addresses are complex. By presenting a multi-faceted view of herself, the artist questions the notion of representation by asking, indirectly, how artists choose to interpret and present themselves. Set within a claustrophobic domestic interior, five ‘Ediths’ appear to vie for the label ‘truth’ or, perhaps, ‘who is the real Edith?’. Each has a quite separate – but closely linked – identity and each is preoccupied with a distinct activity. On the extreme right is the ‘public’ face of the artist – fully clothed, with characteristically flamboyant glasses and hat; on close inspection the patterning on the dress is revealed as comprising a series of miniature portrait heads. Although generic rather than specific, they nevertheless point us to Simon’s public face as artist. Adjacent to this image is a more tortured and troubled representation. It shows the upper torso and head of the artist; her hair is dishevelled and her facial expression is one of anguish. The figure clasps and cups her unevenly-sized breasts in a gesture of despair and critical self-examination. The frailty and fallibility of the ageing body appears to preoccupy the artist. This is the intimate, private self laid bare, replete with self-doubt and self-criticism. Compositionally, this work is divided into two distinct halves; on the left three ‘Ediths’ – eat, drink, gossip and chat. They look either to the two figures of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ self or look back out of the picture towards the audience. In a way, these figures represent the audience too, observing from a safe vantage point the conflicting personae of the artist.

Satire, levity, and a mischievous sense of humour were all effective weapons in Edith Simon’s artistic armoury. She uses these tactics to great effect in another self-portrait dating from 1988 (‘Edith and the Perishing Wasps’ [DP 8828] ) and used for a poster. This portrays the artist in bee-keeper’s guise, complete with helmet and face guard, smiling smugly, safe in the knowledge that the wasps who are attaching her do so in vain. Although they attempt to harm they are unable to penetrate the artist’s defences. To anyone with any familiarity with the world of Scottish art it is obvious that two of the faces of the attacking wasps are none other than the former art critic of ‘The Herald’, Clare Henry. But the tone of this portrait is good-humoured and well-meaning; it pokes fun at the artist herself, as much as the critic. Indeed, Clare Henry, along with a number of other professional critics, had consistently praised and encouraged Simon. Discussing another of the artist’s portraits of Clare Henry (‘Clare and Columbines’ [PC 9509] ), the critic wrote: ‘She draws superbly … I had to wait months till the picture was completed – and I was thrilled with the result.’

Simon loved debate and discourse. Writing in 1991, she effectively sums up a number of essential points about her approach to art:

Looking back, I would say that initially I’d rather floundered, unsure how to express what I had to say in visual terms; whereas with words I’d no such trouble. Later on, with some 17 books to look back on, it struck me that here there was no lasting truthfulness, because in the written word presentation is selective manipulation, which after a time can lose its validity. You may no longer wish to stand by the former convictions, but couldn’t really spend your life re writing. Whereas with the non verbal, visual statement every possible interpretation is securely latent for the extracting. People delight me when they find concepts in my work I’d never even thought of.

Edith Simon was a dedicated writer and artist who believed in developing her considerable talents to their utmost. As one of her oft-repeated dictums ‘freedom through constraint’ illustrates, she continuously devised new sets of self-imposed rules within which she practised her art. Rules were important because they allowed her to set a whole range of challenges – involving composition, media, subject matter and message – which she strove to overcome. In the vast majority of cases, these challenges were met and indeed surpassed.

Her constant curiosity about materials meant that at junctures in her career Simon experimented with different and ever more challenging media. The use of rope to create sculpture and the use of a scalpel and paper to create ‘paintings’ are two areas in which her success was marked. Both techniques were innovatory and the latter, in particular, Simon made her own. In time, this technique, with all the exciting possibilities it threw up, may become to be seen as being as revolutionary as the use of collage in the early twentieth century. Simon successfully bridged the art-craft divide, creating as synthesis uniquely her own. However, this artistic success was not only predicated on the innovatory use of materials but was also, equally, because of her very considerable talents as an artist. Her strengths lay not just in the surface layers of her work, but also deep below based on the accumulated experience and mastery of colour, drawing and perspective.

Those who may be tempted to dismiss Simon’s art as inferior, or as the work of a ‘woman artist’ will undoubtedly be forced to revise their opinions. As has so often been demonstrated in art history, the reputations of maverick figures and true innovators, almost always outlive those of their detractors.

The House of Dreams – Recent Work by Diana Zwibach

March 2008

Diana Zwibach was born in Novi Sad on the banks of the Danube River and lived there until the age of 12 when, in 1961, she moved with her father and mother to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Her father was a radiologist and his talents were much sought after. However, his dream was to take his family to Israel and this dream became a reality when the family moved to Tel Aviv in 1964, allowing her father to take up a post at the Chaim Sheba Hospital and a lecturing postion at Tel Aviv University. When in Ethiopia the Zwibach family witnessed an ill-fated coup against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and later, in Israel, Diana and her mother were temporarily evacuated to Rome in 1967 to avoid the potential dangers created bt  Israel’s Six Day War with its Arab neighbours.  When Zwibach asked her father why she and her mother were being sent away, her father replied that it was their safety; that he could not bear the thought of loosing those he loved. Tibor Zwibach’s parents, his sister and his niece had perished in Auschwitz along with so many countless others and this trauma had scarred his psyche and remained a deep and irreconcilable burden until his own premature death in 1975 at the age of 56.

Despite Tibor Zwibach’s best efforts to protect his only child, Zwibach’s probing mind and sensitive nature detected a sadness and despair in her father, a man she adored and admired. One of the images in this body of recent work – executed in a very short and intense period of creative energy – shows a male figure: tall, proud, athletic. The predominant tonality of the image is blue and is a homage to Zwibach’s father, her protector. Here, he emerges dream-like from the blue of the Danube after swimming or rowing. This is a central image in this new body of work which focuses specifically on Zwibach’s early childhood in the small, lively, colourful Serbian city. It is a city of dreams, of remembered colours, sounds, smells, people, laughter, movement…a constantly changing panoply of imagery filtered through the lens of memory and the intervening decades of living. It is a childhood remembered, cherished, valued and shared.

These images (there are around eighty in all) differ from much of Zwibach’s previous work – canvases in which she sought to come to terms with her familial history, the history of her people and the traumatic events in which she found herself caught up, as a witness to human brutality and the vast tides of history over which she had no control. Her images were frequently a testimony to pain and, as such, were tableaux of anxiety and confusion – cluttered, coloured, confused – as they reflected an inner turmoil and restlessness. They were the product of the history of post-war Europe and the history of the world beyond.

Here we find Zwibach in a more reflective, contemplative and celebratory mood. The images are almost wholly of a childhood remembered with joy and, as such, they are warm, loving and often convivial. One shows a blond girl with ribbons in her bunched hair holding a doll. In fact, the figure (the artist herself as a young girl) caresses the doll in a gesture of loving protectiveness. This might be seen as metaphor for the mature artist cherishing the memories which provide the basis for this exhibition. In another, a white seagull perches atop a wooden post protruding from the river Danube.  However, unlike the dying seagull in Anton Chekhov’s eponymous drama, Zwibach’s bird is a symbol of hope, freedom and beauty. It is a symbol with which the artist herself strongly identifies. Compositionally, this image shares a number of characteristics with others in this series. Firstly, its focus is extremely tight and the main image occupies the majority of the physical space (in this case A3 paper). The ground is a predominant solid red, so that the white bird is thrust forward into the viewer’s gaze and although there is energy and movement in the background and surrounding the central image, the effect is not to distract the viewer’s attention but, rather, to focus it. 

Zwibach employs a number of recurrent motifs throughout this new body of work, and while some are both symbolic andrealistic, others merely stand for themselves, without allusion, metaphor or symbolism.  In another work there is a composition comprising a male and female figure, a donkey and a ladder. Whereas the human figures may allude to family or friends, the donkey is simply a recording of childhood remembrance: donkeys and horses were a common sight in post-war Novi Sad, beasts of burden and transportation. The ladder is a more enigmatic reference and symbolises for Zwibach the possibilities of life: ascend and descend, rather like in the game of snakes and ladders itself.

At heart Zwibach is a figurative painter. Her interest in the human figure can be traced back again to her childhood, peopled with characters, friends, family, guests – a colourful cast who lived in and passed through the convivial household created by her cultured and sociable parents.  Added to this was the vibrant life of Nowy Sad where open-air markets, Gypsies and puppet theatre gave her youthful imagination much on which to dwell.  In later years her formal training was also highly influential in directing her artistic attention to the human figure; teachers such as Moshe Rosenthalis (b.1922) in Tel Aviv,  Joseph Hirsh (1920-1998) and Zvi Tolkovsky (b.1934) of the  Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Carol Weight (1908-1997) of the Royal College of Art in London.provoked her interest and offered her an expanded view of the possibilities and purpose of art.

Many of these images, therefore, offer a perspective on the human figure; often figures are grouped in pairs or in greater combinations but sometimes the figure is solitary, isolated within its own world. In one small but powerful image a cross-legged form (it could be either male or female) contemplates a full, rising moon. Zwibach describes her childhood experience and that of her adult life as being solitary, not in a physical sense but emotionally.  It’s a theme which has been dwelt upon by numerous artists but it also reflects the human condition; at times we all to a greater or lesser extent, feel a loneliness, an isolation and a disconnection with the life which surrounds us. This is paradoxical in an age which suffers from ‘information overload’ where we are constantly bombarded by noise, images and all the concomitant sensory clutter which our technological age has unleashed.

Even where figures are found in groups of two or more, it’s possible to detect a distance between the ensemble characters; although physically close, these figures rarely touch or entwine. Even in love there is a separateness.  In one piece two figures stand on a roof top, watched by a third. The watching figure is partially truncated by the physical edge of the paper on which it is depicted, a deliberate device which emphasises the distance, both in time and space, between the observer and the observed. It’s tempting, irresistibly so, to compare this composition to some of the imagery of Chagall, whose roof-top scenes and dream-like imagery derived from his vision and memory of his native Vitebsk. However, Zwibach describes this work as work of remembrance about her parents. Here, her night-gowned mother dances in the moonlight and her father, less animated, strikes a pose with hands on hips. Gulls fly overhead and the dark blue Dunav can be seen in the distance.

It’s worth mentioning at this point the various techniques Zwibach employs to create her imagery because in a very real sense the medium is the message.  Zwibach applies acrylic-based paste to paper and card which she then manipulates using a variety of techniques. Often the paste is rolled and various implements are then employed to mark, scratch and incise the viscous liquid medium. Zwibach describes this process of incision as her attempt to get beneath the surface of things. It’s rather like a river which over a long period of time erodes the rock and soil over which it flows, revealing the underlying geology. In a literal and actual sense, therefore, Zwibach’s work is never superficial; it is, rather, an enquiry, an exploration and an investigation of truth.

The work of committed artists is always in a state of flux, transition and evolution; artists who stick to a prescribed formula of repetition are therefore no longer artists, but repeteurs, a charge which could never be levelled at Zwibach. With maturity comes experience and with this comes a greater understanding of the journey of exploration which art provokes. In these works is possible to sense a shift and a more assured artistic stance; this is mature work and the artist has found her true voice. It is a voice which sings with clarity, precision and great harmony.

Another recurring image in the series of work, and central to any understanding of it, is that of the box, or rather a figure within a box. In the German language koffer refers both to a box and a suitcase and etymologically it is linked to the English word, coffin. Such nuances are important. In one work a female figure is depicted within a box – she may be struggling to emerge, or conversely, she may be being forced into the object. At the risk of falling into the trap which some critics describe at the intentional fallacy, it seems apposite to suggest that for Zwibach the box is a highly charged emotive symbol.  In the museum at Auschwitz are displayed, along with room-fulls of other personal effects, the suitcases of the prisoners who were transported there, never to leave. Personal effects are the material testimony to their imprisonment and suffering. The box has contained her, both in the form of a house and also a symbol from which she has constantly endeavoured to escape. Although contained by the constrains of the physical body and its ultimate and inevitable end, the artist, through their art and imagination can escape, at least temporarily, from the literal and metaphorical boxes in which they find themselves.

Standing out from the series of small scale works here are three much larger pieces, executed in charcoal. By definition they lack colour, and even tonality, but they are full of movement, energy and passion. These works also autobiographical, a trio which might be termed  ‘mindscapes’. Amongst the kaleidoscope of imagery which includes animals, trees, human figures, elements of landscape, a ship and, again, the highly symbolic seagull, it is possible to detect the image of a box or object which is being pulled ‘through’ the rest of the imagery. Here Zwibach is suggesting that memories and some material aspects of life are always present. The past is always being carried by the artist as she moves through life and makes her art. Most of us collect and keep certain objects which are significant to us: momentos, letters, artefacts, images and here Zwibach  emphasises that her past is both weighted and precious, something which much always be borne and carried through life.

If Zwibach employs a panoply of symbolism in this series of images then another central and recurring motif is the tree. For Zwibach this conjures the idea of rootedness, or rather the wish for it. Because, as someone who has lived in a number of places around the world and travels constantly, the particular quality of stability has been absent from Zwibach’s life, although her current home, in the north of England, has has given here a wonderful sense of belonging.  It is instructive that in this series, which focuses on the idea of home, the tree as leitmotif should occur so frequently. In one image, a female figure dances next to a tree while in another a figure sits in silent contemplation adjacent, again, to a tree. For this exhibition Zwibach has also created a number of small scale books, or what might be termed ‘visual autobiographies,’ and the tree is a central image here also. In one sketch a figure reaches skywards becoming a tree, in an act of metamorphosis.  The writer Herman Hesse wrote that “… trees have always been the most penetrating preachers….they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons…In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves…”

This seems a particularly apt series of observations when considering Zwibach’s work, for as an artist she too is seeking to represent herself, her life, those she has loved and lost, her home and that strangest and most distant of places, her childhood.

Neil Manson Cameron – Obituary

The Scotsman
April 2008

Neil Cameron Born: 27 December, 1962, in Aberdeen. Died: 29 March, 2008, Edinburgh, aged 45.

THE premature death of Neil Cameron, at the age of 45, represents a great loss to Scotland’s architectural and artistic community. However, the bare facts of Neil’s professional and public life belie a range of hidden talents and interests, for as well as his work with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and his role as an art critic for The Scotsman and the Architect’s Journal, Cameron was also a talented poet and artist. He was, too, a man of compassion, warmth and sensitivity whose kindness to others was manifest.

Cameron was born in Aberdeen and raised in Dunfermline, the son of Douglas Gordon MacKenzie Cameron and Elizabeth Jean Manson. He attended Dunfermline High School and George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh before studying at the Courtauld Institute at the University of London where he graduated in art and architectural history, in 1984, with first-class honours. Following this Cameron, was accepted by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he undertook doctoral research.

Despite being offered post-doctoral fellowships at both Cambridge and Oxford universities, Cameron opted to join the RCAHMS, and in 1987 he was appointed as an architectural investigator, working initially on the Threatened Buildings Survey, before joining the Thematic Architectural Survey Project to carry out research on civic architecture. From 1991-2006, he managed the Listed Building Survey Project, which included major surveys at the Glenfinnan Monument, Falkland Palace, Balmoral, Drumlanrig Castle and Taymouth Castle. Most recently he was in the process of preparing a volume on Scottish burgh schools, in collaboration with Professor R Anderson.

Cameron’s work with RCAHMS involved him in the preparation and writing of various publications which included Tollbooths and Town-houses: The Civic Architecture of Scotland, Early Medieval Carved Stones at Brechin Cathedral, The Falls of Clyde: Artists and Monuments and New Lanark: buildings and history. He contributed to a wide variety of learned journals and his essay The Romanesque Sculpture of Dunfermline Abbey, published in Royal Dunfermline, is regarded as the definitive statement on the topic; it is given added poignancy here because the abbey, in his home town, is to be the venue for his funeral service.

As principal art and architecture critic from 2000-2 at The Scotsman, Cameron was able to combine his prodigious intellectual and academic gifts with his talents as a writer. He covered the arts scene in Scotland (and occasionally further afield) with scrupulous fairness and objectivity; he was always encouraging and was sensitive to the feelings of those artists whose work he sought to judge and critique. His approach to his work with the Architect’s Journal was similar, but here he was aware that his audience was primarily architectural and therefore took a broader approach. His writing was always informed, carefully crafted and insightful.

Cameron was an intensely private person who valued solitude and peace in the company of nature. This gave him time to think, to read and to write – and occasionally to fly-fish. His poetry is honed, precise and metaphysical; Cameron saw his place in the universe and was always aware of the fragility and impermanence of human existence.

At the time of his death, he was collaborating on a book with the visual artist, Donald Urquhart. Another collaboration in progress, where Cameron had taken the role of designer, was with the sculptor Doug Cocker; Cameron had envisaged a work which would complement the riverside surroundings of his Borders getaway. In his privacy, craving for solitude and love of nature there was something Thoreau-esque about Cameron’s sensibilities, a fact demonstrated in an essay he wrote last year for Inkubator, a collaboration with the artist David Faithfull. Cameron was the perfect choice of essayist, illuminating Mr Faithfull’s wonderfully conceived vision of artists’ books, prints and multiples exhibited under the tri-fold schema Log Cabin, Study and Landscape. Cameron wrote: “…considered silence can be more eloquent than thoughtless speech. Wider connotations of ‘the study’ relate to scientific trial, musical experimentation, sketches in art, and, of course, the enclosed environment of the academic or writer, the quiet backdrop of intellectual exploration, the solitary venue for efforts that one day may escape the confines of four walls and find appreciation and understanding in other places.”

Such observations demonstrate Cameron’s role not only as a critic of the visual arts, but as an artist in his own right.

Neil Cameron is survived by his mother and his two sisters.

Inkubator 2

January 2009

 ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen

(Where books are burned in the end people will burn)

Heinrich Heine, 1820

As its title indicates, this exhibition and installation, conceived by the artist David Faithfull, is the second in the series of an ongoing, evolving project with coalesces around a collection of artists’ books, installation art and other aesthetic interventions.

An unusual, challenging and deeply stimulating project, it is, in essence, a conceptual framework which allows for the display of various media within a coherent and cohesive structure.

Faithfull himself has likened the project to a ‘multiple’ in that it is a kind artwork of which is repeated, or has the capacity to be repeated, in almost infinite variation.

In Inkubator 1, shown at Edinburgh Printmakers in 2007, Faithfull divided the available gallery space into three conceptual and actual spaces, with a fourth, termed the Annex, as an addendum with material which did not easily fit into any of the three other categories. These groupings, or rooms, labelled Study, Log Cabin and Landscape, housed a plethora of printed and visual material.

Faithfull sees the Study and the Landscape as antithetical spaces — where culture and nature oppose each other — with the Thoreau-esque cabin acting as a symbolic synthesis. Describing the concept, Faithfull has written:

‘Study’ or sanctuary for intellectual and scientific contemplation, political and philosophical speculation. ‘Log cabin’ or xylotheque where shaman meets poacher, twitcher meets stalker, a shrine or a retreat, a hide or a hideaway, an arboretum, the spiritual and the ritual, ecology and mythology, etc. ‘Landscape’ environment in flux, representations, of topography, geology, meteorology etc….[1]

The Landscape houses works on meteorology, geology and geography — as well as works on the landscape in art. Artists grouped within this area included Alec Finlay, Arthur Watson and Stuart Mugridge.

As part of his overall schema, Faithfull also conceived furniture (including shelving), wallpaper and other ‘decorative’ interventions. Thus, the Log Cabin contained printed hand-made wallpaper printed with an oak-leaf motif, a log bench, and a floor rug woven with a bear and oak-leaf design (itself a multiple, woven in Iran). In the Study — which has a kind of Ruskinian ambience — we find a William Morris-inspired wallpaper by artist Nicola Murray derived not from Morris’s store of floral motifs but from a series of ‘mutated’ plants found in Murray’s allotment. These are complemented by comfortable floral pattern chairs, a putative ‘fireplace’ by Miranda Schofield (derived from the fireplace in one of Karl Marx’s former London homes) and a small, delicate writing desk.

The bookshelves — themselves another form of multiple — are fashioned from reclaimed mahogany, in contrast to the Cabin’s locally-sourced oak and the Landscape’s sustainable ash. In the Landscape, the walls are decorated by paper derived from Faithfull’s own landscape drawings (using ink made by Faithfull from oak galls) while, in keeping with the outdoor theme, the furniture consists of deck chairs. Landscape drawings, thematically linked to the wallpaper, adorn the walls.

The Annexe, a repository of unclassifiable material, a problematic issue for any classification-obsessed librarian, finds an appropriate taxonomy in this space.  The room is adorned with what appears to be astragalled window wallpaper in the fashion of the ’seventies children’s TV programme, Playschool — but is, in fact, an interactive wall diary by Chris Taylor and Craig Wood. This playful wall is complemented by a child’s work-table — also informing the viewers’ response — and steam-bent, laminated plywood chairs. Here are filed the unclassifiable ‘picture books for grown-ups’ by Otto Dettmer as well as others, including, for instance, those relating to contemporary dance.

The context of Inkubator 2 has been determined by the physical space in which it has been displayed. Happenstance and circumstance have therefore dictated the evolving form. Faithfull, inventive, spontaneous and highly adaptive in his approach has allowed the Durham Art Gallery and Light Infantry Museum, with its obvious military context, to suggest themes of Armageddon, the Cold War, apocalypse, nuclear weapons, Chernobyl and other related themes such as legendary labyrinth at Knossos.

Working with the Museum and Gallery’s Curator, James Lowther, Faithfull has invited additional artists — many of whom are based in the North East of England — to contribute to the evolving form of the Inkubator series. Many of these works are sited in a room Faithfull has labelled the Bunker. The space is purposefully and deliberately evocative of the themes suggested above.  However, the work it contains also connotes personal as well as military, national and international conflict and, as such, embraces a spectrum of dissent from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. Conflict is thus, according to Faithfull, “an open premise”.[2]

Within the Bunker, therefore, visitors can experience a series of atmospheric bunker photographs by Uta Kögelsberger. Printed on aluminium, these images portray the defunct, derelict concrete structures from the past conflict of the Second World War. Taken predominantly at night, or in the half-light of dawn or dusk, with long exposures, the photographs evoke the ghosts of the past inhabited by the eyes of the present. Kögelsberger has commented:

The bunkers and blockhouses from WWII could be described as being physical incorporations of terror. Their monumentality acts as a demonstration of the power of the state by inducing a fear and reverence that atomise the individual, inducing them into the service of an ideological whole. Their current gradual re-assimilation into the environment becomes metaphoric for the failure of these structures in their defensive role. [3]

Kögelsberger’s imagery is highly suggestive of the themes explored by the philosopher Paul Virilio, particularly in his work, Bunker Archaeology which, in the phenomenological vein of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, explores architectural space and place as an entity evocative of memory and emotion.

Faithfull, too, points to Virilio as a major influence on his thinking in respect of Inkubator 2:

Paul Virilio sees the bunker as a kind of ark for new life. But he also views it as a crypt, an old dank place which harbours the fear of being trapped and blasted by a grenade. The bunker, for Virilio, also contains the idea of resurrection. Once the nuclear dust has settled you come out of it like Lazarus, once the marauding army has gone.  Virilio talks about Europe during the Second World War as being the first example in history of a ‘fortress without a ceiling’ where war came from the above. He describes the more recent Kosovo conflict Virilio as a ‘fortress without walls’ with the advent of the graphite bomb, history progressing at the speed of its developing weapon systems. [4]

Another of the ‘bunker’ artists is the ex-infantryman, Craig Ames. The artist, who now works as a lecturer in photography the University of Sunderland, has contributed studies of infantrymen in what is now The Military Museum in Newcastle. Accompanying these are works by Stefan Gec, from Gateshead, whose work deals with Cold War and nuclear themes and those of Newcastle-born Gerald Laing whose images of the Iraq war, including the atrocities of Abu Ghraib prison, have won him acclaim and caused controversy in equal measure.

The sixth and final space of Inkubator 2, which Faithfull has labelled the Hangar, has been reserved solely for film and video works. These include films by Angus Boulton and the collaborative artists Roland Rust and Walther Eckelmann whose work deals, respectively, with the absorption of Napoleonic ‘Martello’ towers into the suburban landscape and meditates on the route of the Docklands Light Railway, through Canary Wharf, in London.

There are, therefore, in each of these unique themed spaces multiple objects and texts which we may ponder at our leisure. They are by turns provocative, disturbing, intriguing, beautiful and puzzling. One of the most absorbing of all if these, belying its apparent simplicity, is a small publication by the Berlin-based artist Wiebke Loeper. Loeper, brought up in the eastern sector of the city when the Cold War was at its height, was the privileged child of middle class intellectual parents. The family was allocated an apartment in a newly-built block of flats, the pride of the GDR’s economic and social programme. The book, entitled Moll 31 (indicating the address of the Loeper family’s apartment) is an outstanding exemplar of the artist’s book genre in terms of production, impact and execution. The cover, a vivid yellow, relates to the interior wall colour within the apartment when it was inhabited by the Loeper family. Interestingly the book’s epigraph is a quotation from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space — “ Das Haus ist unser erstes All. Es ist wirklich ein Kosmos”. [5]

In Moll 31 Wiebke Loeper has juxtaposed photographs taken in the ’seventies by her father, architect Herwig Loeper — showing his beautiful blonde wife Bärbal Loeper and the couple’s children, inside and outside the utopian apartment — alongside those taken by the artist more than twenty years later. In one, Bärbal walks along the pavement with the apartment block in the background; the scale and perspective of both photographs are identical. With the passage of time, the trees have grown taller, partially obscuring the block. The newer photograph is devoid of people and this theme defines the series — the unbridgeable gap between absence and presence, then and now. The images are an elegy for a lost childhood, a lost parent and a lost ideal — and are, in most cases, heartrending, even tragic.  Another shows a bathroom with a child’s head, its hair covered in shampoo — a happy, family snap; its counterpart is a derelict abandoned space devoid of tiles, fittings — and child.

In the book the writer Annett Gröschner notes: “The history of the building reads like the history of the GDR which at the bad end of the metaphor scale was often compared to a house built on solid foundations. In the end the foundations proved to be faulty. By the summer of 1989, the building was already condemned…”

The apartment at Mollstrasse latterly looked like a bunker; and by extension we may view the GDR in the same light — a self-contained world, protected, enclosed and virtually impregnable which became redundant because of massive, external historical forces.

Elsewhere in this city of bunkers (from where so much of the apparatus of state terror, from the 1930s onwards, operated out of sight and out of mind) is another kind of bunker — a hole in the ground, into which one peers, not at things but at non-things, absences and ghosts. This is the architectural sculpture by the Israeli artist Micha Ullmann (b.1939), entitled ‘Bibliothek’ (1995). Sited in Bebelplatz near the Humboldt University and the Altebibliothek, the sculpture commemorates the burning of thousands of books by Nazi students on 10th May, 1933. The sculpture, simple in concept but deeply chilling, consists of a window down through which one looks upon empty shelves. That Ullman should have chosen to represent his vision as a subterranean space is telling; it evokes the notion of a bunker mentality in a city and a state which saw its ideals and apparatus as impregnable, to de defended to the hilt.

The adjacent plaque reads ‘Where books are burned in the end people will burn’. Heine’s prescience is as portentious as it is chilling. It serves as a warning to future generations and a reminder of Virilio’s view that our present nuclear technology cannot be truly understood and controlled until it is taken into the ‘ownership’ of artists, writers and intellectuals.

This exhibition represents one such part of this process.
 

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Neil Manson Cameron (1962-2008)


[1]David Faithfull, Inkubator, exhibition guide, Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop, March 2007

[2]David Faithfull, Interviewed by Giles Sutherland, August 15, 2009

[3]  Uta Kögelsberger, http://research.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/projects/Kogelsberger.html

[4]David Faithfull, Interviewed by Giles Sutherland, August 15, 2009

[5]The text reads: “For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 30

Dan Klein

The Scotsman
July 2009

This obituary appeared in The Scotsman as tribute to Dan Klein, the glass expert, who had died unexpectedly.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/dan_klein_1_760549

Dan Klein – Obituary


Born: November 4th 1938, Bombay
Died: June 28th 2009, London

The death of Dan Klein has deprived the world of glass and decorative arts of one of its greatest experts and supporters. In Scotland, in particular, his loss will be felt acutely – in 1996 he was instrumental in establishing North Lands Creative Glass in Caithness – an enterprise which brought new vitality to the area.

After attending Winchester School he read ‘Greats’ at Wadham College, Oxford from where he graduated in 1961. After Oxford Klein studied singing and was an opera singer from 1966 to 1978. He was a soloist with Sadler’s Wells in London, and from 1968 to 1973 a member of Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group.

In 1978 Klein opened a gallery in London specialising in twentieth century decorative arts and contemporary glass. Among numerous shows those devoted respectively to the work of Dr. Christopher Dresser, The Aesthetic Movement and Masters of Czech Glass won great acclaim. The last, in 1983, introduced the work of Czech glass artists Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtiová to the outside world. Much of this exhibition was purchased by museums including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass. Distinguished British Artists such as John Piper, Ivor Abrams and Quentin Bell exhibited their new ceramics in his gallery in one-man shows between 1980 and 1983.

In 1984 Klein was invited to join Christie’s in London as Director in charge of Twentieth Century Decorative Arts and was given responsibility for sales in Monaco Amsterdam and Geneva. In 1989 he became Vice-President of Christie’s Switzerland whilst continuing simultaneously in his previous role. In 1990 he moved to Geneva where he remained until he left the auctioneers in February 1995. Whilst there numerous world record prices were established in his sales including a world record for Lalique, another for Gallé, and in 1994, for a desk by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Klein was also widely known as an author and he published numerous articles in British, European, American and Australasian magazines. His first book, on Art Deco, appeared in 1974. Other publications followed including ‘The History of Glass’, ‘Decorative Arts from 1880 to the Present Day’,  ‘In the Deco Style’ and (in 2001) ‘Artists In Glass: Late Twentieth Century Masters In Glass’. The last demonstrated the popularity and high standard of the international studio glass scene and Klein’s familiarity with it.

Klein served as external examiner to the Glass & Ceramics Department at the Royal College of Art and was on the board of the Pilchuck Glass School in the U.S. For several years he was one of a panel of five jurors who advised on new designs for Rosenthal in Germany each year. In 1995 became Professor in Glass at the University of Sunderland.

However, it is perhaps in Lybster, Caithness where Klein’s charming, helpful and erudite presence will be most sorely missed. In 1996 he was a Founder Director – along with Iain Gunn and Robert MacLennan – of North Lands Creative Glass and also acted as Chairman of the Advisory Council.

To many at the time it seemed an unlikely venture: siting a visionary centre of excellence on the cliffs of the ‘Grey Coast’. But, confounding its critics and with strong local, national and international support, North Lands flourished, each year becoming more enterprising and intellectually stimulating. Klein was always there – strongly present and supportive – but never upstaging of others. His enthusiasm, expertise and friendship with so many of the world’s leading glass artists and gallery owners and curators were largely responsible for establishing North Lands as one of Europe’s principal centres  in studio glass making. Klein made a particularly valuable contribution to North Lands over the past eighteen months as Honorary Artistic Director giving freely of his advice and time in spite of failing health in the latter months. He was responsible for this year’s master classes and International Glass Conference to be held in Lybster in September and was still discussing arrangements from his sick bed a few days before he died. He combined this role latterly with that of President of the Scottish Glass Society.

With his life partner of 22 years, Alan J. Poole, Klein bought St. Mary’s Church in Lybster where they intended to house their extensive collection of British and Irish Contemporary Glass. For various practical reasons the project couldn’t be realised. However, it was his hope that, in the future, the building could be incorporated into the North Lands set-up. The collection itself is to be donated to the National Museums of Scotland, in Edinburgh, in the near future. This is a collection of some three-hundred pieces of work dating from several decades ago to the present day and will be an important and substantial addition to the NMS glass collection.

This, coupled with North Lands, forms part of a highly significant and fitting legacy for Klein’s life and work.


GILES SUTHERLAND

Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

January 2010

Joan Backes – How the Artist Looks at Trees

The link between art and nature is  strong and enduring.  Since humanity was first motivated by a mimetic impulse  borne out of wonderment and fascination, the urge to record, to comment upon,  and in some way to participate in nature has been unstoppable.

The history of the tree as metaphor, symbol, subject and object  has been a long one in art-historical terms. Joan Backes, who has worked closely with natural subject matter for many years, has concentrated on the tree for the last decade. For Backes, the tree is both metaphor and actuality, symbol and object. The tree – a source of so much of the physical fabric of our built environment – is also a vast repository of human association where myth, metaphor, art and symbol collide and intertwine.

It would be a skewed reading of Backes’ work to see it as solely or primarily ‘eco’ or ‘environmental’ art, caught up with the pressing concerns of deforestation and global environmental Armageddon which, we are continually told, seems to be nigh.  Such an interpretation would be a facile but perhaps inevitable reading, given the times we live in.

These are issues which Backes understands well, as her participation in the 2008 exhibition  ‘Nature Interrupted,’ at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York,  so amply demonstrated. Here, Backes exhibited one of her increasingly well-known  Carpet of Leaves (measuring 19′ x 6 1/2′ ) consisting of over one thousand leaves representing many species and seasons.  The leaves were laminated in an acrylic seal and each was placed individually as part of an intricate pattern on the gallery floor.  

Joan Backes, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010

Backes’ art is essentially celebratory, not despairing.  Thus, it is set apart from so much earnest but rather single minded ‘issue’ art which has become all too common in recent years. Not long ago, Backes exhibited a related work Carpet of Leaves, 2010 at Sleeper Gallery in Edinburgh. Discussing these carpet works, Backes states

…when I began making them I wanted to bring the outside in to the Gallery.  I thought about how we have made indoor carpets with motifs from leaves to decorate their surfaces.  I wondered how it would work to bring the leaves directly into the gallery and to make an arranged carpet – as we humans try to organize gardens and nature outdoors.  But in this case I would use the real leaves from nature.  

Each Carpet is different.  I spend a lot of time planning the best arrangement and dimensions specifically for each site.  Some have been oval, some round, others rectangular and some very long rectangles.  For each Carpet I add leaves from the place where it is exhibited.  So every Carpet holds leaves from every past site as well as ones from its current site.  The Sleeper Carpet  features leaves from Scotland in its center around which is a distinct ring of dark oval leaves from Massachusetts where I currently live.  So the Carpets have background stories if people wish to learn about them.

These carpets therefore are possessed of both a specificity and a universality – they celebrate the local while affirming the universal.  They are also a way of arresting time — of preserving the leaves in a perpetual Autumnal state, and as Backes says, ‘bringing the outside in’.

Backes’ works are sometimes simultaneously symbolic and non-symbolic; often, they can be read in multiple ways. Another work which Backes showed at Sleeper, Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is a detailed study in acrylic of the bark of a tree. Like Carpet of Leaves, 2010 this painting captures a certain genus loci while extending outwards in relevance and meaning. The image is both objective and subjective in that it records impassively – like a taxonomic process – while also being suggestive  in the way that, say, a botanical illustration could never be.

Where should we place Backes’ unadorned ‘objective’ painting of bark and her infinitely more decorative and colourful leaf carpet ?   Tree, Edinburgh, 2010 is part of an interlocking tradition in western art which can be traced at least as far back as Dürer’s Das grosse Rasenstück (1503).  The selectivity and focus which Backes applies to her bark study is no less intense than Dürer’s choice of an apparently mundane subject which, as we now appreciate, contains infinite wonders.  

Albrecht Dürer, Das grosse Rasenstück (1503)

As anyone with more than a passing interest in trees will be aware, Backes has actually painted the bark of a Scots Pine (pinus sylvestris). That this identification is so readily made is a testament to Backes’ skill and dedication —but why not name the work ‘Scots Pine, Edinburgh’, or even ‘Pinus sylvestris Edinburgensis MMX’ ?  Instead, Backes has chosen an apparently ‘neutral’ nomenclature which simultaneously rejects an accepted scientific methodology. Backes herself points to this ambiguity when she explains “I wanted to explore the possibilities of making a painting to read abstractly when viewed close-up while the painting would also represent something when viewed from a distance.”  Could the viewing process — the way in which we look at such a work — itself be seen as a metaphor?  The common catchphrase ‘He couldn’t see the wood for the trees’ comes to mind in this context. In other words, too much intense focus on the detail of things prevents us seeing the larger picture.  Backes offers both possibilities to the exclusion of neither.

Like Backes’ tree paintings, her  Carpet of Leaves use and celebrate local material and mix it with material from further afield. The patterning inherent within the carpet can be read as a kind of narrative – not necessarily a logical or sequential one.  The narrative leads the eye which seeks and requires sense, order and patterning. We are lead down an avenue of similarly coloured leaves, or a cluster of species, or a linked assortment of shapes….Each viewer will formulate a unique reading.  My own reaction was one of surprise and delight, for this was the first time I had encountered Backes’ work. I set about trying to decode the work at my feet. What were the species of trees from which the leaves came? How had the artist ordered them? By colour? By shape? By species? By size?

Joan Backes, Carpet of Leaves, 2010

Does the meaning of this work — and other similar pieces by Backes — extend beyond the surface appearance? Should the carpet be seen as a metaphor for something else? Or should it be celebrated and enjoyed for what it i – a collection of ordered shapes and patterning; a joyful celebration of nature? Perhaps we should incline towards the latter view, remembering the words of Gertrude Stein who famously said:  “A rose is a rose is a rose.” A  metaphorical reading, although not impossible, is not necessary. It is certain that in creating these works Backes brought to bear her own personal associations of making. But these are unknown; it is the viewer’s experience which is important in this respect.

Discussing ways of reading Backes’ work, Jonathan Goodman (critic, Art in America) has observed

“While the paintings make no overtly political claims…Backes has found a way of painting non-objectively, as well as referencing the actuality of nature, her double set of meanings do not suggest a dichotomy so much as a union in which one way of seeing is equivalent to, and perhaps identical with, the other…Backes’ strengths as a painter are wonderfully exacting in her renditions of trees; her examples do not appropriate but rather incorporate a visual complexity operative in several fields of the imagination at once. We may well read her interpretations as evidence of the worthwhile desire to identify and preserve, as well as seduce, the eye.”

Explicitly, through her work, Backes not only celebrates nature and shares with us her joy and appreciation of it,  she also implicitly resurrects the notion of beauty.  Through the selection of many species of colourful leaves in her Carpets, to her painted recordings of the bark of trees from numerous geographical locations, we are offered the beauty and pleasures of the natural world worth preserving.  Backes’ work shares an outlook with many artists of stature and takes her place in a long and distinguished tradition, one which begins with Dürer but can also be found in the work of Van Gogh and Matisse, as well as the more recent American painters Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell. These artists used the vivid colour of nature, often focusing on trees, leaves and flowers. They have done with their work what Backes does with paint and with raw material. Backes‘ work lifts the viewer toward a sense of delight  through its celebration of nature. 

© GILES SUTHERLAND 2010

Joan Backes - 'Nature House'

Joan Backes Paper House 2007.jpg

Joan Backes Cardboard House 2008.jpg

Kate Downie: The Coast Road Diaries

August 2010

Kate Downie: The Quarry Path

Over the past two years or so, the artist, Kate Downie, has travelled to a number of coastal locations in Scotland — and one in Ireland — to pursue a project which she has named The Coast Road Diaries. Each of the places she has visited has resonated with significance, either on a personal or professional level, or both. Discussing the project, Downie has observed that “..the overall project is based on a collection of journeys and short residencies,” adding that “…through the keeping of notebooks, film-making, photography and drawing along the way, [I] ultimately hope to present a personal art-history through this new work…”

The traditional idea of a diary may connote the lifestyle of a busy executive, or a leather-bound volume full of secrets or a planned and scheduled personal life. None of these applies to Downie’s project; this is, instead, more of a notional diary freed from logical, sequential chronology and linear temporality. It is a framing device which allows the temporally fragmented, spatially and geographically dispersed project to gain some kind of coherence, a form, if you like, of poetic or artistic licence.  Downie herself explains this approach:

The exhibition represents more of an idea of a diary than the actuality, that word ‘diary’ being used to convey the temporal and experiential nature of [my] own artistic development. The objective is to explore the connection between pictures and words, but more importantly, the revelations experienced by personal research into places, persons and influence.

The diary is, therefore, more of a metaphoric than a literal device and as such has a long history in art, film and literature. The literary diary and the road movie, although distant cousins, still have some common elements and it comes as no surprise to learn that some years ago Downie, with her partner, Michael Wolchover, made a short film, Driven (2001), which explores some of the themes in her work relating to Slains Castle on the East Coast of Scotland near Collieston, one of the locations visited in her present project. In many ways, the Coast Road Diaries is an extension of some of the earlier ideas explored here.

The Coast Road Diaries focuses on a number of well-known living and near-contemporary artists; and on a number of specific coastal locations. The choice of artist has been determined by a number of complex factors. The artists — Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), Muirhead Bone (1876-1953), Joan Eardley (1921-1963), Marian Leven

(1944 -), Bet Low (1924-2007), Archie Sutter Watt (1915-2005), Sylvia Wishart (1936-2008) and Frances Walker (1930 – ) — are all well known figures in the world of Scottish art. Barns-Graham, Bone and Eardley, in particular, have reputations which extend well beyond Scottish shores. Undoubtedly, all have profoundly influenced Downie’s approach.

Frances Walker was one of Downie’s teachers at Gray’s School of Art, while Leven is a near-contemporary who works on the edge of abstraction and figuration, as well as the edge of sea and land. Bone was a consummate draughtsman, well versed in printmaking and drawing, who, like Downie was fascinated by the poetry of structure, architecture and engineering. Eardley, based in Townhead, Glasgow and Catterline in Kincardineshire, formed a dialectic (like a number of the artists here) from the opposing urban and rural tensions within her work; she was also a bold, determined figure who immersed herself in the — often adverse — elements to gain greater proximity to her subject matter. Barns-Graham, located in St. Ives and St. Andrews, but with a wider geographical frame of reference extending to Italy and the Swiss Alps, employed sparse and vigorous lines in her exploration of landscape and geology. Sutter Watt was a more lyrical artist whose love of the south west of Scotland and whose studies of sea, land and natural form, moved Downie to travel there to explore the artist’s work and the places which inspired it.

Like Walker, both Low and Wishart were fascinated by the landscape and seascape of the north of Scotland — particularly Orkney — and it is the vision of these artists which drew Downie herself so powerfully to those northern islands.

In discussing the Coast Road Diaries project at some length it became clear that Downie’s motivation and purpose for undertaking the project were complex, and indeed, almost impossible to express fully in written terms. Equally, the results, outcomes, and consequences of her exploratory, investigative, experimental vision were almost, by definition, unknowable.

That said, the premise of Downie herself visiting and working in places which inspired and motivated some of the Scottish artists whom she herself so admires, is a simple enough idea to examine. However, it should be emphasised that Downie’s approach — about which she is emphatic and adamant — was not simply to revisit places, scenes and landscapes depicted by these artists and for her then to render them according to her own vision. The process and the journey have been more multi-layered, subtle and variable than such an approach would suggest.

In discussing the idea of influence Downie has commented that “there is nothing as invisible as the recent past and that which is just behind us. It colours our experience and our way of looking. That is what I want to understand so that I am able to move on.” For Downie, these artists represent the recent past, as well as the present. From the outset, Downie has been strongly motivated to examine both the work of these artists and the places which inspired it. The particular symbiotic relationship between place and art — the mutual influence which the one has had on the other — is, therefore, what has held Downie’s attention.

Downie is cautious about attempting to pin down her ‘influences’ more specifically, pointing to the multi-layered nature of any definition, its subjective individual quality and the fact that exploring the nature of influence also formed part of the basis for The Coast Road Diaries:

[I have an] interest in the nature of influence …sometimes people ask you who influences you.  And usually ….I find it extremely difficult to answer.  And I am extremely reluctant to say ‘well it’s the… vigorous line drawing of so and so, and it’s the painterliness of so and so, and it’s the real zest for life of someone else.  And it’s the rule of so-and-so….and the act of disobedience by someone else, and the example of lifestyle of someone else’…as everyone knows… those things are like saying ‘well being alive on the planet Earth is what influenced me’.

That said, Downie does cite specific examples of how visual thought, communication and culture affected her development as an artist:

… Edward Hopper … that emptiness…or … Rembrandt or [other] people that are so obvious that you don’t talk about them.  [others]… like Tony Hart and Rolf Harris…I was an American kid, I came to this country and television and what you saw on it was your little window into what other people did. So I didn’t have a hierarchy of influence. It wasn’t until I went to art school that I was told these people are supposed to influence you.  So I suppose that’s what I mean by looking at the recent past, … I need to look just behind me.  So these women and these men are not so much older than me, they’re still doing stuff, a lot of them, and if they’re not still doing stuff they’re still being appraised and I’m part of that appraisal.

In the democratic spirit of the American Pop artists, Downie’s range of influence embraced not only visual culture, but the visual generally. Her way of seeing and looking was also informed by a non-hierarchical vision, or what Downie refers to quite specifically as her ‘open-gaze policy’ .

Such an approach is frequently reflected in Downie’s art — evolving from her early work in Paris where she sat literally instreet junctions and intersections in the midst of bustling urban life to a recent residency in Karmøy, Norway, where again she positioned herself and her drawing materials in the midst of an intersection (this time on an Oselvar rowing boat) better to record events around her.  Discussing this approach, Downie has observed that,

…the junction is where everybody who belongs to a place passes over at some point, so there is a kind of…collected ownership of that place. …the intangibility of drawing a junction always attracts me hugely, that there’s apparently nothing there…

In the current project a work such as ‘Full Tide’ completed in the north-east coastal village of Gardenstown (or Gamrie) in the winter of 2009 further illustrates such an approach. The impression is not of looking at the sea and heavily-laden sky, the cautious, gabled-ended village, the restless greyness of the Moray Firth with a band of unbroken light just in the westerly horizon but, rather, of being within the scene. Just as the artist seems to be straddling the concrete road and the blue-grey sea so we, the viewers, seem to straddle the representation of a reality and reality itself.

Downie herself terms such works not as ‘seascape’, ‘landscape’, ‘townscape’ or ‘skyscape’ but rather as ‘edgescape’ – thus positioning them at the periphery of notice and experience.  These are places where the road ends, most often giving on to the sea. Although it is tempting to see such an approach as symbolic, it rarely, if ever, is. Downie is an artist whose vision is firmly rooted in actuality. It is worth noting an observation made by the critic Cordelia Oliver in respect of Eardley, for the same may also be said of Downie herself:

…in spite of the obvious emotional charge invested in her late canvases (those grapplings with the immensities of earth and air and water and sun) …Eardley was essentially a factual painter, neither fanciful nor romantic…subjective-seeming responses to the elemental tumult beyond the cliffs of Catterline are found to contain unmistakable points of topographical reference.

Like J.M.W. Turner and Joan Eardley before her, Downie believes that only by total immersion in an experience and place can it be done justice; her work is not solely about representing a place but conveying a deeper, wider experience of it.  Her straddling of the concrete in Gamrie in the middle of winter and depicting it as seen is the equivalent of Turner strapping himself to a ship’s mast in the midst of a storm, or of Eardley painting on the shore in equally bad weather.

This approach was adopted to a greater or lesser extent by most of the other artists here. Frances Walker, for example, has exhibited landscapes on large portable panels so that the experience of looking at her work and thus the work’s relationship to objective reality has been crucially transformed.

One may also cite the example of Muirhead Bone, who although a seemingly impassive observer does convey – in work such as ‘The Great Gantry, Charing Cross’ (1906) – his closeness to his subject matter, his intimate knowledge of it and, by turns, his emotional involvement with it.  Like Downie’s (although the comparison might seem at first odd) Bone’s, at its best,  is deeply affecting work.

The sheer scope and ambition of Downie’s The Coast Road Diaries — involving an investigation of the work of eight artists over a two-and-half-year period, in a ‘journey’ or more accurately series of journeys — make a description and blow-by-blow account of events an impossibility. However, it is clear that a number of important themes have emerged over the course of Downie’s project.

One of these is the idea of dichotomy. Almost all of the artists here, to some extent or other — including Downie herself — have an element of this in their work. With Low, Eardley, Wishart and Walker, and even Bone, there is an oscillation between the urban and the rural; or between the constructed world and the natural. Barns-Graham, although predominantly concerned with the geometries and underlying structure of natural form, has dwelt from time to time on the architectural — while the work of Sutter Watt also exhibits such a polarity. Sutter Watt was selected by Shell to record some of the company’s activities in Port Glasgow; so, although far better known as a lyrical painter of landscape, still-life and seascape, his scope extended beyond this to the world of the constructed and the engineered.

Downie’s subject matter therefore inherits such dichotomies and expands upon them; although largely un-peopled, her work nevertheless rarely, if ever, fails to record a human presence. And while her subject matter here embraces the rawness of the cold winter sea or the desolation of two days spent alone on a grave-yard island (Eilean Munde on Loch Leven) the fact that we are presented with views through windows or, even windscreens, makes the mediation of the human an important factor in Downie’s work.

As Downie has noted, The Coast Road Diaries has been a project with various unknowable outcomes or outcomes which may be only partly perceived or understood. One of these relates to what she refers to as a ‘personal art history’. At it simplest this has been about discovering and to some extent documenting the effects and influences these artists have exerted on her work. Downie has to some extent recorded this experience here. However, it is worth noting her particular ‘relationship’ with Eardley and her work. Downie never met Eardley as the latter died when Downie was a young child and still living in North Carolina. However, as an art student in Aberdeen under the guidance of Frances Walker and Sylvia Wishart, Downie was keenly aware of Eardley’s reputation, legacy and ‘presence’. Realising increasingly in later years that she shared some of Eardley’s concerns, Downie avoided visiting Catterline — the village on the east coast twelve miles south of Aberdeen where Eardley lived between 1956 and her death in 1963. It is important to note, however, that this did not mean an eschewal of Eardley’s work and what it generously had to give to the younger artist. The issue revolved around place and particularly Eardley’s relationship to it:

I had made a specific point … before this journey, The Coast Road Diaries, never to visit Catterline…and specifically never to make work there. And the more people who said ‘oh have you never been to Catterline’, I’d go ‘well, actually not, because what would I say that hadn’t [already] been said so brilliantly?’…. [Eardley] influences the way that you would look at a particular coastline…and although I’m a figurative artist, I’m always interested in the conceptual side of how we interpret landscape or seascape or faces or buildings or anything.

Downie’s points are important and require scrutiny. She clearly felt that Eardley’s vision and way of looking were somehow definitive and could not be bettered. Eardley’s stature was such, and her abilities as an artist so formidable, that revisiting Catterline for the purposes of making art would be a futile, counter-productive, and perhaps even humiliating exercise. Downie was not the first artist to have to deal with the legacy of another artist of great stature. Since J.M.W. Turner painted what was wrongly thought to be the Bass Rock in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, that subject matter has undoubtedly proved problematic for generations of artists. Numerous examples of this ‘syndrome’ appear elsewhere.

In fact, the decision to visit Catterline near the outset of the present project proved a fruitful and energising experience resulting in some of Downie’s most successful work. It gave the project momentum and helped to shape it.  The three ink drawings, ‘Bird Watching in Catterline’, (1-3) made in June 2007 present views from Downie’s camper-van across and around Catterline Bay. Although it may be tempting to see these works as ‘sketches’ (with that term’s connotation of the preparatory) they are in fact carefully constructed, finished works (using three types of ink) and as such allow a number of crucial observations to be made about Downie’s approach.

All are views through a rectangular window and implicitly recall the work of Sylvia Wishart. But they also offer an apt metaphor for The Coast Road Diaries. The project itself is about Downie looking at the work of other artists through the prism or lens of her own art and experience, and reciprocally looking or re-looking at her own work after the experience of place and work which these artists offered. In the first of the three, Catterline Bay is seen through the window of the Hymer van and is inscribed: “Willow warblers and common gulls looking east from Catterline”.

It is as if Downie is tentatively edging toward a direct encounter with Eardley, for the ‘view’ is partially obscured by a shrubby tree, and despite the inscription, it is a lone gull which inhabits the sky in this image. In numbers 2 and 3 of this series, Downie directs her gaze northwards, towards Catterline harbour, the cliffs and beyond that to the ‘Watchie’ (one of the buildings used by Eardley as a studio).  It is a view to which Eardley herself devoted considerable attention and is represented in paintings such as ‘Winter Sea IV’. Downie’s perspective is taken from a point on the road which leads from the cliff-top cottages down to the harbour. As if to eliminate any doubt that the view has been made from the road itself, Downie has included a triangular road-sign which indicates the danger of falling rocks. The image of the sign is closely juxtaposed with the image of the ‘Watchie’ – and in both cases sign dwarfs dwelling.

What does this tell us about Downie’s approach, her vision, and her stance in respect of Eardley? Downie has commented on what she describes as her ‘open-gaze policy’ and her ‘non-hierarchical vision’. These images are clearly part of this way of looking, for she has stressed that it is not so much the medium in which she works or the style or method of her approach but where she directs her gaze which is the most important element in her work:

…you don’t really need to make things up, you simply have to allow everything in…I’m choosing to look at the solidity of the silhouette… there’s little comments to be made [about] the relationship between the past and the present. I’m almost coming to Catterline in a historical context but by including these symbols… I’m bringing it up to the here and now… by creating the window effect I’m placing myself as … [a] …tourist … I’m always really interested in that relationship.

A common tendency in this context would be the deliberate exclusion of the road-sign as representative of, perhaps, modernity or visual ‘clutter’. Indeed this approach was practised in Catterline by Eardley herself.  But to Downie the inclusion of the sign is crucial and stands firmly at the centre of her approach to image making. To Downie, everything which comes within the scope of her vision has an equal status and thus fits within her ‘non-hierarchical’ artistic view of the visual world. This way of looking was partly encouraged by both Wishart’s and Walker’s ‘deep-looking’ – their landscapes often include elements such as telegraph poles as a form of vertical ‘punctuation’ in work necessarily dominated by horizontals. Downie explains:

I always remember expressing frustration at what was left out in … the cliché of landscape and getting very cross with the fact that things like…telegraph poles or cars were ignored in the context of things.  [The] artist’s job on one level is…to introduce people to…their own truth … there’s always a game between what you are fed in the picturesque image and…the reality…by completely, continuously updating what is really out there you help people to assimilate a full view of their own role…

Downie further explored these ideas with a series of monoprints in which the framing device of the window is developed. In most, the road-sign is not only visible but is the dominant compositional element of the image.  It was this way of looking which allowed her to approach Eardley’s legacy in all its forms. Thus, Eardley’s vision has not obscured Downie’s but is complementary to it. This series reaches an accomplished and powerful conciliation in Downie’s  ‘The Watchie Path’ —where Eardley’s cottage, although partially obscured, is seen as an element with equal compositional status to the sea, sky, vegetation and pathway which comprise the image.

It is clear, therefore, that through her approach to Eardley, Downie has also been able to contextualise her own work in relation to that of the other artists here. The result is a series of powerful, exciting and absolutely fresh images. While acknowledging her debt to past and living artists, Downie has nevertheless succeeded in her primary purpose —to create a personal art history, at once unique but deeply aware of its antecedents.

Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89

Oilwork
January 2014

Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89

Introduction

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.

[ILUSTRATION]

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.

GILES SUTHERLAND,

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

[4]ibid.

[5]ibid

[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