Publication: Commissioned by Richard Demarco
PROFESSOR RICHARD DEMARCO, OBE coined the phrase ‘the artist as explorer’ as a convenient metaphor and short-hand to describe the artist’s process of inner journeying. Its coining has been accompanied by another, now highly familiar metaphorical credo embodied in the somewhat enigmatic phrase ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’.1 These metaphors, conjuring journeys and explorations, refer to the internal path as a necessary accompaniment to the real, physical external journey of the kind Demarco has organised and participated in over several decades, beginning with the remarkable ‘Edinburgh Arts’ journeys of the early 1970s – such as To Callanish from Hagar Qim 2 – which sought to introduce the contemporary European avant-garde to the pan-European Neolithic tomb-builders and stone-circle makers.
But any artist worth their salt is on a constant journey of exploration, irrespective of the externality of their physical existence; in Demarco’s words such an artist is “never off-duty”. And in a very real sense this notion is also true of Demarco himself. Like his great mentor, the eminent twentieth century German artist, Joseph Beuys, Demarco draws no distinction between ‘life’ and ‘work’; for Demarco, his life is his work and his work is his life.
Scornful of the idea of leisure and entertainment, he believes passionately that time for him is so precious that it cannot be used in any other way other than for creativity. A fervent recorder, Demarco uses the media of photography and drawing to ‘hold the precious moment’ which otherwise would slip through his fingers.
Demarco’s use of both these methods of ‘arresting time’ are well known but neither have received the scrutiny they deserve; nor have the links between both – in Demarco’s method of working – been adequately described or analysed. Nowhere is the link more obvious, perhaps, than an ink sketch executed in one of Demarco’s hallmark techniques showing Joseph Beuys “considering ill-advised forestry” [illustrate with photograph and drawing].
The drawing derives from a photograph taken by Demarco of Beuys on the latter’s first visit to Scotland in May 1970 (such works are now described by Demarco and others as ‘event photography’). Comparison shows what might almost be a tracing of the main elements of the photograph. Elsewhere there is an image such as the silkscreen print Burghead Harbour (1996) and its ‘companion piece’ Tall Ships Passing Cruden Bay (1991) which appear to derive their perspectival technique from the wide angle lens. But, additionally, this is a more accurate rendition of what and how the human eye actually sees. It is a way of seeing which Demarco shares with a number of others, most noticeably fellow Royal Scottish Academician Kate Downie3 who has coined the term ‘democracy of seeing’ to describe her all-encompassing vision. Demarco’s work, in subject matter, technique, tradition and texture can therefore be contextualised not only in relation to Downie but also her teachers Sylvia Wishart4 and Frances Walker5 – both of whom delighted in the drawn ink line, and the architectural and landscape opportunities afforded by Scotland’s coastline. [illustrate with works by Wishart, Walker and Downie]
In compositional terms there are a number of other useful comparisons which can be made between Demarco’s drawings and aspects of photography. Both media share the notion of framing, and examining Demarco’s images, time and again one is reminded of the close cropping and intense focus on a given subject which such a process implies. It is perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that because Demarco has spent a great deal of time over the years composing photographs via the camera’s viewfinder that this has necessarily influenced his eye as an artist.
In conversation with Demarco it is clear that he feels intensely proud of his own achievements as an artist
Draughtsman; he is also, perhaps, perplexed at the scant critical attention these works have received. One
explanation for this may be the simple fact that his numerous others activities, executed at a prodigious
energetic rate have eclipsed his own artistic activity. However, asked specifically why he chose not to focus
exclusively on an artistic career he replies:
…. a career in the Scottish art world would lead me nowhere. I would end up being imprisoned within the Scottish art world history of Scottish art. I had to belong to a world which was a true world of art and which was the international art world, and I had to link myself with the English art world which produced great artists in a great tradition who painted the kind of things that I love. People like Christopher Wood and the artists connected with St Ives.6
In this context, Demarco also mentions the work of Eric Ravilious,7 Edward Bawden8 and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham9 as being highly influential. [illustrate with works by Ravilious, Bawden and Barns-Graham]
Returning to look closely at Demarco’s works, it is clear that the themes of working environments, especially coastal areas such as harbours, are a theme which re-occurs on numerous occasions. Like Beuys, Demarco cherishes the working environment over the sanitised ‘art-space’; thus places which used to captivate him, such as Musselburgh harbour, which he knew from early boyhood now no longer hold his interest because the working world of fishermen has been replaced by a leisure industry of “plastic boats”. What is less obvious about Demarco’s drawings is the hidden compositional ideas they contain. Discussing this idea, Demarco comments:
I’m conscious of how important a drawing is, a mark is, which is a drawing. For example in making the four boats together there I have created a sculpture. It could be, if I enlarged that, and put the whole thing together three-dimensionally, I’d have created a sculpture. I believe that these were more important sculptures in the history of Scotland’s sculpture, made by fishermen and fisher-folk living in Preston Pans, Musselburgh and places like that, that they were truly part of the history of the art that we call Scottish art.10
The unframed pencil drawing which Demarco discusses here [illustrate] therefore contains ideas about composition, focus and structure which are not immediately obvious. Such observations can also be extended to numerous examples of Demarco’s ‘streetscapes’ which show his interest in the tightly packed buildings of a world constructed without architects, such as the Aberdeen fishing village of Fitee (Footdee) [illustrate]
I am creating an energy …. so it’s not an illustration. I’m creating an energy. It’s also my love affair with real architecture without the stupid architects getting involved. No architects involved here. I suppose there were simple ordinary architects involved here but you see the shacks for the fishermen? ….It’s an organic form… and I’m concentrating for example on the abstract nature of pavements…11
Richard Demarco is a remarkable man and a remarkably good artist. A draughtsman with a keen eye and a fascination for curious detail, his instantly recognisable work has a loyal following. Largely ignored by the critics it deserves more attention than space allows here. Let us hope that the future will bring these opportunities for greater exploration and discussion.
GILES SUTHERLAND, 17 April 2011
* Giles Sutherland is a writer and critic. He is a regular contributor on the visual arts for The Times
1 ‘The road to Meikle Seggie’ is Demarco’s metaphor for the artist’s journey through life. Meikle Seggie is a farm on the eastern fringes of the Ochil Hills and may have been on a route from Central Scotland to the Grampians and beyond.
2 From Hagar Qim to Callanish was the name given to one of Demarco’s Edinburgh Arts journeys which took place in the mid 1970s. Involving several scores of artists, writers, architects and other cultural practitioners, it sought to establish connections – archaeological, spiritual, cultural, material – amongst a number of significant sites, from Hagar Qim, Malta in the south and Callanish, Lewis in the north.
3 Kate Downie (b. 1958 ) Scottish artist
4 Sylvia Wishart (1936-2008) Scottish artist
5 Frances Walker (b. 1930 ) Scottish artist
6 Richard Demarco interviewed by Giles Sutherland 23rd February, 2011
7 Eric William Ravilious (1903 –1942) English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver.
8 Edward Bawden, CBE, RA (1903 – 1989) English painter, illustrator and graphic artist
9 Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) Scottish abstract painter
10 Richard Demarco interviewed by Giles Sutherland 23rd February, 2011