Sylvia Wishart

January 2012

Publication: The Times

The artist Sylvia Wishart, who died in 2008, arguably came to wider public attention through her collaboration with fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown on the writer’s poetic history, An Orkney Tapestry, which was published in 1969.  Wishart’s fine, sparse but evocative drawings acted as the perfect counterpart to Mackay Brown’s deft and measured prose, helping to capture the islands’ underlying sense and spirit of place.


A version of show opened in 2011 under the title The Lamp in the Seaward Window at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (an organisation which Wishart was instrumental in helping to establish). Here, assembled en masse for the first time, were Wishart’s prints, sketches, drawings and paintings from the 60s until shortly before her death.


They reveal an artist of great technical skill with an assured sense of composition and a confident handling of paint. In her latter works, especially, there is a greater sense of experimentation as well as metaphysical enrichment.


Wishart trained at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen (where she later taught) and her work reflects the school’s principles of solid observation and technical mastery.


Although Wishart’s subject matter seldom, if ever, included the urban, the industrial or the clutter of contemporary life neither did she shy away from depicting the reality of things, as she saw them. An island landscape might well include abandoned vehicles or electricity poles. These vertical structures were necessary elements in compositions that were dominated by the horizontals of fields, walls and buildings. 


A whole series of works is devoted to the wreck of Norwegian trawler Northolmen that was wrecked on the rocks near Stromness kirkyard in 1966. Not typically picturesque, these works offer perspectives and pictorial combinations unachievable in reality. They afford an insight into Wishart’s evolving sensibility, which was increasingly able to look below the surface of things to imagined spaces and presences.


Wishart’s home, Heatherybraes on the outskirts of Stromness, overlooks the sound of Hoy, the cliffs of St John’s Head and, in the distance, the mountains of Sutherland.


This ever-changing vista with its infinite combination of light and weather as seen through her large seaward window provided Wishart with a never-ending source of subject matter. Much of her painting from the 80’s onwards included the reality of this moody seascape combined with reflections and other elements, real or imagined, such as a ship in a bottle perched on her windowsill, birds and various sailing craft.


Some paintings contain a ‘painting within a painting’ by depicting the reflection of the work in progress, as seen by the artist in her window. She is thus, in a very real sense, depicting not only what she sees through the glass but also what is on it.


In her lifetime, Wishart achieved that rare thing:  genuinely popular success and critical recognition.