Catalogue Essay from the Exhibition Seas of Crises Mon Feb 6 to – Sat Feb 18 2017 Merville Galleries London
Jill McManners: Edging Around the Seas of Crises
The Lancastrian-born artist, Jill McManners (b. 1951), first visited the Shiant Isles, in the summer of 2003. She was inspired to do so after reading Adam Nicolson’s book ‘Sea Room’ which is a poetic, auto-biographical narrative on the small archipelago, written from the perspective of Nicolson’s ownership and stewardship of the islands.
The islands, situated in the Minch, between the north coast of Skye and the Isle of Lewis, were formed by the result of volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. The tectonic plates hosting Greenland and Scotland separated, in effect creating the Atlantic. They are a highly impactful and extraordinary spectacle, rising out of the sea with cliffs up to 500-feet-high – stark and strange basaltic columnar extrusions, pounded by the endless tides and Atlantic gales.
As Nicolson notes, ‘For three years after seeing these rocks, she [Jill McManners] could not bring herself to paint them.’ It’s clear that this gap was necessary because the process of absorption was a long one. McManners had previously dealt with Hebridean landscapes but these were a more traditional treatment. A different strategy was clearly necessary to deal with the emotional, physical and visual impact of these islands. The sheer phenomenal presence of the Shiants demanded a more considered and, ultimately, meticulous response.
The closest philosophical and aesthetic parallels that I can suggest are those proposed by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who coined the terms inscape and instress. The former relates to ‘…the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity…’ while the latter is defined as ‘…the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.’ Leaving aside the theological aspects of Hopkins’ terminology, it is clear that McManners’ response was, in a sense, an epiphany – a revelatory experience, which altered her approach.
Between 1813 and 1823, the artist and printmaker, William Daniell, RA (1769 – 1837) undertook a series of journeys around the coast of the British Isles, making sketches and watercolours, which were published in a series of eight volumes, by Longmans, under the title A Voyage Round Great Britain, between 1814 and 1825. In all, the prints (specifically aquatints) numbered 308.
Daniell worked in situ, en plein air, making pencil sketches, which he annotated with details of colour and texture. In his studio in London, Daniell then combined this information into a finished aquatint. Like other etching techniques, the aquatint process is based on marking or scoring a metal plate, which holds ink. The plate is then passed through the printing press and the image is transferred to paper.
Daniell took many years to perfect this process, which is painstaking and requires a great degree of skill and technical knowledge. He was known as a ‘topographical’ and ‘marine’ artist, and his work was prized for its high competence and accuracy. In the summer of 1815, he visited the Shiant Isles, which lie in the Minch, between the north coast of Skye and the eastern seaboard of Harris. This section of his journey also included Raasay, Eigg, Rhum, Lewis, Harris and Skye, all of which are depicted in A Voyage Round Great Britain.
Daniell presents two views of the small archipelago, one entitled ‘Part of the Northern face of one of the Shiant Isles’ and the other, simply ‘Near View of one of the Shiant Isles’. The perspective of the first has been made from the shore, or very close to it, while the second, clearly, has been made from on board a vessel, from the sea. Both images present the grandeur, beauty and majesty of the huge basaltic extrusions, which form the geology of the islands; and while Daniell’s images conjure a sense of remoteness and the picturesque, they are, tellingly, peopled. This view accords with that of the present owner of the islands, Adam Nicolson:
They are not really a lonely place. That is a modern illusion. For the Shiants, the question of solitude figures only twice: once in the flowering of Columban monasticism between the seventh and tenth centuries, and once in the twentieth century. For most of their history, the Shiants were not, like some piece of Wagnerian stage scenery, lumps of rock in a hostile sea, beside which the solitary hero could exquisitely expire. They were profoundly related to the world in which they were set. Until 1901 they were almost continuously inhabited, perhaps for five thousand years.
‘Part of the Northern face of one of the Shiant Isles’ shows a number of small sailing vessels very near to the impossibly rocky coast line. Two figures are descending from the boulder strewn cliffs, laden with packs, and are making their way towards their tethered vessel. In the distance, towards the southerly horizon, a large sailing ship is anchored the Minch, surrounded by a number of smaller vessels.
In Daniell’s second print, nature is more prominent; the image is again dominated by the islands’ extraordinary geology, but large numbers of seabirds also punctuate the scene. Perhaps for scale, more than anything else, Daniell includes two or three sailing vessels, situated at the base of the 500-feet-high cliffs.
It is worth remembering that Daniell’s extraordinary topographical accuracy preceded the invention of photography by only a few years. It could be argued that such a detailed, mimetic approach anticipated the possibility of the true indices of reality that photography offered.
There is an inherent, and mysterious relationship between photography and time. Two centuries separate the imagery created by these two artists; two centuries in which an unparalleled transformation in every aspect of human thought, technological progress and scientific understanding has taken place. For example, in 1815, when Daniell first saw the islands, the theories of deep time and geological time, proposed by pioneering Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726 – 1797) had not gained universal acceptance. The idea of biblical time – the idea that the Earth was around 4,000 years old – was still widely held. The evidence regarding Daniell’s own beliefs and geological understanding is scant, but we can assume the way that he understood how the Shiant Isles were formed and their attendant age, must have differed enormously from a contemporary understanding.
The question is, how do such momentous changes in perspective and understanding manifest themselves in how Jill McManners approaches her subject? Despite the apparently ‘timeless’ quality of its subject matter, its context, genesis and perspective is exclusively contemporary.
The titles of these complex, generally large, works may give us one in-road into Jill McManners’ thinking. ‘Under the Edge’, ‘Edging in and Out’, ‘Cutting Edge’, ‘Edging Around’, ‘Keeping their Heads above the Water’, ‘Critical Mass’, ‘Critical Force’, ‘Critical Point’, ‘Blast Off’, ‘Crisis’ and ‘Blown Away’ differ markedly from Daniell’s bald, topographical nomenclature. These titles are deliberately suggestive, metaphorical, multi-layered, ambiguous. They have an equivalence to the imagery itself. For the majority of McManners’ images are, paradoxically, not located in any specific geography. These are not portraits of a series of islands; they are, rather, essays in complexity, abstraction, colour, form, tone, and texture. They marvel at time and recognise the temporal and physical scale of the processes that created the forms they depict.
Daniell’s work presents a place scaled and ‘understood’, confidently conquered and appropriated, as one might expect, given the then predominant Enlightenment attitude to nature. McManners’ imagery seems to define the mystery and depth of something both abstract and physical. McManners provides no objects such as human figures, boats, birds or other wildlife with which to scale her intensive, vibrant abstractions; there is no sky, no cloud and no weather, only the original tone of the heavy paper, which has left as ‘blank’, thereby signalling the artifice of her composition. The sea, where it appears, is depicted, mainly, as a thin, blue margin, at the bottom edge of her compositions.
Writing earlier about McManners’ I noted that “[she] shows how tides, climate and botany all affect these extraordinary sculptural forms, which soar and heave out of the Atlantic deep like cathedrals of time.”
I did not consider it then but I now realise how telling was the phrase ‘cathedrals of time,’ for there are parallels in McManners’ working methods and the processes involved in stained glass. An artist constructing a stained glass window will start with a sketch and template design which will indicate how individual pieces of painted glass are placed within an overall schema. A window, for example, is constructed using leaded profile which is fastened to a solid board. The window is built up using a predetermined process, where individual sections of painted glass are secured in the lead profile, within the overall structure. Each glass element is painted with several layers of paint and each layer is kiln-fired, so that the paint and glass are fused together. Although this is a carefully controlled process, there is room for a degree of unpredictability. It is, for example, not always possible to predict how, under different lighting conditions, the exact colour of the finished glass, once fired, will appear.
Jill McManners employs a similarly painstaking methodology. This usually starts with a photograph that is enlarged to the approximate size of the finished painting. The main compositional elements are then transferred, via sketching, by eye, to a sheet of thick tracing paper, which is marked one both sides with a pencil line. Working on one side of the tracing paper with a pencil, McManners then transfers the line to sheets brown paper tape (these sheets are made by joining three sections of tape together). Once the line is visible on the tape – chosen after a long process of trial and error because it is impermeable to water – various incisions are made along the pencil lines, using a scalpel, which makes a clean cut through the tape; the scalpel cut is then extended by hand-tearing. McManners terms these partially cut-out shapes as a ‘stencil’.
The section or ‘page’ is then placed on top of thick (600g/m2) esportazione grade Fabriano paper. At this point, McManners begins to apply paint.
She explains the process:
The great thing about painting is that if you just paint, things happen. And when you stretch your paper like this, with this brown sticky tape…when you take the paper off, if you can be bothered to look, you get all these amazing edges… So I cut a stencil with this paper. I draw that design…and I cut it out. Then I slip it along and I paint on top and it stencils through, so I get my lines. It’s a stencil on the paper. I use that stencil as a guide. I can mask it. I can go over it. It defines the area that I’m going to be in or not. When I’m painting I tip the board so the paint runs out of it or it stays in it, and that stencil is the guide for me on the paper. You can use all these edges while it’s still wet, you can tip it about and get the paint to run. 
Once an initial mark has been transferred via the stencil process, McManners then uses this as the basis for further painting. A careful examination of her paint marking reveals a highly detailed, layered construction, akin to the stained glass process. In contrast to the way watercolour has been used traditionally, in thin, translucent washes, here the paint is applied in such a way that a surface, with a discernible texture, is created. The repeated application of layers mirrors the stained glass process. In a further parallel, a close-up analysis of McManners work reveals that she has gone to great lengths to understand and depict the underlying structure of the geological formations she represents. Basalt is formed deep in the earth crust and the columnar crystalline structure is the result of slow cooling. Here McManners focuses of each columnar element in an effort to capture its nuanced and individual character. It is almost as if each angular component were itself a section of glass, placed within the overall holding structure, or window, of the painted composition. It is not difficult to imagine a talented stained-glass artist transferring, transposing, or interpreting, a McManners painting from the medium of watercolour to vitrage.
As mentioned previously, McManners’ work is neither necessarily topographical nor especially literal. These images can be taken as meditations on time itself. The time taken to produce one of these works (around 3 months) is a tribute to understanding the mystery of time and the vast geological timescales involved in the formation of these islands. A photograph may, initially, capture an indexical image, but a painting, formed over months, may capture something deeper and more complex, for it includes the particular sensibility of the artist.
It is then, perhaps best to leave the last words to Jill McManners herself:
I have been thinking about what you said. Your analogy between the quick flash of a photograph and the lava flow. The geological time to reveal the land as we see it now, and the length of time it takes me to paint the finished picture, was a great comparison. Something that I would never have come up with. I think if you put enough of yourself into the picture all sorts can be revealed to an observer that are not apparent to you. Those are the best ones.
Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ed. "Gerard Manley Hopkins." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. pg. 2159, quoted at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inscape_and_instress
A copy of Daniell’s publication was in the possession of Sir Compton Mackenzie OBE (1883-1972). Mackenzie was owner of the Shiant Isles from 1925 to 1937. With thanks to George Sutherland, who worked for Mackenzie, from 1957 to 1962.
Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life, 2002, p.12
Giles Sutherland, ‘Emotion erupts from 60 million volcanic years on Shiant Isles’ The Times, 26 April, 2016
Giles Sutherland - Interview with Jill McManners, 9 October, 2016
Jill McManners, email to Giles Sutherland, 16 October, 2016