A River of Imagination – Duncan Shanks at The Scottish Gallery Edinburgh

Duncan Shanks, 'Flowing Fast'
Duncan Shanks, 'Flowing Fast'

The Riverbank – A Landscape of Sorrow and Hope

Tue - Fri 11:00 - 16:00, Sat 11:00 - 14:00

From: 28 Jul 2022

To: 27 Aug 2022

The Scottish Gallery
16 Dundas Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Having lived in Crossford in the Clyde Valley for 60 years, Duncan Shanks finds inspiration in the constant energy of the river which flows past his house and garden, the lapping water an ever-present soundtrack. The tranquillity of the seashore and riverside has also long been the theme for enchanting poetry and stories to capture our imagination.   

I beg your pardon,’ said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. ‘but all this is so new to me. So this is a River!’ ‘The River,’ corrected the Rat. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.’ – The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame.

On daily walks along the river during the isolating days of the pandemic lockdown, the artist would sketch numerous scenes to relate the ever-changing story of a wild, natural environment. 

Duncan Shanks sketching beside the river
Duncan Shanks sketching beside the river

The treelined bank is lush in August, stark in winter with only bare brittle bones of the summer’s growth, wild roses twisting through branches of larch and cherry.’ – Duncan Shanks

From the viewpoint of standing on the grassy bank, there’s a glimpse of the flowing stream visible through the twisted branches, green leaves and flourishing pink buds in Wild Roses.

Duncan Shanks, 'Wild Roses'
‘Wild Roses’

Likewise, a delightful flourish of wild daisies and yellow flowers in Summer Garden. The gnarled bark of a tree, its tangle of tendrils trailing in every direction, bends over beside the river, the sun dappling the water.  

Duncan Shanks, 'Summer Garden'
‘Summer Garden’

Shanks has an astute eye to depict the glimmer of light from dawn to dusk, through hazy skies, stormy clouds, moody misty days and a night lit by a full moon. With Monet-esque quality, an early morning glow shimmers between the branches in Sunrise III. 

Duncan Shanks, 'Sunrise III', acrylic on paper
‘Sunrise III’

Observing the end of the day too, here are gloomy shadows at dusk and darkness descending with dramatic mood. A most enchanting scene is Midnight, rather like an illustration for a children’s storybook – the flight of an owl illuminated by flickering stars and a crescent moon. 

Duncan Shanks, 'Midnight', acrylic on canvas

As the year rolls on relentlessly through the seasons, the warmth of summer glides into the golden palette of autumn and cold wet weather: a deluge of rain seems to have caused a spate, the brisk movement of the current, captured in Flowing Fast, along the river.  

Duncan Shanks, 'Flowing Fast'
‘Flowing Fast’

Verging on abstract expressionism, this is a powerful splash of red, yellow and green foliage against the swirling fluidity of the flood of translucent blue water.    

‘The instinct to control the scribbles, drips and blobs that spread across the paper – I gradually find the river images, in search of that elusive moment when paint and nature come together.’ – Duncan Shanks

A mesmerising pattern of scribbled, wavy lines and ad-hoc dots creates a delicate, cool composition: the reflection of trees on the surface of the water with ziz-zag cracks of ice and a gentle sprinkle of snowflakes sets the scene of a chilly winter’s day.   

Duncan Shanks, 'Ice'

These reflective, poetic paintings explore the world of untamed nature with artistic imagination on an immersive journey along this riverbank, a landscape of peace and tranquillity, light and beauty.   

There is a well-illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition which includes an extract from this poem by T S Eliot.  

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree.

T S Eliot, from Little Gidding.

The exhibition forms part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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