The Scottish Gallery – “Contemporary Art since 1842” – has always been an independent and innovative leader, promoting female Scottish artists in an era when women were treated with such disrespect, regardless of talent and training, unable to join many professional Societies. In 1885, Sir William Fettes Douglas, president of the Royal Scottish Academy, described the work of female artists as ‘like a man’s, only weaker and poorer’ – women were not fully admitted to the RSA until 1952.
Celebrating over a century of Modern Masters Women are twenty artists across the generations, from Anne Redpath, born 1895, to Hannah Mooney, born 1995, featuring floral studies, seascapes, still life sketches, portraiture, prints, drawings and abstract works.
The Scottish Gallery exhibition for the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 highlighted the work of Anne Redpath, renowned for evocative landscapes from Scotland to the South of France, and colourful domestic scenes. Anemones depicts her trademark ‘two dimensional’ design, with a vase of delicate flowers set on a pink, coral and green tablecloth.
Flowers in a Jug expresses the fragility of petals with masterly brush strokes – her textural technique also made use of a palette knife or the end of a brush with impressionistic effect.
Two retrospective shows last year celebrated Victoria Crowe’s distinguished fifty-year career. Here are paintings, mixed media and prints focussing on her symbolic observation of the natural world. From Dusk to Wakening is a mystical, meditative scene of bare winter trees in shifting light, from eerie darkness of night to glimmer of dawn.
Christine McArthur clearly has a passion for pattern, as seen in a charming series of ink drawings, such as Coffee pot, pears and Espresso cup. The humorously entitled Owing to the Weather, I Painted Tulips is like a colourful geometric collage of shapes against a mustard-gold background.
As an illustrator of children’s books, Emily Sutton composes richly decorative still life watercolours and screenprints of flowers, fruit and feathers – the intricate figures and animals on ceramic jugs are highly accomplished, as in French Lemons and Sailor’s Farewell.
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder is best known for her ‘portraits’ of sleeping cats as well as delicately crafted paintings of tulips, irises and lilies which flourish in her garden. Mixed Flowers in a Jug – from each slender stamen to luminous leaf, this is such a graceful botanical study in poetic harmony.
In contrast to pastel drawings of Glasgow street kids, the Catterline, Aberdeenshire shoreline with its vast sea and sky was a major, recurring subject for Joan Eardley; she stood for hours at her weighted easel on the village’s windy beach, to observe the changing colours in stormy weather. The dramatic mood and powerful energy in The Wave is chillingly atmospheric, the canvas, no doubt, splattered with salt spray from the splash of white froth swirling in the grey mist.
Her friend Lilian Neilson was also inspired by this wild, magical place, as depicted in Cottages on the Coast, a pastoral scene of the curving cliff-top village looking out to sea.
With Impressionist style, Northern Landscape by Bet Low depicts lapping waves, distant islands and streak of rain on the horizon with such subtle, serene, shimmering, luminosity.
Hannah Mooney graduated from the GSA in 2017 and has already shown exceptional ability in portraying the quiet, calm beauty of loughs and coastline of her native Ireland. With its horizontal layers of thickly smudged tones in grey-greens, creamy buttermilk, dark mocha, Seascape II is such a hypnotic, dreamlike and tranquil scene.
With a fascination for city environments and industrial structures, Kate Downie was ideally suited to be Artist in Residence artist for the 50th anniversary of the Forth Road Bridge, and then documented the new, elegantly-designed Queensferry Crossing. New Day Crossing illustrates the sweep of the approach road from her viewpoint as passenger, sitting high up in the cab of a lorry. With a menacing rain cloud and headlights blazing, it clearly conveys the experience of driving on a dark, wet day, with a shadowy glimpse of this majestic new bridge ahead.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was a member of the St Ives School, a key figure in developing Modernist British painting in the mid-twentieth century. She had the unusual gift of synaesthesia, inventing her own abstract language to reflect the natural environment of the rocky Cornish landscape. The precise discipline of structural composition is evident in works from the Scorpio series and Vision in Time III; vibrant patterns of interlocking blocks, diagonal stripes and floating circles lost in space, with such a mesmerising sense of movement and free flowing, emotional expression. ‘My theme is celebration of life, joy, the importance of colour, form, space and texture. Brushstrokes that can be happy, risky, thin, fat, fluid and textured.’ – Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
In total, the exhibition comprises the following artists: Anne Redpath (1895 – 1965), Lily Cottrell (1896 – 1984), Winifred McKenzie (1905 – 2001), Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912 – 2004), Joan Eardley (1921 – 1963), Bet Low (1924 – 2007), Barbara Balmer (1929 – 2017), Mardi Barrie (1930 – 2004), Pat Douthwaite (1934 – 2002), Sylvia Wishart (1936 – 2008), Lilian Neilson (1938 – 1998); Elizabeth Blackadder, Victoria Crowe, Kate Downie, Claire Harkess, Angie Lewin, Christine McArthur, Hannah Mooney, Emily Sutton and Frances Walker.
The Gallery is presenting a Modern Masters Women Events Programme, online, to accompany this exhibition, and a brochure is available at the Gallery and on the website.
Note the Gallery asks visitors to arrange an appointment in advance, except for walk-ins on Saturday mornings. I arranged an appointment for the opening day of the exhibition at 1pm, Wednesday 29th July. Outside on the front step is a smart chrome sanitiser pump, well-located to use before entering. During the hour I was there, browsing around the very spacious gallery on two floors, there were three other visitors, so social distancing is easily managed. Staff and visitors were all wearing masks. It was an absolute pleasure and a cultural treat to be able to visit the Scottish Gallery, open again to launch this special August exhibition.
Closed Mondays, open Tuesday – Friday 10am – 6pm (by appointment only), Saturday 11am – 1pm (walk-ins welcome). Closed Sundays.
With grateful thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.
Image: Kate Downie, ‘New Day Crossing’, oil on canvas