A Jazzy Trio at Edinburgh’s Heriot Gallery

Ruaridh Crighton, 'Just One More Breath', acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvaston, 'Just One More Breath', acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas
Ruaridh Crighton, 'Just One More Breath', acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas

Ruaridh Crighton, Craig Jefferson, Anna Davies

Mon - Fri 10:00 - 17:00, Sat 10:00 - 16:00, or by appointment

From: 17 Mar 2022

To: 12 Apr 2022

Heriot Gallery
20a Dundas St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Dazzling with vibrant colour, this exhibition by three figurative artists is described by the curators as reminiscent of Bebop jazz music, exploring in painterly terms an innovative, deconstructed form of composition.  

Ruaridh Crichton, 'Shores of Desire', acrylic on canvas
Ruaridh Crighton, ‘Shores of Desire’, acrylic on canvas

The clarity of draughtsmanship and life drawing is immediately evident in the figurative work of Edinburgh artist Ruaridh Crighton, but ‘jazzed’ up with a dramatic, sweeping wash of rainbow colours. The striking woman in Shores of Desire literally shimmers in a wave of sea blues and greens which define her forehead, chin, mouth and supermodel cheek bones beautifully. The shards of light focus on her glistening eyes, staring into the distance in a thoughtful, mesmerising gaze. 

Ruaridh Crichton, 'Just One More Breath', acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas
Ruaridh Crighton, ‘Just One More Breath’, acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas

Apparently, his starting point is to fill the canvas with a splattered layer of paint, through which the portrait gradually emerges. A dark, thickly-textured backdrop demonstrates this technique for Just One More Breath with its contrasting palette of amber, coral and indigo in a richly patterned mosaic. This is truly ‘breathtaking’, the girl’s long, slender hands hiding her eyes as if in despair, while the silky sheen of gold leaf accentuates the strands of hair, slender curve of her shoulders and smooth skin. Just as Warhol reimagined Boticelli’s Venus afresh in pop art, the golden halo effect here illustrates a modern Renaissance goddess, as if framed in a stained glass window.

Ruaridh Crichton, 'Golden Vine', acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas
Ruaridh Crighton, ‘Golden Vine’, acrylic, charcoal and gold leaf on canvas

Gold leaf is also an essential medium in Golden Vine, to depict a tattoo or, as the title suggests, the twisting stems of a plant which encircle the arm, hip and leg of a nude figure, her back arched like the Ustrasana yoga position. Her body is smeared in mottled shades of acrylic – akin to the Bond girl, Jill Masterson lying covered in gold paint on a hotel bed in Goldfinger.  

In an Edinburgh Fringe play last year, Pip Utton brilliantly portrayed the flamboyant artist, Francis Bacon, renowned for deformed figures and portraits with raw emotional intensity. Formerly from Wales, Anna Davies is based in Nottingham, influenced by the people who she sees around the city to devise a series of portraits, also curious, contorted representations for thought-provoking, dramatic effect.

Anna Davies, 'End of the Pier', oil and collage on board
Anna Davies, ‘End of the Pier’, oil and collage on board

End of the Pier pictures a smartly-dressed gentleman sits on a bench, presumably looking out to sea. In a rather disturbing image, he has a bulbous nose, his eyes reduced to blue and blood red streaks which reflect a feeling of loss and sadness. His bony fingers are clasped together in a heart shape. Who is he thinking of in this solitary moment on the pier? 

Anna Davies 'Landscape', oil and collage on board
Anna Davies ‘Landscape’, oil and collage on board

When Davies finishes each work, she uses the same paint and brush to start a new subject as a sequential connection between paintings. Another enigmatic portrait is Landscape in which a girl or boy with a stud, (pearl?) earring is slouched over a table, the face hidden by a mop of hair composed of strips of newspaper, an essential symbol of communication. While we cannot see a facial expression, the gesture of chin resting on long fingers, creates a mournful, melancholic mood.  

Anna Davies, 'Hunstanton Sundown', oil and collage on board
Anna Davies, ‘Hunstanton Sundown’, oil and collage on board

Hunstanton is a seaside resort in Norfolk, known for its striped cliffs and stunning sunsets across the Wash. Hunstanton Sundown shows the profile of a bald-headed figure, a black ‘mask’ covering eyes and nose with scraps of newspaper immersed in the oil paint over face and jacket; spot the small dot of the sinking sun over the horizon. The elongated mouth and chin are perhaps a reminder of Munch’s iconic self portrait of his ‘infinite scream,’ at sunset – the anxiety of the human condition. Rather like exaggerated, eccentric caricatures, Davies hides any aspect of true identity to get under the person’s skin. With surreal imagination, these soulful portraits capture the fractured emotions, sense of vulnerability and solitude of these faceless people. 

Inspired by the pioneering, figurative artists, Matisse, Bonnard, Cezanne and Auerbach, Craig Jefferson focuses on ‘head studies’ based on self-portraits, to question what it means to be human, to interpret and understand the human figure, thought and mind. Having studied art in Edinburgh, he now lives in Northern Ireland. He began painting his children following home school time during the pandemic lockdown. Studying their faces gave a deeper understanding through the eyes of both an artist and father, ‘celebrating the joy of family and difficult times.’

The prestigious Scottish Portrait Awards are open to anyone over 16 years born, living or studying in Scotland. In 2021, Jefferson won third prize for his portrait of his son, Jamie: ‘He was the most impatient sitter so it had to be fast and intuitive, offering a refined glace into how I see him.’ 

Craig Jefferson, 'Head Study III', oil on paper, pasted on board
Craig Jefferson, ‘Head Study III’, oil on paper, pasted on board

His signature technique is to apply a thick layer of oil paint to the canvas, giving an extraordinary depth and texture, such as in Head Study III, with a marvellous, mish-mash of swirls and squiggles to denote a rather pink blushed face, blue sky and red jumper. The blurred, smudged facial features – a tangled mass of hair, dark, hollow eyes and slit of a mouth – create a look of serious concentration but also reveals a lively personality in this quiet, sensitive study.  

Craig Jefferson, 'Douglas II', oil on paper, pasted on panel
Craig Jefferson, ‘Douglas II’, oil on paper, pasted on panel

A charming ‘snapshot’ of Douglas II in his square blue glasses and red sweatshirt, reflects the boy’s pent-up energy, his head turned to the side as if squirming in his seat, lips pursed in a slight grimace, perhaps bored at sitting still.    

Craig Jefferson, 'Kim', oil on paper pasted on panel
Craig Jefferson, ‘Kim’, oil on paper pasted on panel

Another cool, quirky observation is Kim, with long wavy hair framing her oval face, warm brown eyes, looking wistfully at the artist and viewer. The colour palette is most inventive, with sallow skin tones depicted in a soft blue and yellow like a shaft of sunlight. The bold, broad brushstrokes may be spontaneous but capture an honest sense of character and personal narrative with a gentle poignancy. 

The analogy to Bepop jazz for this showcase of dynamic, imaginative portraits is most apt: a masterclass on the cool, contemporary art of free-flowing, expressive improvisation.      

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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