Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
2 April–30 June 2010
Frances Walker. A Path Along the Edge
Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen
13 March–24 April 2010
Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude
Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen
6 February–10 April 2010
by JANET McKENZIE
The major retrospective at Aberdeen Art Gallery, Place Observed in Solitude presented works, mostly paintings, including a recent suite of paintings from a journey to Antarctica in 2009. Peacock Visual Arts, where Walker was a founding member of Peacock Printmakers and has continued to produce work there for the past four decades, has shown an exhibition of prints, Frances Walker: A Path Along the Edge. The exhibition has featured old and new prints and a selection of the artist’s sketchbooks and drawings. Mostly etchings, these are often large, beautiful works that mirror the monumentality of rocks, and ancient formations in the landscape in Scotland, including the memorable and enigmatic standing stones at Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis, describing them as, “dramatic, mysterious, sculptural presences investing the landscape they stand in, with a sense of history and providing a powerful reminder of the people who previously lived there”.1 The Royal Scottish Academy is showing Works on Paper, stating: “She has spent her entire career documenting the landscape and plight of the communities of the Highlands. Her work is a very prominent comment upon what Scotland has already lost in terms of the traditions of the Highlands and Islands since the clearances as well as being a voice for what we could further lose in terms of landscape and environment if the march of development and environmental change happens at its current rate.”2 Devoid of cliché or Victorian picturesque, the work of Frances Walker reveals the stratified nature of the landscape and monumental stones, with the determination of a geologist or explorer. This forensic approach is employed to uncover the ancient elements of nature, boulders that are millions of years old, through which the turmoil of history, its geology, establishes an original metaphor for the capacity for humans to reinvent themselves, and the urgency of environmental issues. I interviewed Frances Walker on the final day of her retrospective in Aberdeen.
As an exhibition Place Observed in Solitude is much more than a survey show, as a former student, Arthur Watson RSA, observed: “the first room is hung entirely with [her] new work, paintings made after the trip to the Antarctic as recently as 2007. Large and austerely beautiful canvases painted in her Aberdeen studio, these works continue an obsessive interrogation of landscape where it meets the sea; an interrogation that has slowly become less rigidly linear and more expansively atmospheric. Not however through the vacuous painterliness of so many popular responses to Scottish landscape but rather as a refined carefully modulated hymn to the particulars of location and light, the fleeting change in weather or the reflective ripple on water; the moment that can be familiar to one who spends so much time in landscape observing landscape.”3
Place Observed in Solitude is an appropriate title, for while many artists and writers address aspects of the subject, it is an essentially elusive one. Landscape, a dominant theme in Scottish culture – in literature, the visual arts and music, also dominates quotidian experience. The physicality and drama of the natural world exerts a powerful presence in everyday life colouring the individual’s philosophical outlook and spirituality. Walker has travelled a great deal, but it is the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles, a number of which are now uninhabited, that she has endowed with a unique spiritual power; her work also serves as a paradigm for environmental issues. She has worked these islands: Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Oransay, Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Barra, Fair Isle, Shetland, Orkney, Skye, Raasay, Coll,
St Kilda and Tiree. She creates landscapes there of great beauty in which the human figure is conspicuous by its absence, enabling the viewer to confront a sense of eternity that the artist experiences faced with nature, and also a certain tension before a blank canvas or etching plate. Walker’s art works are generously created; they also demand a response. Isolation as experienced by communities in far-flung parts of the Highlands and Islands, as by individuals in modern cities is a potent reality.
The works were made following visits… to some of our uninhabited islands in various locations around the Scottish coast: some far out to sea, some tidal islands, some loch islands. There were several first time visits for me and yet others were return visits but all only a tiny wee sample of what is out there for the dedicated uninhabited island visitor.
The diversity of these uninhabited Scottish islands is a constant wonder and delight for every island is unique and every visit, but especially the first visit, a magical adventure of discovery of the island itself combined with revelation of its former occupants and their lives and history and of its present day flora and fauna.
[Passing Islands] is not intended in any way as a requiem or dirge for these uninhabited islands, which have formed its subject matter, but rather as a celebration of them and the draw of lasting ongoing interest and fascination they continue to hold for many people – including me.4
In Scotland, the extremes of the seasons, from short dark days in the winter to long days with extraordinary light effects, especially in the far north (such as Orkney) inspire Frances Walker, perhaps a factor in her energy to explore remote places, and to work so assiduously indoors when required. Her luminous vision of Staffa, where the brilliant green of the grass in the sunshine there, is an accurate rendering of summer light over the western sea, in stark contrast to brooding dark storms over Skye, also captured with rare drama. The broad vista captured in the triptych, Surfers Shore (1989) painted on Tiree, where the artist has a thatched cottage (since 1979) is not a naturalistic version of the place but a slightly magical scene, caught as if floating above the exquisite coastline, only reached after a long walk through the dunes. Painted when surfing was relatively new in Tiree (soon after Walker herself had moved there) she recalls that the locals referred to them as “surfacers”, rather like hoverflies.5 Each island in the Hebrides, she points out, is extremely different, with a very different history. Water, a powerful visual feature is of great significance to the inhabitants, and to their forebears. Water is loaded with historical references, for it was used for drinking, for bathing, fish were caught from it so that the very reliance on the environment is emphasized more poignantly than in towns or cities where infrastructures for such basic human needs are so firmly established and removed from daily ritual6. The threat to the environment of the majority of the world population, who are unaware of the significance of nature’s fragile balance, is thus implied. The link with history in the Hebrides is a powerful experience in each of the islands; the loss of population in remote communities has a parallel with other sparsely populated areas all over the world. She describes the importance of her house on Tiree, where she spends part of every year:
Tiree is on the fringe of Scotland, on the fringe of Europe – a place of great glittering beaches with the wide sky, the clouds, the sea birds in flight spread in shifting mirrored reflection on the wet sand and shore pools. A place of sunshine and wild wind, rain and rainbows and magnificent sunsets, constantly changing in weather and mood – the corncrake still lives there, the primrose grows and the otter plays.
In the sea out west of Tiree the oil companies are test drilling, and the appalling thought that the magic gleaming bright beaches and the seabirds could be under spillage threat, and the possibility that has been voiced of the sea level rising due to the thinning ozone layer and engulfing most of low-lying Tiree like another Atlantis, are matters of deep concern not only for the island residents, but for everyone.7
Born in Fife, Frances Walker recalls a childhood there, before electricity, where homework was done around a central table by candlelight. She studied at the Edinburgh College of Art where she benefited from the teaching of William Gillies; while at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen she taught many students who went on to become significant artists, including Arthur Watson, Will MacLean, Alexander Fraser, Alan Robb, Joyce Cairns, “placing Frances at the centre of a continuing tradition of Scottish Painting spanning almost a century”.8 After graduating she travelled in Europe (1953–54), on travelling scholarships from the Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy, including the Albertine in Vienna. Her early work shows the influence of Pieter Brueghel, his method of recording people in a landscape – observing their activities and even their tools in minute detail, but nevertheless presenting them as part of a much greater whole “an experience which played a part in fostering her interest in hidden human presences, in ruins, in what men have left in the landscape”.9 In 1956, she took up a position as a visiting art teacher for Harris and North Uist where she stayed for two years. It was there that she developed an abiding love of the Scottish islands and since then their landscapes have been pivotal to her unique vision.
Early retirement from Gray’s School of Art, enabled Walker to find new inspiration. Ten years ago, she travelled around Scotland, visiting islands that had formerly been inhabited but are now abandoned. A series of remarkable works was produced full of an elegiac poetry of absence. In Tiree Shore, Evening (1990) is a heavily textured image that combines collagraph and watercolour, the scene is empty, but human figures are there by implication. Murdo MacDonald observes: “This theme of geography and community is right at the heart of her work. She rarely draws people, and yet few artists better imply the place of human beings as part of the ecology of the planet”.10 The Peacock exhibition of prints reveals her remarkable skill in various techniques. Her panoramic etchings, often using several plates capture the sublime in the Scottish landscape; technically they are breathtaking. Tiree Shore, in Place Observed in Solitude, combines heavyweight mount board, paper, sand, glue and a polyurethane varnish. A 7H pencil is used to cut into the paper, heavy ink is applied with a toothbrush. A unique image is taken by printing through a large press. Further, subtly different images can be made and individually tinted with watercolour.11 The process reflects the eternal flow of nature.
Drawing is central to Frances Walker’s art practice:
For me, painting – and perhaps even more drawing- has something to do with finding out, about discovering, about understanding, about trying to explain – about distilling the essence and meaning and magic from the source material.
In nearly all of my work there is frequent evidence – often ancient and long-lasting – of man’s changing influence on the environment by occupation of the landscape. It is there by implication and allusion on standing stones, ruins of crofts, fields, walls, buildings, a graveyard, washing poles, plastic rubbish on the shore, a distant boat.12
An apparently barren landscape is infused with the subtlest of human presence. Solitude implies spirituality. “Being an artist”, Walker points out, “is solitary”. Abandoned landscapes can be interrogated for signs, “a ruined house, a dot, a spot on the planet, a wee tick”. Communion with nature is Frances Walker’s gift, a feeling for “one’s miniscule place in the bigger picture”. Solitude is a necessary requirement for a seer, in order to achieve a unified relationship with nature. In picture making she finds, surfaces coalesce into something else.