Work: Behind the Scenes
Working from home has given many of us a chance to review what work means to us.
It’s not bad working from home. But sometimes the disconnect from the wider world feels too great. I was just at that point a fortnight ago when out of the blue came a friendly email from Alice Strang, a curator whose work will be well-known to anyone interested in Modern Scottish Painting (Google her – you’ll see) Furloughed and at a loose end, Alice was offering her insight into works in our collection. Rather than ask her to write away in isolation, we thought it would be useful to get her perspective on some questions we have been asking ourselves recently on the subject of Work. We are going to put these same questions up here on our website soon, to widen this conversation. But in the meantime, here’s Alice’s thought-provoking and refreshing perspective.
Hannah Williamson, Fine Art Curator.
How does work relate to time?
The time-consuming creative process involved in making Long Brown of 1966 by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) is clear, despite its modest size of 44.3 x 13.9cm. The textured surface ripples before our eyes as similarly-sized brown squares cluster and course across it. Sometimes closely tessellated, at others placed on a diagonal with corners touching, space between the squares expands and contracts in parallel with an ebb and flow of abstract emotion, from repression to freedom. Subtle variations in tone, shot through with areas of bare canvas, are equally disciplined and provide a further layer of movement. The elongated format has precedents in Japanese scrolls and Egyptian hieroglyphics, in which non-Western symbols can also be understood on a purely formal basis. Long Brown is a painting as much about the work and time involved in its realisation as about the effort required of the viewer to understand and appreciate it. It was purchased for the collection in 1967, shortly after it was completed.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in St Andrews, Fife in 1912. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art before moving to Cornwall in 1940, where she became a member of what is now known as the St Ives School. A pioneer of British abstraction, after inheriting a house outside St Andrews in 1960, Barns-Graham straddled the Scottish and English art worlds before her death in 2004.
Who and what do we value?
Mater Dolorosa of 1958 by Robert Colquhoun (1914-62) is a referential painting of the Virgin Mary grieving after the death of Christ. It pays homage to universal notions of maternal care and responsibility. The title means ‘sorrowful mother’ and the subject is portrayed at the base of the crucifix on which her son died, her bowed head supported by her left hand. Set in a shallow picture space and severely simplified, the anatomy of body and clothing are given equal status. Flat colour fields are enlivened by the barest suggestion of volume and shadow, concentrated on the emotional centre of Mary’s face. The pain of the loss of a child, reared, loved and supported, a source of concern, pride and companionship are described in her inconsolable expression and tragic experience of the bittersweet mother-son relationship. Mater Dolorosa was a gift from the Contemporary Art Society in 1962.
Robert Colquhoun was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire. He studied at Glasgow School of Art where he met Robert MacBryde (1913-66), with whom he lived and worked for the rest of his life. The ‘Two Roberts’, as they were known, had considerable success in London during and immediately after World War Two, including in the sphere of theatre set and costume design. However, ill-health and hard living took their toll on their creativity before Colquhoun’s death in 1962.
How does work shape identity?
A Cornish Fishwife of 1904 by Flora Macdonald Reid (1861-1938) embodies the notion of work shaping identity. An elderly woman is seen, harbourside, preparing a skate for sale. Her right-hand grips a knife with a determination at odds with the resigned expression on her face. The title refers not only to her job but also to her personal status as partner of a fisherman, in a community where personal and professional responsibilities are inseparable. Boats with hoisted sails lead the eye to buildings lit by sunshine which does not reach the subject’s workbench; seen towards the end of a harsh working life, she is at once dignified and resigned. The painting was purchased from the gallery’s twenty-first Autumn Exhibition in 1904, the year in which it was made.
Flora Macdonald Reid was born in London to Scottish parents. She trained at Edinburgh School of Art [NB not the later Edinburgh College of Art] and received lessons from her better-known brother John Robertson Reid (1851-1926). On returning to the English capital, she embarked on an international career, exhibiting from Glasgow to Paris and travelling extensively in France, Belgium and Norway; she lived in Cornwall for ten years. Although neither her technique nor subject matter are modern, as a successful woman artist Reid was a pioneer in her profession.
What’s the meaning of vocation?
William Strang’s 1912 portrait of John Masefield (1878-1967) shows the poet and writer aged thirty-four. Despite recent and considerable professional success, not least being awarded the Edmond de Polignac Prize that year, Masefield is presented as contemplative rather than triumphant. His sympathetically realised face is illuminated in an otherwise shadowy setting. His shapeless brown jacket merges with the background and his clasped hands are roughly described in his lap. The focus is on the sitter’s cerebral rather than physical abilities. The challenges Masefield overcame to follow his literary vocation, or calling, began with being orphaned before he was ten years old and years of unskilled, manual jobs in New York. Persistence paid off and by 1902, Masefield’s poems and novels began to be published, finding a ready readership. This portrait was purchased in 1930, co-inciding with Masefield’s appointment as Poet Laureate, a position he maintained until his death in 1967.
William Strang was born in Dumbarton and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Celebrated for his skills as an etcher, he was also an accomplished portraitist. He was a founder member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers and National Portrait Society in 1880 and 1911 respectively. Strang showed his work internationally, including in Vienna and New York and was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1921, the year of his death.
Alice Strang, 29 June 2020
About the author
Alice Strang is an award-winning art historian and curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.