By Katy Penn 01/12/20
When I heard that the Arran Arts Heritage Trail project were looking for members of the local community to search out, celebrate and document the story of artists and crafts people who have lived and worked on the island, I was tempted.
When I was asked if I had a specific interest, it had to be the west coast – it’s the part of the island where I live, where I walk, where I paint and which I think is the most beautiful. It can also get over-looked on island-wide initiatives as it is quiet, there are not many people and, for those in the big smoke that is Brodick/Lamlash/Whiting Bay, ‘it’s a long way away!’ (it’s not really).
So, my research for this project has started with the geography (from Catacol to Machrie), aiming to identify artists who were inspired by the west coast, and to find out more about their stories. It’s been a varied bunch so far – I haven’t finished yet – and I hope others will fill in gaps where there are omissions.
Here’s a flavour of what I’ve found so far.
This was a familiar name to me and it didn’t take long to find out why. Thorburn was the illustrator for the Observer Book of British Birds – a book I spent hours poring over as a child (and went on to collect many more of the Observer series). This view of Glen Catacol is also familiar to me. A local walk for all seasons; the sound of deer rutting in the autumn, cuckoos in the spring and, once, an unexpected encounter with an adder. Our son (an ornithologist) is good company for spotting golden eagles here too - his eyes are better than mine.
Archibald Thorburn was born in Lasswade, near Edinburgh, son of a leading miniaturist painter favoured by Queen Victoria. He learned much of his skill from his father, including the importance of attention to detail. Drawing from an early age he used watercolour and pen/ink, generally with a subject of wildflowers and, later, birds. It seems he became known for blending science and art - combining a technical ability for detailed correctness with a softness and delicacy of his subject. Much of his work was created for book illustrations and private commissions, although he did exhibit at the Royal Academy until about the age of 30.
He started his adult life as a keen sportsman, often invited to shooting parties on estates in Scotland and England (including Sandringham, at the invitation of the King). However, later he also became interested in the world of conservation, becoming the Vice President of the RSPB in 1927.
Whilst he lived in England for much of his life, he spent time each year in Scotland, filling sketchbooks with references which he later worked up into illustrations or commissioned work. He is described as ‘leading a peaceful and largely uneventful life’ – I like that.
John MacWhirter (1839-1911) ‘Sunday in the Highlands’ has been used as an illustration (this is a black and white copy) in the second Book of Arran (1914). It depicts the congregation walking home from the Free Church at Lenimore (between Catacol and Thundergay). The painting was exhibited in 1881 - it is said that the walk along the shore was easier in those days than navigating the big bumps in the rocks on the road.
MacWhirter was born in Edinburgh and studied at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh (the forerunner of Edinburgh College of Art, later amalgamated into University of Edinburgh). Here he formed a lifelong friendship with fellow student William McTaggart (see below!) MacWhirter travelled extensively throughout his life, visiting Germany, Austria, Italy and Norway, where he painted local scenery and plant life. He also painted romantic views across the Scottish Highlands, Islands and lochs.
The church in this painting is no longer there. It was built in 1845, an imposing stone structure standing alone by the side of the road, overlooking the Kilbrannon Sound. It served the 800 adherents of the Free Church who lived in the Lochranza, Lenimore and Pirnmill area at the time. After the first minister’s death in 1847 there was a long vacancy until a new appointment in 1857, during which time congregation numbers had dwindled. In 1886 the congregation split and in 1900, the numbers for the Lenimore and Pirnmill church were just 44 (and 53 in Lochranza). The church was eventually demolished in 1956, with the stone quarried for local use. However, the two stone steps to the church are still visible on the roadside today.
Closest to home for me, and also in years, is this painting by Hamish MacDonald.
MacDonald was born in Glasgow and studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1963 to 1967. Much of his career was in art education; teaching at Jordanhill College, Motherwell Technical College, Bell College of Technology and St Patrick’s High School, Coatbridge (as head of art). He had a particular interest in encouraging children with learning difficulties to use art as an opportunity for personal expression.
MacDonald was inspired by the Scottish Colourist movement, especially the work of Joan Eardley. He painted on Arran repeatedly throughout his career.
In 2007, he was diagnosed as suffering from pancreatic cancer and attended treatment at the Beatson Oncology Centre in Glasgow. During this time, he sketched fellow patients and medical staff. His drawings were seen by Professor Sir Kenneth Calman (Chief Medical Officer (Scotland) 1989, (England) 1991-1998, and Chancellor of Glasgow University 2006-2020) who organised an exhibition of the 36 pictures at the Wolfson Medical Centre. They remain there to this day and are a tribute to MacDonald’s belief that art can comfort the seriously ill.
And now for some children!
William MacTaggart is one of Scotland’s most popular and celebrated landscape painters. Born at Aros, Kintyre, his rural upbringing was to have a profound influence on his artistic life. He studied at the Trustees’ Academy, Edinburgh, from 1852, winning prizes and developing a career in portraiture. He is well recognised today for his paintings of children - a subject he returned to again and again throughout his career.
His landscapes with children were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and often depicted the carefree innocence of childhood. He also liked to capture the light and scenery of seasons, such as spring to celebrate youth and vitality through young children, flowers and morning light. This painting ‘June Day, Arran’, is believed to be the view from the Auchengallon standing stones, overlooking Machrie Bay – a view I was pleased to photograph one recent autumn morning. MacTaggart was known to paint outdoors (as did the Impressionists) and he is often labelled as the ‘Scottish Impressionist’. Did he sit at this ancient Neolithic or Bronze Age burial cairn, surrounded by these fifteen stones, in 1869, painting this lovely view? I do hope so.
In the 1870s, MacTaggart’s style and subject matter shifted towards the sea: skiffs, sailing boats and the perils of a stormy sea. He continued to paint until his death in Edinburgh in 1910. Many of his major works are now held in public art collections across the UK, including Tate and The National Galleries of Scotland.
Finally, to Machrie:
Tim Jeffs was born in Dumfries and trained as a motor engineer. After the 1930s recession, he became a self-employed studio craftsman - displaying skills as an artist, designer, sculptor, woodcarver, calligrapher and textile worker. He became Assistant Curator at the Dumfries Burgh Museum at the time of his marriage (1938), an event witnessed by their good friends, artists Jessie M King and EA Taylor. They spent a holiday on Arran that same year and, in November 1938, he and his wife Marianne hosted a joint exhibition of their art and craftwork at their Yellow Door Studio, Dumfries, including thirty to forty oil and watercolour paintings, mainly of local scenes or Arran studies.
In 1941, Jeffs began teaching wood and metalwork in Dumfriesshire schools and eventually took a post at Kirkcudbright Academy. He and his wife joined the long-established artistic community there and he became a founding tutor of the Kirkcudbright Art and Crafts Summer School. He died after a tragic boating accident on Loch Ken.
Machrie Post Office is sadly no more but the building remains, now a private house on the roadside, with stunning views over to Kintyre.
What a treasure trove of art history there is on this beautiful island. My west coast has captured the creative minds of many artists throughout the years and will continue to inspire for generations to come.