The project begins - Arran, Art and the challenges of 2020
The Isle of Arran, often referred to as 'Scotland in Miniature' offers much to visitors, from the ancient standing stones of Machrie Moor, to the towering mountains at the North end of the island. It is therefore unsurprising that given its relative closeness to the Scottish mainland, it has since the 19th century become a place often frequented by tourists, geologists and of course, artists.
The sheer number of painters, printmakers, photographers and sculptors who have worked on Arran is staggering. The island has inspired creativity from some of the major names of Scottish art history, from Joan Eardley to John Knox, William Dyce to Norman Ackroyd. Arran's distinctive peaks have been sketched by J.M.W Turner, Queen Victoria and provided the inspiration for John Maclaughlin Milne, Margot Sandeman and Alasdair Gray. A list of work held in national collections of the island stretches from Edinburgh to Melbourne, images of Arran finding homes across the globe. The Arran Arts Heritage Trail Project (AAHT) aims to tell the story of these artists, where they made work on the island, and where you can see it today. The project will allow you to walk in their footsteps, seeing the villages, mountains, and vistas which inspired them to respond. The creation of a new digital presence for the project will also give audiences from across the world the opportunity to learn more about Arran's unique cultural and visual heritage. It is my pleasure to work on the AAHT as an Art Historian and researcher, allowing me to collaborate with the Heritage Research Group, a team of dedicated volunteers, to tell this story to a wider audience. With a background working as a museum officer, art curator, professional archivist and researcher, I'm delighted to be involved with undertaking the work to celebrate some fascinating and compelling artists and their work. The events of 2020, in particular the far-reaching effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, have of course made their impact on the project. They have forced the team to approach the challenge of working with restrictions in new and innovative ways, and have led to the end of physical meetings. Covid-19 also presents a series of real barriers to research. Libraries and museums are closed, and archives can't be consulted, curators can't be visited, and special and private collections are completely inaccessible. Perhaps most difficult of all has been the restriction of travel to and from Arran, cutting off the unique and extraordinary heritage of the island from wider audiences.
What then is a researcher to do?
Luckily there are a number of ways to still carry out effective research, or to at least lay down the foundations for future work. The first of these is to consult online resources. We are lucky in the UK to benefit from a huge nationwide cataloging project - Art UK. Built on the work of the Public Catalogue Foundation, a huge nationwide effort to capture the work of 40,000 artists in public collections, the website has some 200,000 digitised images of artworks. Arran of course features heavily, with several hundred artworks appearing. As well as landscapes and portraits of island life, the site also offers insights into collections, such as those held at Brodick Castle.
Art UK, while comprehensive, only provides part of the story of works related to the island, and only in one medium - painting. Many museums and archives have an online presence which cover various artforms, with TATE, the V&A and National Galleries of Scotland all hosting extensive catalogues, much of which is digitised. Several collections outside of the UK such as the MET in New York also hold work related to Arran. Other places which hold information on artists and their work are auction websites such as Bonhams, McTears and Christies - all searchable via websites such as Mutual Art, Invaluable or Art Net. One unlikely source for rare work is the auction website Ebay, which often turns up obscure finds.
Other important resources can be found on websites such as archive.org which contain many out of publication books on Arran, and important art magazines of the past, such as 'The Studio'.
As important as online work is, nothing is more valuable to a researcher than using academically trusted sources to verify facts and establish dates. As an Art Historian I am lucky enough to have several of these at hand, such as Professor Murdo MacDonalds landmark book 'Scottish Art', Duncan Macmillan's 'Scottish Art (1460-2000)' and Julian Halsby's 'Dictionary of Scottish Painters (1600- Present)' which is often useful for finding more information on obscure artists. These alongside Alice Strang's 'Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965' and 'A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950' offer an excellent overview of developments in Scottish Art during this time period, as well those making work here from elsewhere. I am also immensely lucky that I can benefit from a useful resource, a publication which is little well known, but is the result of a huge amount of work - Colin Cowley's rare publication 'Arran Art'. This 78-page book from 1996 lists some 600 artists related to the Isle of Arran, giving information on works from the last several hundred years. Crucially it provides a list of works exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy and other venues, and to date provides the most comprehensive guide to art made on or about the island. So what next? Well as we wait for travel restrictions to lift, for people to be able to meet in groups, and for museums and archives to open we can make real progress with online research. Following the end of lockdown, we will continue to speak to those who live and work on Arran, those whose local knowledge has so far been invaluable. The help of those on the Arran Community Forum for example has helped to identify the locations of several paintings, allowing for South Ayrshire Museum to properly attribute the locations of works for the first time. As we gradually move from digital to analogue meetings, we can finally bring our research groups together on the island and uncover some of the local stories and insights into the work. It's an exciting time as we take things forward with The Arran Arts Heritage Trail Project. I look forward to helping uncover forgotten artists, celebrating those who should be more well known, and sharing Arran's unique place as a haven for creativity.