Highlands and Islands: Paintings and Poems
Fleming Collection, 13 Berkeley Street, W1, until 5 June
Pictures are usually exhibited with closed-shop segregation from the other arts, so it is a joy to find the bounds broken by this exuberant celebration of one of the oldest and most beautiful places on earth.
The show announces the publication of Highlands and Islands (Eland, £8.99), a poetry anthology (mostly 20th-century, not all by Scots) from Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum (died 677) to the present, selected and annotated by Mary Miers, the architectural historian and authority on Highland and Island culture. Her family home is on South Uist, so she brings a native passion to her subject. Relevant poems, some extra to the book, are displayed alongside the pictures; and there is also a programme of readings and musical events.
It is two shows in one. The first is a selection of Fleming Collection pictures, from the 18th century to the present. Favourites are well represented: the Colourists in force; a McTaggart senior of spectral children by the sea; two Thorburn oils — snow scenes of ptarmigan and black game; and a small McIntosh Patrick showing what a rollercoaster a Highland road can be. The stark ‘Ballachulish Quarries’ by John Guthrie Spence Smith (1880–1951) acts as an industrial foil to romanticism.
The second, mostly from Mary Miers’s personal archive, is contained in a large display case in the lower gallery: a generous mix of pictures, photographs, prints, rare books and piquant miscellanea. Is there a more beautiful evocation of West Coast stillness than Paul Strand’s photograph ‘Tir A’Mhurain, South Uist’? Among the outside loans are watercolours by Jemima Blackwell, described by Ruskin as ‘the best artist he knew’, and Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Loch Hourn’, its foreground wild flowers in jamjars evocative of Highland summer holidays.
Landscapes predominate throughout but the people are well represented, nowhere more robustly than in John Bellany’s ‘The Herring Fishers’, an audaciously large monochrome oil from his student days (coincidentally John Bellany, a retrospective of five decades, is at Beaux Arts, 22 Cork Street, until 15 May). On one side of the class divide are the lairds and the stalking, shooting, fishing fraternity, on the other the crofters; the historical clash of the two forever memorialised by the painful symbol of the Clearances.
A splendid stalking scene by Richard Ansdell, ‘Return from the Hills’, represents the first; the weary stalkers shown with their stag-bearing ponies after a successful day. Its symbolic counterweight is John Watson Nicol’s ‘Lochaber No More’. It could well be a Clearance lament but Allan Ramsay’s poem, which provides the title, is earlier; the theme one of heroic enterprise as the speaker leaves his sweetheart and Scotland behind to seek his fortune abroad.
To leave thee behind me my heart is sair
But by ease that’s inglorious no fame can be
Crofting and the Clearances inevitably go hand in hand so, since the villain of the piece is always the laird these nationalist days, it is well to remember the late great Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk’s cautionary words: ‘I wish Mr Prebble would write a book on the lairds who did not clear; and why their glens are empty too: reminding us of the problem of the population explosion and that the population of the Crofting Counties, even Sutherland, was greater after the Clearances than before them.’ Mary Miers, in her picture and poetic selections, maintains a scrupulous balance.
Her anthology, in Eland’s handy pocket-sized Poetry of Place series, is arranged thematically from ‘Life’ to ‘Light’, with a perfectly pitched introduction to each poem. It raises the question: have painters or poets best conveyed the beauty of these truly sublime places? The poets surely have it, although the Gaelic poets, to whom she pays proper due, have to suffer translation. Old favourites and new discoveries are equally favoured; but unrhyming contemporary verse does not tug the heart-strings the way rhyme can.
Two old favourites still do it for this reviewer. There is the anonymous Clearance lament, ‘The Canadian Boat Song’:
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.
And who would not raise a dram to Hopkins’s ‘Inversnaid’ exhortation:
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
No one heading for the Highlands and Islands should be without this anthology, along with Mary Miers’s indispensable architectural guide The Western Seaboard (Rutland Press £18, also available at the gallery).