Walking towards a photograph

This piece of writing lay incomplete, seeking its correct form, after its beginnings on my one-week residency at Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg in November 2016. In December 2018, I was invited by The Bothy Project, the residency host, to speak about my research on early photographer M.E.M Donaldson, and the series of photographs she had made on Eigg. I completed this text to open the presentation, endeavouring to lead myself and the audience to the point that Donaldson takes a photograph at Laig Bay, of a woman who walks along the beach. I had experienced her photography as ‘a journey into’ a landscape, so ‘Walking towards a photograph’ echoes my aims for the residency, which were to locate the exact spots on the island, where Donaldson had taken her series of images, in order to understand more about her methods. A number of her photographs of Eigg illustrate her travel book ‘Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands’ [Published by Paisley: Alexander Gardner Ltd, 1920].

 

The sound shifts where there is something for the air to engage with,

Flowing through the dry, florescent leaves of a cottage copse,

or carried from source at Beinn Bhuide.

The dancing water follows the gravitational pull,

slicing under the tarmac of the main road to Cleadale,

to stalk the farm road down to Laig Bay.

 

Here stranded at the the farm road’s mouth

lies a Toyota jeep with half a registration plate L878,

A blue sticker on its pushed in side window declares– YES!

Last night’s rain follows a snaking tributary down a shallow gulley,

past a Castrol Oil drum, caught in the first curve.

 

Look up!

This juncture provides an excellent platform

To see Laig Farm in the distance,

nestled by foothills then the cliffs that

surround the top of the bay.

Continuing on, the track continues to dip,

And the sea disappears

As the vegetation grows high.

 

Black and red rosehips compete with brambles

that grow through and over the orange bracken,

reaching up to trace along the lowest tree branches,

then twist across the stream

which declares itself by sound only.

 

In fact, three different sounds of water can be heard:

Behind – the louder water from the cliffs of Beinn Bhuidhe;

Beside – the small stream now lost in yellow rushes

Ahead -the distant sea waves.

 

A singular fence post, with its wire haphazard and low to the ground,

halts to demarcate nothing.

A fat rainbow sprouts up to the left of the white church

With its green wooden window frames and door.

 

My wrists are cold.

I can feel the larger gray stones under my boots.

I and my shadow circumnavigate the larger puddles,

Avoiding the soaked heads of long grass.

 

The peat brown stream as it nears the beach, flows high and deep.

An inconsequential log fords it, to connect

With the small grassy verge, lined with sheep tracks,

That disperse into the low dunes.

 

The stream, now a tributary, reflects Rùm,

cutting the beach in two, to run into the sea.

Black brain coral lies beyond

these untrustworthy depths.

 

Instead, as I am not the protagonist,

I retreat to the rise before the beach,

to locate where she once stood,

as she observed the woman who walked along Laig Bay.

 

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Tracing the founding members of Glasgow Society of Lady Artists

‘A well painted figure subject from Miss Greenlees … Study of gladiolus, artistic in drawing and good in colour is shown by Mrs Provan … Mrs Robertson sends nicely painted vases, while Madame Röhl shows to advantage in birch trees… Miss Nisbet artistic drawings of poppies and Miss Henderson, well painted lilies. Whilst there is much commendable work there is a lack of variety and a total absence of domestic subjects which might be expected in such an exhibition.’

Glasgow Herald 5 Jan 1884, p4, held in Mitchell Library Special Collections

The above quote is from a critique of an early exhibition that founding members of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists participated in. Very little beyond a list of names from a transcribed speech in the slim volume ‘History of the Society of Lady Artists’ Club’, (1950, printed by Robert Maclehose and Company Limited) can initially be ascertained about the eight women who established this society in 1882, with its primary aim to afford due recognition and opportunity to women in the art field.

This essay for the publication ‘Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ (Poursuite Editions, 2018, ed. Zappia, F and TANK Art Space Marseille) roves between non-fiction and fiction, gathering through press cuttings, archival holdings, online marriage registers and existing scholarly work more information about Miss Greenlees, Miss Patrick, Mrs Robertson, Miss Nisbet, Mrs Agnew, Mme Röhl, Mrs Provan and Miss Katherine Henderson; whilst introducing the fictional character of Henriette Aliès-Reynolds, an early feminist and artist who went to the Glasgow School of Art at the end of the 19th century. Aliès-Reynolds is part of the collective fiction of the life of Raoul Reynolds, created by Francesca Zappia (independent curator, Glasgow) and TANK Art Space (Marseille) as part of their curated group exhibition ‘Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ (2016) [1].

 

[EXTRACT]

‘…The studios became the site of the annual exhibition. The stairs at 136 Wellington Street are described by two critics. In the Lady’s Pictorial (1890):

In a miniature gallery perched atop of an excruciating number of stairs winding up to one of the high-lands of Wellington Street, which traverses the heart of the local artist colony.

The Stirling Journal and Advertiser (March 27, 1891): ‘I climbed the interminable stairs and found myself in the eyrie’.

In standing outside Wellington Street, one must still strain one’s neck in order to see the line of small windows in the top floor…’

Present day, 136 Wellington Street, Glasgow (2018) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Present day, 136 Wellington Street, Glasgow (2018) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Footnotes

[1] The publication is linked to the exhibition ‘Raoul Reynolds: a Retrospective’ (2016), curated by Zappia and Tank Art Space (Marseille) at Scotland Street Museum, Glasgow, as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art; and La Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille (2016).’ Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ was the result of a collective and collaborative exhibition made by twelve artists and a curator. It aimed to further develop the existing cultural exchange that forms part of the cooperation and twinning agreements between the two cities of Glasgow and Marseille. Thus, the twelve artists – Stéphanie Cherpin, Helen de Main, Sandro della Noce, Guillaume Gattier, Amandine Guruceaga, Benjamin Marianne, James McLardy, Douglas Morland, Philippe Murphy, Emilie Perotto, Bobby Niven and Alys Owen – represent the emergent artistic, and notably sculptural, scenes of the two cities. Together, they have collaborated and signed their works under the name of Raoul Reynolds.

[2] The book editors are Francesca Zappia (independent curator, Glasgow) and Amandine Guruceaga (TANK Art Space, Marseille). The four other publication contributors are Éric Mangion (Director of Exhibitions at the Villa Arson, Nice, France), curator and art critic Thimothé Chaillou and art historian Anna Dezeuze (L’école supérieure d’art & de design Marseille-Méditerranée). The publisher is Poursuite Editions, a french-based publisher focused on photography and related topics.

A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man

‘A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man’ was my contribution to Alan Grieve’s ‘Dry Your Eyes, Big Man’ at Workspace, Dunfermline (7.7.18). The one night show and event brought together responses to The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui. Haunting Scotland’s second highest mountain, this legend or ‘strange phenomena’ engenders terror in those that experience its presence, with some hearing footsteps, others seeing a huge figure in the mist. Wendy Wood describes her own encounter in her book ‘The Secret of Spey’ (published by Robert Grant & Son, 1930):

‘It was on a dull day, with light snow lying, and I had no further intention than to wander to the mouth of the Lairig…I stopped to enjoy these surroundings, the uprush of the cliffs of Creag a’ Leth-choin, too steep to hold the snow, and the shadowed side of Sron na Lairig, and as I turned to retrace my steps I heard a voice of gigantic resonance. It spoke with the harsh consonants and full vowels of the Gaelic, but it issued so close to me that I was too startled, and I suppose I might as well confess, too scared, to unravel or even remember the sound of the words’.

P.26, ‘The Secret of Spey’, Wendy Wood

Lurcher’s Crag, Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Affleck Grey’s ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui: Myth or Monster?’ (Lochar Publishing, 1989) brings together the evidence of those who have seen or heard him. During World War 2, on mountain rescue duty, Peter Densham and Richard Frere found themselves in a conversation with the Big Grey Man- on what subject, they were unable to recall:

‘I was surprised after a little to hear Frere apparently talking to himself. Then I had the impression that he was talking to someone on the other side of the cairn. I went around and found myself joining in the conversation. It was a strange experience which seemed to have a psychic aspect. We talked to someone invisible for some time, and it seemed we had carried on this conversation for some little time, when we suddenly realised that there was no-one there but ourselves. Afterwards, neither of us, strangely, could recall the purport of this extraordinary conversation’.

P.7, ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui: Myth or Monster?’, Affleck Gray

‘A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man’ imagines such a conversation taking place, and seeks to re-imagine the Grey Man’s purpose of haunting these particular slopes and his approach to hill walkers. The text is laid out in the shape of his spectral silhouette.

Installation at ‘Dry Yer Eyes, Big Man’, Workspace Dunfermline, 2018. Photo: Alan Grieve

‘Dry Yer Eyes, Big Man’, Alan Grieve, Workspace Dunfermline, 2018. Photo courtesy the artist

‘I gladly strained my eyes to follow you’, Pollok House: Sally Salisbury portrait

I gladly strained my eyes to follow you was devised by Shauna McMullan. It took the form of a 45min guided tour of National Trust for Scotland’s Pollok House, focusing on a selection of female portraits from the House’s art collection. [1] It was part of a group residency and exhibition, Cabinet Interventions (2018).

McMullan invited a number of writers, artists, academics and Pollok House staff to consider a particular portrait she had selected for each person. McMullan sent no details of the work, allowing for each respondent to consider how they would approach their task. The content of the tour, delivered by the Pollok House tour guides, was made up from short texts written specially for each work. The full piece I submitted, can be read here.

‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743), Pollok House, Glasgow, National Trust for Scotland

The painting that McMullan invited me to consider was ‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743). Her name gave enough for an internet search. The first image I find is of a mezzotint. It is a half length portrait in an oval, with the inscription under it reading ‘Mrs Sally Salisbury’. The curator notes in the British Museum catalogue entry, that ‘… both the engraver and the original artist suppressed their names from the print due to the character of the personage.’ [2]

Detail, ‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743), Pollok House, Glasgow. National Trust for Scotland

I first visit this painting at Glasgow Museum Resource Centre in Feb 2018. The work had been temporarily re-located to this store whilst building work was taking place in several of the rooms at Pollok House. I don’t want to miss any detail in this first meeting with her. Accompanied by the two museum curators who facilitate this visit, they stand aside whilst I look at the painting. I then examine the slim folder that accompanies it. There are no biographical details; the index only includes a curator entry on the condition of the painting. The gold relief frame, complete with heart and cherubs, seems at odds with the considered portrait within. The museum curators ask me if I wish for the painting to be turned over. The back is marked with a hand-painted inscription: ‘Mrs Salisbury or Priddon. Dahl Pinxt’.

Dahl paints this portrait of Mrs Sally Salisbury, in 1724, the year that she dies. She is thirty-two, whilst he is sixty-five. He lives to be eighty-four. In her short life, she has sold lace and oranges as a child; as a young runaway been forced into prostitution; then tried for stabbing a lover, whose misdemeanour had been to give two theatre tickets to her sister rather than to her. She subsequently dies of ill health in Newgate jail. In the year before her death, her story and likenesses are heavily circulated as she has become notorious. There are two separate volumes of her life created during the year of her trail, with further mezzotints from the accompanying illustrations sold. The two books are ‘Authentic Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury’, 1723, by Capt. Charles Walker and ‘The Genuine History of Mrs Sarah Prydden, Usually Called, Sally Salisbury, and Her Gallants. Regularly Containing, the real Story of her Life’, printed for Andrew Moor, 1723.

Michael Dahl, a Swedish painter, was highly regarded in his field, regularly gaining major commissions from the ruling classes, as James Mulraine notes, in the period 1690s-1710s:

…regiments of [his] sitters line the walls of Royal and country house collections of the period. All this changed in 1714, when Queen Anne was succeeded by King George I.

Who commissioned Dahl to paint Sally Salisbury or did he choose to do so himself? Did she sit for him or like the ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ memoirs purporting to know her, is his portrait of her a real likeness or fabrication? As he moves from court sitter to ‘courtesan’ as subject, is he aligning his fading trajectory with that of her rising one in a bid to rekindle his own publicity? Or is he merely freed in 1714 from court patronage and able to draw on a wider repertoire?

It can only be noted that Dahl’s portrait of Salisbury is sympathetic in nature. She does not appear out of place in Pollock House in the company she keeps with royal and privileged women.

The painting in situ, Pollok House, Glasgow

The subsequent piece that I submit for the Pollok House tour, mirrors the brevity of her life by selecting the succinct, at most six word commentaries that describe each stage of her life, taken from the margins of the memoirs that circulated about her. The piece begins and concludes with two longer quotes that capture her trajectory:

[EXCERPT:

Sarah Pridden or Priddon,

alias Mrs Salisbury or Sally Salisbury,

(b. Shrewsbury, d. London. c.1692-1724)

The Drawing Room, Pollock House.

‘Many are the reports spread abroad, celebrating that Piece of Contradiction, SALLY SALISBURY’. [6]

 

‘Her Birth,

Parentage,

and earliest

Years.

 

Her first

Elopement

and Re-

turn.

 

She is put

to a Seam-

stress.

 

The Acci-

dent that

made her

run away

from thence.

 

Of her sel-

ling Oran-

ges, about

the Play-

house.

 

The Vul-

gar Report

of

her sel-

ling Pears,

selling

Matches,

contradicted.

 

Falls in

Love with

a Colonel…../

 

/…. She allures a

noble

Youth.

 

Clouds ri-

sing about

her.

 

Her la-

mentable

Downfall.’ [5]

‘But, like a’ Comet, her blaze was Bright, but of no continuance; Scare had she appear’d like the Sun; before she disappears like a Meteor…’ [6]]

Footnotes:

[1] The Pollok House collection was amassed by Sir William Stirling Maxwell (1818-1878). The tour was part of ‘Cabinet Interventions’, an exhibition at Pollok House, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow. (April-May 2018) https://cabinetinterventions.org/

[2] http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1659383&partId=1

[3] James Mulraine https://jamesmulraine.com/2017/02/16/the-painter-by-himself-a-late-self-portrait-by-michael-dahl/

[4] p.3, ‘Authentic Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury’, 1723, by Capt. Charles Walker.

[5] Comments from the side margins, ‘The Genuine History of Mrs Sarah Prydden, Usually Called, Sally Salisbury, and Her Gallants. Regularly Containing, the real Story of her Life’, printed for Andrew Moor, 1723. Reproduction from British Library, Gale ECCO Print Editions.

[6] P41, Ibid.

‘I gladly strained my eyes to follow you’ publication. A guided tour of Pollok House, Shauna McMullan (2018)

Pollok House, Glasgow. National Trust for Scotland. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Draw from the well’, catalogue essay for Sam Ainsley solo exhibition, An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (2017)

Poster, Sam Ainsley, An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (2017)

This catalogue essay (full text here) accompanied Sam Ainsley’s first solo exhibition in thirty years, at An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (16 September – 25 November 2017). The catalogue is designed by Graphical House. The essay focuses on three new works that Ainsley made for the exhibition, and through them, appraising the on-going themes of her work, namely the metaphor; and the relationship of the body to landscape and architecture. The translation of ‘An Tobar’ is the well. I contextualise her work through drawing upon the well of words of women writers that she consistently revisits as inspiration for her work. Furthermore, from an early interview I made with Ainsley, she re-called the impact science fiction written by women had on her. I investigate this in the essay, drawing connection between how Ainsley often in the displaying of her work in grid form or series, juxtaposes different ‘worlds’ together – a science fiction device. Ainsley refers back in her work to ‘The Map of Tendre’, a 17th century allegorical cartography linking geography to the body and emotions. Using this device, I created small text ‘islands’ throughout the body of the essay, based on some of the map’s locations. Given the site-specific island location of Ainsley’s exhibition her third work, a wall painting of imaginary and real islands, the essay also brings in references to the ways in which other Scottish islands have been either realistically or fictionally represented. Examples include St Kilda (Powell and Pressburger) and Shetland (Jenny Gilbertson). The essay begins with a manifesto including all of the titles of a grid of 36 new drawings/ collages that Ainsley made for the show. I am very grateful to Sam Ainsley and to Mike Darling (curator, An Tobar) for the invitation to write about her work.

[Excerpt:

Draw from the well. Dig, drive, drill or use your hands. Is this what pain feels like? Whatever means you think necessary to scoop the words and ideas of women into any container you have. Is it dark? Follow the darkness of the well down. Choices not fears. Walk this way my lovelies. Then scoop and lift the words up high. See, at the moment when running away from, became running towards; at the very instant you felt the precipice and desired the exit, the well and its contents become your lifebelt.

Lift up the words of women, for reference, for inspiration, for critique. It is a true avalanche. A high rise of hopes; the wakened night! These words are rhizomes, creeping up and through the once crack’d earth of essays, paintings, spoken word, education and action, where once only he thought – he said – he had a point – he had a purpose. These words of women are cloning brains as the shoots put out into fertile ground. Where once we stared with saddened eyes at the calloused mountain, we now realise (we are), were always, the dull blue base…]

‘Her wild, scared Heart’, Sam Ainsley, (2017)

 

Sam Ainsley (right) and Mike Darling (An Tobar curator, on left), during installation at An Tobar. Photo: Comar twitterfeed

 

Pauline and the Matches: script and narration

This voiceover (duration 34 minutes) and corresponding script, are part of Pauline and the Matches’, 12-27 August 2017, Custom Lane, Edinburgh.  ‘Pauline and the Matches’ is based on the tale by Heinrich Hoffman (1809-1894) called ‘The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches’ from the children’s book ‘Der Struwwelpeter’ (1845). The allegory this cautionary tale presents- that small actions have catastrophic consequences- has exploded within contemporary culture. We hear how microscopic actions, when they become collective, have a global impact.

‘Pauline and the Matches’ is an interactive performance space and installation, made by a collective of multi-media performance and sound artists. Part of Edinburgh Art Festival, supported by Creative Scotland.

 

Script and narration: Jenny Brownrigg; Sound Production: Mark Vernon; Booklet Design: Christine Jones; Project devised by B Gilbert Scott.