Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and Her Legacy

Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and Her Legacy
Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art
8th November 2018 – 5th May 2019

I was interested in this exhibition having gone to see Susannah Ramsay’s filmpoem ‘The Essence of Place’ in 2017.

Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999) wrote poetry, short stories and painted but the focus of her practice became her film-making and she viewed her films as being as much poetry as they were anything else.

‘The kind of cinema I care about is at the level of poetry – in fact – it has been in a way my life’s work making film poems.’

For this exhibition, at The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Gallery One was in semi-darkness, lit by the images playing across two large screens. The first was near the door as you entered and the second placed at an angle to this, further into the gallery. Subdued lighting around the walls highlighted two information boards and, to the left, beyond the screens, glass cases held a range of materials related to Margaret Tait’s work.

In front of each screen small wooden benches, which could comfortably sit two people, were arranged in rows in a semi-circle. The film on the first screen had already started and I watched a scene, filmed from a house, of men digging up a road. The sound focused on the noise of the machinery, particularly a piece of equipment used to compress the surface of the road. There was an ebb and flow to the scenes that followed. You were taken through the garden of the house, catching glimpses of a Siamese cat in the undergrowth and the houses across the street. Then, through the kitchen with meandering focus on the shelves. The postman arrived, handing in mail. Outside again, children walked past perhaps returning from school. Later they played around a roundabout further along the street. There was no indication if this was one day or several. The sound track was that of the everyday, the machinery of the road menders, children shouting to one another, a radio playing in the kitchen a muffled exchange with the postman.

Without any more explanation than this I found the film soothing and poignant. It had the quality of one of those days that you get to yourself. Windows are open, you are not doing anything in particular but it is a chance to putter and be in your own space. In the real-life version, the day would have its own soundtrack but you would barely acknowledge it. Margaret Tait, however, uses this ordinary background noise and elevates it so that it provides a curiously meditative counterpoint to the action.

The film lasted another twenty-five minutes and was followed by shorter film called Tailpiece (1976). This was filmed in black and white and showed the same house but, this time, it was removal day with furniture being packed into a waiting van. The sound track cut from a melancholy tune to something altogether livelier followed by a child reciting rhymes with a sing-song confidence. As workman moved furniture, the camera focused on the walls of the rooms and the outlines where the furniture had been. Having watched the first film there were moments of recognition with glimpses of ornate wallpaper in the hallway and an embroidered curtain hanging from a door Margaret Tait, reflected in mirrors, captured the last few hours in the family home.

After my visit to the exhibition I returned to watch these two films in particular. The first film is called, ironically, Place of Work (1976), titled because it was the place where Tait worked on her film-making. It is summarised on the DVD as “An exploration of the ambience of a house (Buttquoy House, Kirkwall, Orkney) in the 4/5 months before it had to be vacated….[and] allows Margaret Tait to present something of the nature and intensity of her experiencing and re-experiencing a place that was, for half a century, the family home and, for the past seven years the centre of her film-making”.

This was the connection I had felt when I first started to watch the film. I didn’t know what it was about at that point but it became clear that the very ordinariness of the scenes was what made it so memorable. There was an intimacy with the place and the people in it that gave you the feeling that Tait was trying to capture not just the what you were physically seeing but something altogether more elusive before it would be gone forever.

I found both films very moving as, over the past few months, we have been working on clearing the family home and the house is at a similar stage. The rooms are empty and soon it will be a home for another family.

A few months after I started this course mum had to go into a care home. I had been at the stage of trying to decide on a direction for the coursework and, in the end, because these thoughts were so all consuming at that time, I began to work with ideas around ageing and childhood memories. At times I debated the wisdom of this, particularly after mum’s death, but, as the work developed, it helped to have this way of thinking about things. In a sense the work became a filter, a lens through which I gained some distance and perspective from the actualities of bereavement.

This was not that clear cut at the time, it was more a case of juggling priorities and trying to keep up with assignments. However, as time went on, I began to see that working with the memories of childhood gave me an imaginative space to be in that helped to balance the emotions associated with the literal space of the family home as we worked on clearing the house. The familiar becomes unfamiliar as the belongings which have had their place are stripped of their context. As in Tait’s films it was like you knew the house but were seeing things for the first time.

In Place of Work and Tailpiece, Tait has created a similar space for the viewer to inhabit. It is about a very specific place, at a particular moment in time, but the sense of loss it evokes, on different levels, is something we can relate to. In the very act of capturing this on film, Tait is, perhaps, suggesting that these places survive regardless, in our memories and in the impact they have had on our lives.

Related Posts

The Essence of Place – Susannah Ramsay –


GOMA (2018) Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and her Legacy: November 8th 2018 – May 5th 2019, GoMA, Gallery 1. At: (Accessed on 05.04.19)

Grigor, Murray (1999) ‘Obituary: Margaret Tait’ In: The Independent [online] At: (accessed on 05.04.19)

Margaret Tait: Selected Films 1952-1976 (1976) [DVD] London: LUX

Margaret Tait 100. About Margaret Tait. At: Accessed on 14.04.19

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Postcards – Research Notes

In relation to work on childhood memories I have been working with the idea of creating ‘souvenirs’ of these memories. I have worked on this by using tea towels from the family home as supports for paintings.

I wanted to develop this idea of souvenirs of memories further based on old postcards. My father was a keen collector of these, particularly those related to the village and the surrounding area. The cards were produced by different companies including John Valentine’s, Stengel & Co, Bauermeister and Tuck and Sons.

Like the other companies Raphael Tuck and Sons produced series of cards based on a range of subjects. As well as by topic these cards could be categorised by different types of printing technique.

Raphael Tuck started his business with his wife in the 1860s in London. They created reproductions of popular works of art as well as greeting cards. In the 1870s they started a range which focused on the religious aspects of Christmas rather than the more secular subjects which had been popular until this point.

The firm introduced postcard competitions inviting entries for designs from amateur and professional artists. In the 1890s they introduced the first regular series of postcards, a group of twelve coloured views. Generally, the series was a set of six which could be six different images or six of the same image.

In the late 1890s the influence of Tuck’s sons resulted in the postcard becoming a standard size with the picture on one side and space for a message and address on the other. Prior to this there had only been room for the address and stamp on the reverse side.

Increased numbers of sets of postcards were produced covering a wide range of subjects –

Oilette World Wide Series – introduced in the early 1900s with a surface that mimicked that of an oil painting. In the early versions even the brush stroke was simulated though the surface of later cards was smooth.

Silverette Series – made to look like a real photograph and printed with a high gloss finish.

Photochrome series – used a process of adding colour to black and white photographs. They tended to have exaggerations of scale with figures and other elements of the image. In addition, these elements such as the sky or trees were often incorrectly coloured or altered in different ways.

As a development of previous work I want to consider creating sets of ‘postcards’ which will relate to childhood memories particularly related to family belongings and the village itself.

Notes for studio practice

  • Look for examples in Dad’s collection
  • More generally, beyond Tuck cards, look at cards for design ideas
  • Think of childhood memories – what subjects could work as sets of cards?
  • Consider approach – cards reflecting techniques of Tuck series – e.g. exaggerated scale, unusual colours, alteration of elements, romanticised views or focus on one subject treated in different ways.
  • Materials – acrylic, oils, collage, use items from or related to family home.

Related Posts

Memories – Mapping – Village –

Memories – Mapping – Places of Interest –


Tuck DB Postcards (s.d) History of Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd At: (Accessed on 22.03.19)

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Miyako Ishiuchi – Memory Practice – Research Notes

For context on the theme of memories my tutor suggested reading Contemporary Art and Memory by Joan Gibbons. On reading Chapter 2, Traces, I was interested in the idea of works that “trace off the actual world” and the “indexical” relationship between the object being portrayed and that which is created. I found some of the concepts around signs and signifiers difficult to grasp but a second reading with more focus on the work of Miyako Ishiuchi has made this more understandable.

Film photography is often cited as a medium which embodies this indexical relationship in that there is a direct relationship in the way the process creates a semblance of the subject matter being photographed. The idea of the indexical relationship was a concept developed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914) through his work in semiotics. He identified three types of sign, the index, the symbol and the icon to demonstrate the differing relationships between an object and its representation, the signifier and the signified.

An indexical sign can be distinguished by the representation (that which is created) retaining something that relates to that point of creation, a sense of having ‘been there’. Peirce saw photographs as being indexical through the process of the exposure of the film producing an image of the subject at that point in time. Associated with this is the memories the individuals involved will relate to the photo.

A sense of this can be seen in the work of Miyako Ishiuchi. Ishiuchi was born in 1947 in Japan where she lives and works. She took up photography when she was twenty-eight, initially working to capture images of Japan after the Second World War. Broadly speaking her work explores the passing of time.


  • Subjects often based on the human body and related clothing and accessories.
  • Scars series (1991 – 2003) focused on close-ups of scars, showing the bodily trauma inflicted on her female subjects.
  • Mother’s (2000 – 2005) was made up of close-up photos of her mother’s ageing body and personal possessions. The indexical nature of her work is not just in the act of taking the photograph but in the traces of her mother left on the clothing and possessions.
  • Idea similar to Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1982) in his search for a photo of his mother. He was looking for one which, he felt, best captured her essence.
  • Photography has been a way to remember her mother and a means of coming to terms with the past.


  • Her work has influences of older types of remembrance photography. Close-up technique means individual not identified but their essence is. Clothing and accessories are often shown from a wider viewpoint emphasising the absence of the person.
  • Even on a small scale her work can have a monumental aspect more associated with sculpture.
  • There is a fetishistic quality about some of her work with the associations of memento mori, such as hair on brush or the way that lipstick has been shaped by her mother’s lips.
  • Her work can relate to the ideas of daguerreotypes as something to facilitate mourning. People are often seen from the front and are very still. Ishiuchi isolates objects and parts of the body creating this connection as well as working in black and white.

Creative Practice

  • Working close-up has the effect of isolating the connection with an individual but, in doing so, making it something that the viewer can associate with.  Relates to the idea of aura put forward by Barthes, that the power of an image is not the physical resemblance but the way in which the essence of someone or something is captured.
  • Uses a range of techniques – close-up and frontal viewpoints, symmetrical compositions, scaling up of image into close-up.
  • Often works in black and white, giving a more sombre, reflective feel.

Examples of Work

Mother’s #5 (2001) [External link – opens in a new window]

Like Louise Bourgeois, Ishiuchi uses items of her mother’s clothing in her work. This image of her mother’s petticoat, like other photos in the series, is both poignant and unsettling at the same time. It seems like an intrusion to be looking at the clothing of an elderly person that would have been hidden and not for show. It has a voyeuristic quality despite the familiarity of the item. Then again it speaks of the daily routine of selecting clothing, getting dressed and taking pride in your appearance.

Photographing it in black and white gives the image a timeless and more sensuousness quality that suggests something which we can easily overlook about old age and that is that we got there by being young. Despite her mother’s age the petticoat, photographed in black and white and starkly lit, gives a sense of her youth, of the private rituals of the girl who put on such a garment before getting ready to face the world.

Mother’s #36 (2001)  [External link – opens in a new window]

Another powerful image and, again, it is the fact of how ordinary it is that contributes to this. This photo is in colour, though it could almost be black and white. Ishiuchi has cropped in on one of her mother’s lipsticks. The lipstick casing is black and gold and what remains of the red lipstick is a lopsided stump, worn down by use. You can see where her lips have smeared the lipstick, making it uniquely hers, and yet universal in its appeal. Like the petticoat it speaks of the routines that we undertake to make ourselves ready for the outside world. It hints at the life behind the lipstick, of being old but still young enough to make sure you don’t go out without it.

Notes for studio practice

  • Ideas around colour – using limited palette
  • Victoria Crowe – idea of essence of a person, what is associated with them?
  • Close-ups – intimate but universal, zoom out – what is difference of impact?
  • Look for examples – close-up, limited colour, viewpoints, scale. cf Rhys James – small self-portraits in close-up give sense of being much larger in scale.


Ishiuchi, M. (2001) Mother’s #5 [Photograph] At: (Accessed on 24.02.19)

Ishiuchi, M. (2001) Mother’s #36 [Photograph] At: (Accessed on 24.02.19)

Related Posts

Louise Bourgeois – Memories –


Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Cape Publishing

Gibbons, J. (2007) Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Ito, K. (2006) ‘A Daughter’s Conversation’ In: 06.10.06 [online] At:  (Accessed on 23.02.19)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (s.d) Miyako Ishiuchi: What is a scar? [online] At:

Tate. (s.d.) Miyako Ishiuchi.  [online] At: (Accessed on 04.11.18)

Posted in 5. Becoming Aware - Research | Leave a comment

Palimpsests – Research Notes – Gregg Chadwick and Victoria Crowe

With various exercises in the course I have thinking of ways to convey childhood memories including experimenting with ideas from a childhood sketchbook, using photos taken with a Holga camera, and layering and scraping techniques to conceal and reveal what is underneath. This latter idea came into focus more recently with the work of Gregg Chadwick and Victoria Crowe.

In earlier stages of the course part of the appeal of medieval art and polychrome figures was the quality of wear and tear on the icons and sculptures. I liked this sense of time being conveyed in the layers of paint that have worn away and the scrapes and scratches that hint at the life of the object, where it has been and who has touched it.

I liked this idea but, at that stage, didn’t think to consider it in more depth. Then the word palimpsest began to crop up in reference to artists I was reading about and whose work I liked and, finally, I started to think that, in relation to my work around memory this was worth further investigation.

In medieval times creating manuscripts was a time-consuming and expensive task. One way to make the endeavour more cost-effective was to reuse the parchment which the manuscripts were written on. Papyrus scrolls were re-cycled by writing on the back. With manuscripts often both sides of the parchment were written on. In order to use them again the pages were washed and scraped and the result was known as a palimpsest. It was not always possible to create a completely clean page and beneath the new writing glimpses of the previous work could be seen.

Gregg Chadwick

At my tutor’s suggestion I have been looking at the work of Gregg Chadwick, particularly at a collection of his work, ‘Theater of Memory’.

In the catalogue for the exhibition Chadwick writes,

‘One could say we all create paintings as we distill meaning from the rush of life. Experiences, moments, thoughts, actions, memories, and dreams mix together and overlap in our minds and hearts bringing patterns and understanding in our everyday life.’ (Chadwick, 2011: 4)

This is all very relevant to the work I am exploring. There are times when I have doubted the wisdom of working with the theme of memories given that, as a family, we are all coming to terms with mum’s death. At times it has felt like too much and yet, paradoxically, working in this way has allowed me to think in different ways about these memories.

Chadwick also comments on his processes in relation to his work.

‘In Antiquity and later during the Middle Ages, manuscript pages from animal hides were often scraped down and used again. Faint traces of the underwritings on these parchments, called palimpsests, survived. My painting process involves a series of applications and erasures, echoing these layered fragments from the past. At times, I scrape down entire wet paintings leaving a fragile palimpsest. These under images often bring forth mysterious fragments from my subconscious.’ (Chadwick, 2011: 4-5)

Theater of Memory (2011) [External link – opens in new window]

The title piece for the exhibition shows Chadwick’s interpretation of the palimpsest. Across the canvas layers of blue, cream and peach create the effect of what could be a sunset or sunrise. Darker layers could be land in the distance or the Earth from above the clouds. You are in an indeterminate world. On the lower left of the painting the face of a child gazes into the distance, looking beyond the confines of the canvas. To the right the hazy figure of a man is walking towards us as if coming out of the mist. He appears to be looking directly towards the viewer.

The relationship of the two is not apparent from the image. It could be father and son or the child shown as the adult he will become. I like the ambiguity in the painting. Something my tutor has suggested is the idea of allowing more space for the viewer’s mind to wander, as in previous exercises I have created work that is too busy and doesn’t leave room to breathe. Chadwick’s work allows for this, leaving plenty of room for reflection.

Victoria Crowe

In many of Victoria Crowe’s paintings, regardless of the subject, you can see the directness of her relationship with the canvas. Initial layers of paint show through, thicker layers are added, the surface is scraped and reshaped, there are glimpses of added texture and gold. There is a real sense of how she has worked and reworked the canvas and responded to each element. I have written about the exhibition Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness but, in this post, I concentrate on one of her works that seems to me to embody the idea of the palimpsest.

Sign and Symbol: Herbarium Pages (2007), Oil and mixed media on linen [External link – opens in new window]

This work was part of the exhibition Plant Memory held in 2007. In Duncan Macmillan’s text ‘Victoria Crowe’ the artist talks about her process,

‘…I’ve used a collage of paper, applied linen and thickened the primer with pumice powder to split up and distress the surface, making some areas very absorbent, others very crisp. I used the iris watercolours as basis, treating each individual image very differently…Scraps of labels, descriptions, a books frontispiece, botanical cross section are all there. They have become a kind of poetic subtext and the plants, far from ‘reality’ now, become ciphers or hieroglyphs.’ (Macmillan, 2012: 112)

Even without the description the image itself gives so much insight into that process. The variations in style, exploration of different media and experimentation with texture offer a glimpse into her thinking as she works. I have been working with my own memory of being among, what seemed to be, very tall irises as a small child. Seeing this has given me ideas of ways in which I can explore this theme further and be more experimental with sketchbook work.

Notes for studio practice

  • More experimentation with ideas and techniques inspired by palimpsests
  • Think about this in relation to ideas about scrapbooks – the idea of individual elements brought together on the page, their connection in the mind of the person creating the scrapbook but also meaningful to others.
  • Experiment with space – actual space, faded images, fragments


Art Daily (2011) ‘Gregg Chadwick’s Theater of Memory at the Monterey Peninsula College Art Gallery’ [online] At: (Accessed on 20.01.19)

Crowe, V. (2005) Sign and Symbol – Herbarium Pages [Painting] At:  (Accessed on 20.01.19)

Related Posts

Memories – Irises and Bees –

Victoria Crowe – Beyond Likeness –


Chadwick, G. (2011) Theater of Memory. [online] At: (Accessed on 07.02.19)

Macmillan, D. (2012) Victoria Crowe. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd.

Toth, P. (2016) British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog [online blog] In: At: (Accessed on 29.01.19)

Posted in 5. Becoming Aware - Research | Leave a comment

Jonny Briggs – Research Notes

In an interview in Paper Journal, Jonny Briggs has discussed how, in coming to terms with loss, he has found himself rearranging the space where he lives and getting rid of old possessions. He describes it ‘as if I was rearranging the external as a way of rearranging the internal’ and I can relate to this.

In the past year we have been clearing the family home and making decisions about family possessions. This is a difficult process and, beyond that, there is the need to blend the ones that have been kept into your own life, something we are still working through.

In his Artist’s Statement Briggs says that in ‘search of lost parts of my childhood I try to think outside the reality I was socialised into and create new ones with my parents and self.’ Family members appear in his work, often in staged situations or through his approach of adapting family photographs. He notes in his Artist’s Statement that it is assumed that his work is digitally manipulated and some may be but ‘the images are often realised to be more real than first expected’. This adds another layer to his work, that of what is real and what is fake and how can we tell?


  • Work often focuses on memories associated with the family home.
  • He explores varying relationships, the child/adult, self/other and what is real/fake.
  • His relationship with the family home, and particularly his Grandmother’s house, made him see these places ‘as a metaphorical body’.


  • From childhood has been influenced by fairy tales and the works of C.S. Lewis and Enid Blyton.
  • Has referenced religion, the supernatural and poltergeist activity in his work.
  • In some of his work the gaze, either his own as the photographer, or that of the individuals being photographed, is a significant aspect.

Creative practice

  • He uses a range of approaches and materials including photography, staged installations and adapted objects.
  • He sees his practice as multi-disciplinary. For one project, Dummy (2012), he worked with scientists to grow a small house from human cancer cells.
  • Sees art as asking questions and science responding with answers.
  • Close to Home series (2013) used family photos which had been digitally altered. Adult faces were added to the bodies of children as a way to explore family relationships.

Examples of work

Two examples of Briggs’ work resonated in terms of work I have been doing in relation to childhood memories. I have been unable to link directly to the individual images but they can be accessed from the homepage of his website.

Reawakening, adapted object, wood [External link – opens in new window]

This image had the same effect on me as seeing two wooden chairs in the exhibition of Rosie Galloway-Smith’s work at the GSA Degree Show. We have chairs, like the ones at the exhibition and the one in the photograph, which came from mum’s house. It is a curious and unsettling experience to see items which have been such a part of your own childhood presented in this way. They have nothing to do with you as such but immediately your own memories and associations come into play. As much as that there is the feeling of connection to the artist and their work. You don’t necessarily have any idea of their relationship to these objects but the object itself creates a sense of common ground.

In the photograph the seat of the chair has been removed and the spar of the chair and one leg are broken. There is something human about the position, almost the pose of the chair, like someone who has hurt their leg and, to avoid pain, is attempting to keep it off the ground. The removal of the seat gives an unsettling quality, like a trick being played on you if you attempted to sit on it.

The Empathetic vs. The Mimic (2011) , Photography, C-type lambda print [External link – opens in new window]

In a number of his works Briggs photographs himself wearing a mask of his father’s face. Sometimes these images include his father and, again, the result is disconcerting. In this photo two masked figures, sitting on two single beds, face one another. They mirror each other and they are surrounded by the kind of day-to-day objects that accumulate in the family home. The objects are arranged symmetrically and, at first, given the number of objects, I assumed that the image had been digitally manipulated. On closer inspection there are subtle differences and you can just get a glimpse of the figure on the right behind the mask. It is that idea of what is real and what is fake, something that makes us stop and question what we are being presented with.

What I responded to in this image was less the figures than the objects. As with the previous example it is that sense of seeing something familiar among the unfamiliar. Grouping them in this way seems to sum up everything about a family home, the possessions of different generations, the seeming randomness of what we keep and what has had meaning for us. Even at a glance there is that jolt of connection, again, in the crochet blankets, blue and white china, plastic knives, small bedside lamps, star-shaped candle-holders, glass dessert dishes, books, cushions and those American Tan tights.

It is an image that is completely unlike, yet reminds me of, Victoria Crowe’s painting Last Portrait of Jenny Armstrong, where Jenny is surrounded by the possessions that give her sustenance emotionally and physically. The kind of items that have meaning to us can be large or small, cheap or expensive. They may seem to only have meaning for yourself or your family but take them out of context, in an exhibition or a photograph, and you connect with everyone else who has that similar sense of recognition. The associations we have with the objects are our own but they are part of a more collective bank of memories, a talking point that can be shared with other people, something that makes us, literally, part of a bigger picture.

Notes for studio practice

  • As part of my work around memories I have been thinking about all the things in the family home and how we attribute meaning to them. I’d like to think of this further and consider how to create more developed pieces of work around this idea.
  • Specifically think about possessions from family home – what mattered? To whom? Why? What emotions are associated with them? How can I use these within my work?
  • Think about using the objects themselves in some way.


Briggs, J. (s.d.) Reawakening [Adapted object] At: (Accessed on 26.01.2019)

Briggs, J. (2011) The Empathetic vs. The Mimic At: (Accessed on 26.01.2019)

Related Posts

GSA Degree Show 2018 – Rosie Galloway-Smith –

Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness –

Das, J. (2014) ‘Interview: Jonny Briggs’ In: 05.03.2014 [online] At:  (Accessed on 26.01.2019)

Jonny Briggs. (s.d) Artist Statement At: (Accessed on 26.01.19)



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Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness

Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
12th May – 18th November 2018

This retrospective of the portraiture of Victoria Crowe was a fascinating exhibition on a number of levels. Many of the portraits were shown alongside related colour studies, notes and sketchbooks, giving a glimpse into her process. As this is something I struggle with at times I made as many notes in relation to the studies as the completed works.

Several works in the exhibition related to themes that I have been working on throughout the course including memory and ageing. In addition, my tutor had suggested concentrating on analysing the surface of paintings and close observation of a number of works proved to be a worthwhile exercise. In this post I have selected two paintings within the exhibition which offered the opportunity to consider both the subject matter and the surface of the paintings in relation to my own practice.

Last Portrait of Jenny Armstrong (1986 – 87), Oil on board

Jenny Armstrong was Victoria Crowe’s neighbour when she lived in a village in the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh. This painting shows Jenny in her cottage at a stage in her life where she was confined to the house after being in hospital. What struck me here was how Crowe has captured that sense of losing your independence. She does this through the composition, the subdued palette and the possessions that surround Jenny.

Jenny had worked as a shepherd and spent most of her life out on the hills, which makes the confined space she is in all the more poignant. In an earlier painting, Interior, Monk Cottage (1981), not shown at the exhibition, Crowe shows Jenny in her living room. In Jenny is standing looking through the window at the hills beyond the house. This is in sharp contrast to the woman that is now in a wheelchair in the corner of a room with subdued light filtering through the curtains.

What really caught my breath about the painting was the way in which Jenny, with her back to the viewer, is completely absorbed in looking though the contents of her handbag. It is the kind of bag with a clasp that clicks shut with a satisfying clunk and is roomy enough inside for all those items that seem to become more meaningful in old age. My own mother and mother-in-law were inclined, as they got older, to check and double-check if they had bus passes and purses but particularly keys. In her hands Jenny has what could be a pension book and those keys. She is checking they are there even though her ability to move easily to use them is severely limited. It is that idea of knowing that you have the keys to your home, that you won’t be locked out or without shelter.

This sense of a world that is closing in is accented by the articles that surround her. On the surfaces are photos, a clock, basket with fruit, a ball of wool, a reel of blue thread, a small wicker basket with a long handle. For sustenance there is Weetabix, milk, bread, and an apple. On the bed in the foreground, which hems Jenny into the small space, is an old-fashioned floral quilt and a toy dog. For company there is a budgie in a cage.

The palette used by Crowe reflects this shadowed world. There are whites, creams, greens, burnt Sienna, ochres, pale blue and grey. Across the canvas these are applied in a variety of ways, there are thin layers and glazes and dark underlayers with lighter colours on top. The brushstrokes are dabbed and dragged with thicker layers of paint applied later. Crowe uses a range of marks including hatching, dabbing, blending and scoring into thicker paint.

All of this adds up to a portrait not just of Jenny Armstrong but of old age. There is loneliness and anxiety as she looks through the handbag. The basics of her life are there, she has shelter, food and company of sorts but illness has backed her into a corner. She is clinging on to independence, checking that bag, making sure she has her key.

Studio Venice: Mirrored View (2011), Oil on Linen

My research currently is focused on memories. I am exploring my own childhood memories and working on how to capture the elusive, fleeting quality of them.

The notion of a scrapbook has been in my head throughout the course without coming to anything but, somehow, never going away.  Studio Venice: Mirrored View brought me back to this idea.

Like many of Crowe’s images the painting delivers several impressions simultaneously. With its association with Venice it could be the exterior wall of a building or the faded remnants of a fresco. It conveys the texture of years of exposure to the elements, the surface is layered, scraped, blended and faded. That said it could be a window as a view of water and a distance skyline can be glimpsed. It is also the depiction of an inner world of people and places and memories that have meaning for the artist.

A variety of different elements make up the surface including, the faded florals of a fresco or wallpaper, skylines of churches and towers, the head and shoulders profile of a young woman. These are treated in different ways, faded tonal impressions of a flower, ink drawings of buildings, paper, collaged, as if torn from other sketchbooks.

On the right-hand panel a subtle gold stands out against muted purples. The painting, overall, glows with a palette of ochres, vermillion reds, lemon yellows, blues and pinks. It is a painting that invites contemplation and allows your thoughts to wander. It got me thinking again about the idea of a scrapbook and exploring this concept further. There is a lot here as well in terms of the depiction of memories in the use of colour, layers, collage and the fragmented and disparate elements that make up the shimmering surface of this inner world.

Notes for studio practice

  • Identity – links to medieval idea of possessions having meaning, representing the identity of an individual.
  • Inner landscapes – how to convey our inner worlds – what matters, has meaning, stays with you.
  • Surface – explore different ways to convey memories.


Crowe, V. (1981) Interior, Monk Cottage. [Painting] At: (Accessed on 18.01.19)

Crowe, V. (1986-87) Last Portrait of Jenny Armstrong [Painting] At:  (Accessed on 18.01.19)

Crowe, V. (2011) Studio Venice, Mirrored View [Painting] At: (Accessed on 18.01.19)


National Galleries of Scotland (2018) Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness. Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Victoria Crowe, (Accessed on 18.01.19)

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Tate Modern, London
23rd November – 2nd April 2018

Some notes from the Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern earlier last year. I have focused on a selection of pieces which appealed as I went around the exhibition and made me think of the question of identity.

Many years ago, when I first saw medieval sculptures at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, the elongated lines of the figures and the mere suggestion of the features of the face and body reminded me of Modigliani’s work. In an earlier part of this course I was interested in the ways in which medieval artists worked around the question of identity. As Christianity developed attempts were made to move away from earlier forms of image worship, common in pagan practices. Realistic representations of the human figure and nature were replaced by more formulaic approaches. The features of individuals were stylised to the point where they would have borne little resemblance to the person portrayed. To identify them artists used other means such as clothing, objects associated with the individual or coats of arms.

Modigliani was influenced by art from Africa and Cambodia as well as the artists of the 13th – 15th century Sienese School who in turn were influenced by Byzantine artists. From these influences he especially embraced the idea of exaggeration. His treatment of the human figure included elongated bodies, arched brows, long noses, small mouths and stretched necks. I was interested in the way that he takes this approach but the subjects of his portraits are still recognisable as individuals. What does he capture, or how does he capture, this essence of someone?

Head, c. 1911-1912, Limestone [External link]

This work showed a development from earlier sculpted heads in the exhibition where the features had a more human quality. This head is taller, more elongated, with a thinner face. The features are exaggerated in different ways either by stretching and expanding, such as the long nose and large eyes. This contrast is made greater by the tiny, pouting, full stop of a mouth and the way in which the eyes wrap around the head. The fringe of hair is almost sketched in. This example, from around 1912, shows how much Modigliani was prepared to, literally, stretch the boundaries of the human form. In later years he moved away from sculpture but continued to use many of these ideas in his paintings which retained a sculptural quality.

Marguerite, 1916, Oil on canvas [External link]

As we went around the exhibition my husband asked, how do you convey expression in an expressionless face? It was a question that made me think about the ways in which Modigliani manages to convey so much individuality while using the stylised features he is associated with.

Marguerite has own character despite almost formulaic large eyes, long nose and small mouth. Her neck is so stretched that you wonder how it can support her head. Modigliani takes individual features almost to the point of caricature but manages to keep these exaggerated elements distinctly human. Marguerite’s individuality is in her thin face and the shape and placement of her features. Her almond-shaped, hooded eyes are large and widely set. Her nose is long and sharp and she has wide, slightly pursed, lips.

There are other elements that make her who she is such as her clothing and the style of her hair. As much as this, a lot of the individuality does come from her expression. She has a relaxed pose with her arm over the back of the chair but her look is watchful, thoughtful. She gives Modigliani as much scrutiny as he is giving her and isn’t afraid to meet his gaze. The colour palette seems to reflect this characteristic of the sitter. Muted pinks, creams and ochre give a sense of coolness and restraint.

Portrait of a Girl, c. 1917, Oil on canvas [External link]

This portrait glows despite almost monochrome colours of dark maroon and dark brown. Modigliani uses paint in a more robust way than in other works. The brass handle of the door is raised with an outline of thick paint. On the door the paint is thickly applied and dragged in patches mimicking the wear and tear on the wood. The girl wears dark clothing and it is almost as if Modigliani is trying to make us notice the background as much as the sitter but, despite this, the ochres and pinks of the face make her stand out.

As with Marguerite this sitter has a long face and elongated neck. Her individuality shows in the curves of her face, her rounded eyes, tilted nose and small, but sensuous, lips. She is not looking directly at the viewer but seems lost in her own thoughts. There is a sadness about her but, despite this, a sense of defiance as if she is determined not to blend into the background.

These portraits are of two very individual woman. The sizing and placement of their features, their clothing, the way they sit and the colour palette used all say something about them.

In his female portraits the subjects often look at the viewer with expressions conveying a wide range of inner emotion. Among both the nudes and standard portraiture you can see boredom, longing, sadness and challenge and that is another element of their individuality. In meeting their gaze, we can get a revealing glimpse of the relationships Modigliani had with these women.

Notes for studio practice

  • Think about possessions/objects in relation to identity. Can they say as much about us as a portrait?

Related Posts

Early Medieval Art – Research Notes –

Amedeo Modigliani – Research Notes –


Modigliani, A. (c.1911-12) Head [Sculpture] At: (Accessed on 27.01.19)

Modigliani, A. (1916) Marguerite [Painting] At: (Accessed on 27.01.19)

Modigliani, A. (c. 1917) Portrait of a Girl [Painting] At: (Accessed on 27.01.19)

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