Art & artists

John Busby ARSA RSW

Artists in East Lothian continued to play an influential part in the visual arts in Scotland throughout the period. The county’s attractive landscape, long varied coastline, rural towns and villages with their strong sense of history and association, were reflected more obviously in painting than in other forms of visual art.

The ‘pastoral tradition’ evoked a century ago by such eminent painters as William Mactaggart, Arthur Melville, Robert Noble, William Miller Frazer, W.D. McKay and others, remained in evidence amongst later painters, but the landscape was seen for its contemporary vitality and relevance without nostalgia for a past age. Sir William Gillies, 1898-1973, who was born in Haddington, painted the Lothian and Border landscape he loved with a distinctive vision that profoundly influenced painters in the second half of the twentieth century. Previously, easy access by railway had added to the popularity of East Linton and Dunbar as favoured locations for artists but no collective artistic ‘school’ as such developed; most artists then, as at the end of the period, worked as individuals.

The sea coast and wide open skies were a constant theme in the contemporary paintings of John Houston and Christopher Wood, as were the sea cliffs, rock pools and prolific bird life of the Forth islands in the work of John Busby and Kenneth Wilson. In 1974, Glen Onwin made a multi-media study of the salt marsh at Tyninghame, resulting in a large Scottish Arts Council exhibition and tour. Edinburgh with its Festival, national collections, galleries and outlets for contemporary work, provided a stimulus to artists and art lovers in East Lothian that few other rural counties enjoyed, as well as a large population who appreciated the county on their doorstep.

Of all the Edinburgh institutions, the College of Art gave an enormous boost to the visual arts in Lothian, training outstanding artists and art teachers in the area. Demobilisation after 1945 returned to the college mature students whose studies had been interrupted by the war. A surge of creativity flowed under the aegis of William Gillies, Robin Philipson, James Cumming, Charles Pulsford and others. These and the artist/lecturers who followed made the college one of the most creative engines of art in Scotland. Among students from East Lothian schools in the late 1960s were James Fairgrieve and John Bellany, who came from Preston Lodge School where Bill Mercer was art teacher. They responded to tougher images of East Lothian – its power stations, the closing coalmines, and the lives of fishing folk in Port Seton, to become leading Scottish artists.

A number of professional artists were latterly based in East Lothian: sculptors Kenny Munro at Crossroads School, Kenneth Wilson at Cockburnspath, Kate Henderson in Aberlady; painters Hugh Buchannan at Woodhall, Alexander Cree at East Linton, John Busby at Ormiston Hall, Joan Renton and Alistair Fiddes Watt in Gifford, Brenda Lennaghan in Tyninghame, Lincoln Rowe and Sheena Phillips in Haddington, Ann Forbes at Innerwick, Liz Fraser at Pitcox, Beth Robertson at West Saltoun, Carmen Ambrosevich in Dunbar, Marie Scott and Glen Gibb in North Berwick, Christopher Wood at Whittingehame, Harry and Marie-Anne More-Gordon in Inveresk, Rab Snowden in Prestonpans, Jessie Mathew and Jonathan Gibbs at Keith Marischal, and many more. Doris Ann Goodchild, who wrote and illustrated ‘East Lothian: the countryside, the towns and villages around Haddington, as seen by Doris Ann Goodchild‘ (Dow Croal Ltd 1980), and other books about Scotland, lived in Haddington until her death in 1999. The support given during this period by arts clubs to amateur artists and those interested in the arts should not be under-estimated. Art clubs thrived in Gifford, founded in 1974; North Berwick, 1972; East Linton, 1989; Dunbar, 1970; and Musselburgh, 1979. The Lamp of Lothian set up the Visual Arts Workshop in the Poldrate Arts and Craft Centre in Haddington in 1972, providing workshop facilities and day and evening classes.

To run a country gallery and maintain a high standard and regular patronage is not easy.

In 1967 the impresario Peter Potter with Tom Criddle opened his gallery in the old fire station in Haddington, attracting work of real quality. Since Peter’s death in 1982 the gallery has continued under the Peter Potter Charitable Trust and is a venue for artists and craftsmen from East Lothian and beyond. William Macaulay converted the pub at Stenton into a gallery in 1980 and, with a continuous high standard, drew visitors out from the city. The Stenton Gallery, as it became, was run by Barbara Christie as a successful commercial enterprise. She also organised exhibitions of East Lothian artists in Edinburgh during the Festival. Martin Forrest similarly exhibited East Lothian artists’ work in the Bourne Fine Art gallery in Edinburgh; in 1991 he opened his own gallery in Haddington, specialising in 19th and 20th century artists. One exhibition featured early Haddington paintings by William Gillies.

In the 1970s and 1980s, The Lamp of Lothian held notable exhibitions by distinguished artists including Sir Robin Philipson and the Earl Haig, in Haddington House during the Edinburgh Festival, as well as many mixed exhibitions. The Dirleton Gallery and the Westgate Gallery in North Berwick also ran exhibitions through the year. East Linton Traders sponsored open exhibitions with prizes each year from 1967. Children’s art was encouraged annually by the Peter Potter Gallery and by such organisations as the River Tyne Trust, and local libraries and museums. Following the success of ‘Pastoral Art in East Lothian’ in the City Art Gallery (18th November-13th January 1996), part of the exhibition was shown at North Berwick museum during 1996. In 1999, the museum showed ‘At the Edge’, an exhibition of paintings and photographs by Kenneth Wilson, inspired by rock forms on the coast. In Musselburgh, the foyer of the Brunton Hall was another venue for exhibitions, as was the Loretto Gallery; a large John Bellany painting was on permanent display in the Brunton Hall. East Lothian History and Arts Trust sponsored an open ‘Arts Fair’ in 1985 in the Brunton Hall.

No county gallery existed in East Lothian up to 2000, but plans for a new Culture Centre in Haddington to house artworks from the Council, were at the planning stage. A ‘community arts officer’ was appointed by East Lothian Council in 1999, the first holder of this post being Clare Graham.

Before the 1990s there were few public sculptures in East Lothian. One, by Leslie Chorley, representing symbols of the coal industry was erected in Prestonpans in 1968. The fighting goats in Haddington originated in Norway; they were formerly sited at the Tanberg factory and gifted to the town by Mitsubishi in 1979. Following its showing at the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival, Stan Bonnar’s ‘Man with Fish’ was positioned in the pond at West Barns, to considerable debate in The Scotsman the following year. In 1997, Tranent commissioned a dynamic portrayal by David Annand of Jackie Crookston, who led the town revolt in 1797. David Annand also sculpted the ‘Leda and the Swan’ by the swimming pool in Dunbar, and the town has honoured John Muir with a statue of his boyhood days there, by Ukrainian sculptor Valentin Znoba, erected in 1997 (to the predictable ‘waste of money’ criticism which too often bedevilled public art). Two stone carvings by Chris Hall were being installed in 2000/1, one at Murdoch’s Green in Fisherrow, and the other at Tyne Court in Haddington. A ‘birdbath’ by George Wylie was placed on the site of the redeveloped swimming pool at Port Seton in 2000/1 – hopefully the start of more sponsored sculpture, as a ‘Coastal Walk’ develops in the next period.

A sculpture for children by Kenneth Wilson was placed in the Community Centre at Port Seton. Sculptor Kenny Munro built a replica of the 21′ 6′” canoe ‘Forerunner’, in which Captain Francis Cadell of Cockenzie sailed down the Murray River in Australia in 1852.

‘Forerunner 2’ was launched as part of the Cockenzie Gala in June 2000 and was then taken to Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum. It was hoped that an artistic exchange be created between East Lothian and Australia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Captain Cadell’s epic voyage, and the Cockenzie folk who settled with him in Goolwa.

Whatever traditions, pastoral or otherwise, there were in the arts of the county by 2000, I am sure that future artists will respond with fresh creative energy in each generation. It is up to those who sponsor the arts to show an equal sense of adventure and commitment so that we can all celebrate the full extent of cultural life in East Lothian.