Kirkcudbright is a small homely town in South West Scotland. It’s built on a grid pattern and the terraced houses are fronted with an attractive mix of stone and pastel-coloured render. Once a busy fishing harbour on the tidal Dee estuary off the Solway Firth it now promotes its “Artists’ Town” status. Don’t expect St Ives, but there are plans to convert the rather down-at-heel town hall into an art gallery of national significance by the summer of 2017.
Every summer the town hall hosts a major exhibition. This year it’s “The Airdrie Boys” – John Cunningham and Dan Ferguson – and this week I went to see the exhibition. The two painters were born a year apart, both were educated at Airdrie Academy and Glasgow School of Art, both served in the armed forces in the 1940s and both did considerable stints of teaching – they could have been twins if Dan Ferguson had grown a beard!
John Cunningham’s work is immediately attractive with its bold brush strokes and bright colours. His strength is his paintings of the West coast of Scotland and the islands. I particularly liked the pictures of South Uist and Colonsay. They made me wish I was there, standing on the white shell sand on a brilliant summer day (that piercingly clear light of the islands when the sun finally appears). There were other landscapes, still lives and portraits, including some of the poet and academic, Alan Riach, John Cunningham’s nephew. A few of Alan’s poems were reproduced for the exhibition, including the atmospheric “Calderbank nostalgia” looking back in imagination at a boyhood escapade of climbing on a shed roof –
“You can see –
All the way to Africa!”
I enjoyed Alan Riach’s description of Cunningham’s still life paintings: “Always they look fresh, depicted in that moment when you might stand and pause, take in what is presented, anticipate the prospect of a crisp apple or a succulent pear. Give thanks, sing praise, take pleasure.”
That quotation captures the upbeat quality of Cunningham’s work which contrasts with the edginess of Dan Ferguson’s pictures. Ferguson’s paintings are darker in colour and content. He was an artist who experimented, took risks. There were mystical canvasses with rainbows and angels and turbulent semi-abstract pictures (“Culzean Landscape” and “Breaking Wave”) where thickly applied paint physically enacted the storms it depicted. Ferguson taught in schools in Glasgow’s East End and was profoundly moved by the experience. “Dolly Walker”, “Scrap Yard”, “Back Court” show Glasgow’s mid 20th century urban deprivation – they are impressionistic portraits of people and places, complete with gang boys’ graffiti. They reminded me of the Glasgow paintings of Joan Eardley, friend of the poet, Edwin Morgan.
Alan Riach’s “Elegy for Don Ferguson” picks out the painter’s use of shadow:
“Your death is there to make the worth
of colour, tone and emphasis –
when shadows fall, they never fall in black ...
Dan, stop my words.
Tonight for you, I’ll think of all
the colours of the world, moving.”
I drove back via Laurieston to see the red kites and Castle Douglas where I had a very sticky cake in a café.
“The Airdrie Boys” can be seen at Kirkcudbright Town Hall until 30 August (daily 10 – 5).
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