In the next few weeks I’ll be posting an artist’s diary about creating a series of paintings for The Folio Society’s publication of The Living Mountain, by author Nan Shepherd.
(The Folio Society edition of Nan Shephard’s The Living Mountain illustrated by Rose Strang and introduced by Robert Macfarlane is exclusively available at www.foliosociety.com)
Link to book …
Part One. The Living Mountain Commission
In December 2020, with the prospect of an indefinite lockdown stretching ahead, I received an uplifting email …
Sheri Gee, Artistic Director of The Folio Society, emailed to ask if I’d be interested in creating a series of paintings to accompany their publication of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. They were not yet decided she explained, but simply wanted to get a sense of my interest in the project. My first panicked thought was; ‘If they’re asking other artists right now I’d better respond to let them know!’ and immediately rang Sheri’s phone number.
Picking up on my enthusiasm, Sheri confirmed the panel’s decision after a few days by email; ‘It’s a big fat Yes!’ she wrote. My partner Adam reached in to the fridge which contained an unopened bottle of Cava, and poured two celebratory glasses.
This commission meant a lot to me – far more meaningful than any artist’s painting award. When I first read The Living Mountain (in 2014, a year before Nan Shepherd’s portrait appeared on the Scottish £5) I remember feeling a thrill of recognition – her way of seeing felt somehow familiar to me. I expect many creative-minded people feel similarly when reading The Living Mountain.
Almost every page has vividly-written descriptions that blossom in the reader’s imagination. It became obvious to me, as I read the book, that Nan observed like an artist – that she spent a lot of time looking. Sometimes pragmatically – to assess terrain for example, but more often she gazed at length to observe the effect of the mountain on her mind and senses. Nan immersed herself wholly in the experience of the Cairngorms. Perhaps this is why the book has become so iconic. It’s obviously more than a description of mountain climbing. The holistic nature of her exploration seems to chime particularly with our times. I’m sure it would have equally in her own time, had people paid more attention.
I’d been inspired by Nan’s book in 2014, and I’d thought then of walking the Cairngorms to create a series of paintings, but life had thrown up other plans and projects. On receiving the news in 2020 that I was to be commissioned by the Folio Society I knew that somehow, despite lockdown restrictions, I had to get to the Cairngorms. I also wanted to explore Nan’s life more deeply; what mattered to Nan, creatively – what might she have chosen if she’d sought an artist for her book?
It was around this time that Sheri Gee contacted me to ask if I’d like to meet Erlend Clouston (the Literary Executor of Nan Shepherd’s Estate). As it happened Erlend also lived in Edinburgh. I replied of course I’d love to meet him. Erlend and I arranged to meet up and it proved to be more than informative; I gained a real sense of the sort of person Nan was, given that she part-raised Erlend in a sense. More than that, I felt my approach as an artist was affirmed by him, or in other words – I got the go-ahead to do my thing!
Coming up: Part Two: Erlend Clouston on his friendship with Nan Shepherd.