Coming up early this year are two exciting exhibitions taking place in Edinburgh …
The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response
The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response showcases new paintings by Rose Strang and goes on exhibition at the Scottish Poetry Library then the Heriot Gallery, Edinburgh in 2023.
A response to one of Scotland’s best-loved classics of landscape literature, this series of paintings was commissioned by the Folio Society Londonfor their 2021 publication of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.
‘But did I dream that roe? The Living Mountain Series’. Oil on on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
‘For not getting lost is a matter of the mind. The Living Mountain Series’. Grid paper, and acrylic on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
Robert MacFarlane, award-winning author of best-selling books The Lost Words and The Wild Places and one of the UK’s best-known devotees of The Living Mountain, writes in the introduction to this Folio publication of the book:
Strang’s paintings are intensely dynamic, seethingly alive with stroke, dab, scratch and drip. Each of Strang’s seven paintings takes a phrase from The Living Mountain and dreams a response to it.
7pm, 17th February: Panel discussion and audience Q+A with Erlend Clouson (Nan Shepherd’s literary executor, Rose Strang, Merryn Glover (author of A House Called Askival, currently writing a book inspired by Nan Shepherd) and Kerri Andrews (author of A History of Women Walking, currently editing a volume of Nan’s letters). Chaired by Anna Fleming (author of Time on Rock).
The Scottish Poetry Library, Crichton Close, Royal Mile, Edinburgh.
Above: Scottish Highlands – “…with rain on your eyelashes”. Oil on 48×48 inch canvas. Rose Strang 2022.
The Scottish Highlands could be described as northern rainforest with an average of 182 inches of rain falling each year! Dreich! You might say, but it’s all about perspective …
The commissioner of the painting above, is Jamie Johnston, who lives in Colorado where she runs a wonderful organic bee farm that’s been in the family since 1908 – The Beekeeper’s Honey Boutique.
Jamie decided to get married in Scotland back in 2016 – ‘It rained the whole time’ she said, ‘but I loved it!’ She got in touch with me because she’d ordered a copy of the Folio Society’s publication of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. (I’d been commissioned to provide paintngs for the book). Jamie described her enjoyment of the paintings while reading the book, which led to her contacting the Limetree Gallerywho represent most of my work.
She particularly loved the rainy dark ones which I love painting – they reminded her of the rainy weather during her romantic holiday and wedding in the Scottish Highlands.
Jamie decided that what she’d really like was a large version for the walls of her new home. The remit was just to paint whatever I liked, as long as it captured something of the Scottish Highlands drenched in rain. As any artist knows, it’s such a pleasure to be given a free rein to experiment, so I immediately began to visualise how it might look and how I’d create the right feel and atmosphere.
Jamie had sent a few photos of her time in the Highlands, which were really lovely as photos, but she explained these were just to give a sense of the sort of thing that had caught her eye – she didn’t intend for me to copy them. I did use one of them as a starting point, for composition and because I liked the waterfall and cloudy skies. Once the basic composition was sketched in though, I just built up layers of paint, drips and splodges until it had what I thought was the right feel. I wanted to get the sense of the Highlands – that pelting rain can quickly turn to sunshine then back again in the course of a few minutes!
Also giving a true sense of how water forms the landscape in Scotland, cutting swathes through rock and landscape over time – and further back in time – the retreating glacial action that gave those hump-backed whale-like shapes to the mountains.
You never know if you’ve managed to capture what a person has in mind, so I was swithering a bit on whether to add more, or change the painting. In the end I decided to send the image to Jamie by email to see what she thought. Painting it was a pleasure, but how someone reacts is what makes the commission a success.
I opened the email with some trepidation, so you can imagine what a huge smile Jamie’s reply put on my face for the rest of the day! …
I am dying!!! WOW!!! It is soooo incredibly beautiful…even more so than I imagined possible!!! Like I literally cannot stop staring at it!!! Those clouds…the colors on the mountain…those colors of that mountain valley down below…SERIOUSLY…how do you do that?! That is incredible!!! The talent that you have contributed to this world literally blows me away!!! I’ve never used this many exclamation marks in my life but I am on such a high right now!!!
It is beautiful. I love it immensely. Thank you for sharing your talent with me. It makes me very happy knowing I get to hang this (the first picture we will hang in our new home) & I can have a coffee or glass of whiskey & just stare at it & get lost in my memories through your beautiful painting. THANK YOU!!! Love, love, love. You captured EVERYTHING I had hoped for & then some”.
This blew me away as a response – music to my ears indeed!! Jamie also gave me the go-ahead to title the painting and so I began to think of romantic poems by Scottish poets (I too find the rainy Highlands romantic!) my favourite was this little gem, by Edwin Morgan:
Kiss me with rain on your eyelashes, come on, let us sway together, under the trees, and to hell with thunder.
Hence the title! Scottish Highlands – “…with rain on your eyelashes”. And here’s another photo to show scale ..
The painting in situ
A HUGE thank you to Jamie for this really lovely commission – Jamie and partner can always expect a warm welcome here in Edinburgh should they return at some point. In the meantime, I too shall enjoy a wee whisky in front of it before it wings its way through the clouds to Colorado!
‘Among Elementals. Book cover. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 60x42cm wood. Rose Strang 2020
My first painting attempt for the series was the book cover. Artists reading this journal can imagine how overwhelmed my mind was with possibilities. How was I going to paint Nan’s experience of the Cairngorms? Any decent landscape artist could paint a scene of the Cairngorms and, had someone got in touch with me to say; ‘Can I commission you to paint a view of the Cairngorms for my friend’s birthday?’ I’d know they were probably looking for an iconic and recognisable Cairngorms vista!
This was definitely not what Sheri Gee was looking for, nor was I. I knew what she was looking for because of the selection of paintings she sent me as examples of why she’d chosen my work. They were paintings I’d created over recent years that were mostly inspired by literature or music. None were commissions – they were all self-motivated experimental works from imagination, mostly taking the form of semi abstract landscape. I was intrigued by Sheri’s selection, because these were paintings I’d struggled over – to create something meaningful. The process had had no known outcome at the start of each painting. I wondered how I’d manage to keep this very loose experimental and intensive approach while also expressing something of Nan’s descriptions and vision; it felt like a bit of a creative tightrope to me.
I started with the idea that Nan was inspired by Buddhism. She might have seen paintings by Chinese or Japanese artists expressing ideas of space and spirituality in landscape – a sense of being. The painting below was my first attempt at a book cover. I was quite pleased with it and the Folio Society were too in a sense, but the problem was that it didn’t say ‘Mountain’, and for the book cover at least there needed to be something to hint at the contents of the book!
Front Cover painting 1. Rose Strang 2020
I made the following attempts (below) but wasn’t satisfied with those either.
Front Cover painting 3. Rose Strang 2020
Front Cover painting 2. Rose Strang 2020
By this time I’d been feeling frustrated for days. I’d ended up with too much colour when what I’d dreamed of was a mystical elemental feel in monochrome. I looked at the two beautiful Turner sketches (below), which re-inspired me to start again with a black acrylic base, onto which I began paintings swathes of oil in various shades of pale grey.
December light in Scotland is horrible to paint in – I ended up chucking solvent at the painting just to break it up and deliberately make a mess. This helped me break away from indecisive dabbing, so I could stand back and see more objectively. Usually I’d look at the painting in a mirror at this stage for further objectivity, but I just felt grumpy and tired. Later on two of our neighbours, Andrew and Carly, dropped by and said ‘that’s great’. I hmphh-ed in response then realised they weren’t just being polite and said, ‘Thanks’.
The next day I worked a little more on the area of water. The oils had dried somewhat, and as often happens with oils, the colours had resolved into something subtle and interesting. I sent it off to Sheri Gee, alongside the other cover image painting. They liked it and though I still wasn’t satisfied, I felt it worked as a book cover.
Looking at it now, with a little more perspective, it actually does capture the feel of Cairngorms in the snow, especially the sense of ever-changing snowdrifts and subtle colour changes.
Part of my frustration was that, thanks to lockdown, I didn’t know if it was possible to visit the Cairngorms. There seemed to be nowhere open where we could stay. There was also the restriction on going further than five miles. Usually I’d have gone there immediately and stayed a few days to at least imbibe the atmosphere before painting, it felt utterly wrong not to be there. I began to scrutinise government guidelines for possibilities; how dangerous could it be to drive with Adam to the midst of a windswept remote mountain range? In terms of covid-risk surely almost zero – we’d seen almost no-one outside of close family and friends.
A peruse of the convoluted government guidelines revealed (five or so pages and several links in) that it was possible to travel for work-related purposes if the work couldn’t be carried out at home. I wanted Adam to come for photography reasons, to document our trip as well as the fact I wanted to share this experience with him. I take my own photos as occasional painting references, but I wanted to focus on that rather than documenting, plus it freed me up to focus on surroundings.
In terms of mountain climbing the Cairngorms in winter, the risk was real though. I hadn’t climbed a mountain for a few years and neither my nor Adam’s map and compass-reading skills were impressive – I’d always relied on someone else for those. Neither was our fitness level. I felt lockdown-softened and I knew I was no ‘Nan’ in terms of mountain adventure, I accepted that my role was artist not mountaineer! I decided to get in touch with Liam Irving of Cairngorm Adventure Guides, who recommended one of their guides – Emma Atkinson – to steer us up to the plateau.
To prepare, we embarked on a daily walking regime, starting with circuits of the peaks of Arthur’s Seat, then on to the biggest hills to hand near Edinburgh – the Pentlands. Conditions were ideal, with recent snowfalls the conditions were almost Cairngorm-esque we felt. All that remained was to upgrade our anoraks and wax our boots.
Coming up:Pt 4: In the Cairngorms
Cainrgorm Ridge from Loch Morlich. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
Part Two: Erlend Clouston on his friendship with Nan Shepherd.
A few days before my meeting with Erlend I’d been at my friend Donald’s house where we’d chatted about Nan Shepherd. As Donald played guitar I began doodling/sketching on his blackboard. It was a picture of a valley with an overhanging rockface. As I stood back I thought the rock-face resembled a lion’s head, so I emphasised that then drew a quick sketch of Nan Shepherd resembling her iconic image with headband (as on the Scottish £5 note)
Later that evening, I began to look online for paintings of the Cairngorms by various artists. One stood out. It was a valley with an overhanging rock that looked like a lion’s head, which is in fact situated to the east of Braemar in the east of the Cairngorms. I found this slightly spooky, a bit eldritch to use one of Nan Shepherd’s words! Nan grew up in the village of Cults outside Aberdeen and it’s possible her first forays into the Cairngorms would have started from the valleys near Braemar.
The Lion’s Face, near Braemar. James William Giles. 1854
Lion’s Face Rock
Erleand and I had loosely planned to take a wander around Arthur’s Seat, but on the day, given the noisy traffic around the hill and a gusty wind, it seemed more sensible to find somewhere quiet to sit. On our way to finding a café, we chatted about Nan’s interests. It turned out that Erlend’s mother had, in a sense, been informally adopted by Nan Shepherd.
Erlend’s grandfather (his mother’s father), a sea captain, ran off when his mother was very young, Erland explained:
“She [Erlend’s mother] and her mother naturally moved into the orbit of the grandparents who lived in Cults [the village in Aberdeenshire where Nan lived] and were close friends of the parents of a young teacher-training college lecturer, Anna Shepherd [Nan]. Child and adult developed a rapport that lasted all their lives. When my mother married and children came along we were absorbed unequivocally into Nan’s orbit. We were living in Shetland then. Every summer holiday, so far as I can remember, I spent with my mother in Nan’s house. She obviously became a close companion to us all. We would be taken for walks through local forests and along the local railway line – very thrilling experiences for residents of Shetland!”.
I wondered if this close friendship had carried on into adulthood for Erlend. Such family friendships might be left in childhood as life is taken up with work and new relationships. On the contrary, as Erlend described:
“Even when we grew up and moved away from home (by now in Banchory, on Deeside), Nan always remained an adjunct to our lives. Letters were regularly exchanged, visits regularly made. She took me on a walking holiday in Switzerland, and down to London to see Laurence Olivier in The Master Builder”.
This gave me the sense of a family friend who was more like an aunt to Erlend – someone who thought about experiences that would enhance his life, as a boy and adult, through landscape and culture. Was there a sense of Nan as a writer back then? Erlend’s reply suggested somewhat rueful hindsight:
“We were vaguely aware that she had been a writer, but she chose never to mention this, and we were too self-centred to inquire. So the discovery of the quality of The Living Mountain, a few years after she had died, was quite shocking, for all sorts of reasons”.
Erlend and I discussed this; I could certainly relate to a sense of regret that in younger years we’re often so focussed on the compelling (sometimes overwhelming) events of life, that we may not explore another’s perspective as conscientiously as we do in later years. He also talked a little on the subject of Nan’s apparent lack of ego, expressing humorously that if he’d had her writing talent he’d have been constantly promoting and pushing for publication of his work! It’s well-known among Shepherd aficionados however, that although Nan had previously published three works of fiction, she approached just one publisher in the 1940s with the manuscript of The Living Mountain. When they refused it, she simply kept it in a drawer until its publication many years later, when she was in her 80s.
Erlend speculated about her experiences of being an author at a time when women were generally less encouraged to publish their work. This particular conversation included an anecdote about Nan Shepherd’s interactions with her contemporary, Lewis Grassic Gibson, (an author also living in Aberdeenshire) …
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy (A Scot’s Quair) about his fictional heroine Chris Guthrie coming of age in rural Aberdeenshire: Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite is well-known as part of Scotland’s literary canon. I’d read this trilogy in my twenties, thoroughly enjoyed the first, less so the second and had just about tolerated the third – Grey Granite. Erlend smiled when I described my response to Grey Granite; “It was like a lump of granite going ..” – I brought my hand down on the table – thud!
Returning to Erlend’s anecdote; Nan had known Lewis Grassic Gibbon, he was at least an acquaintance of Nan’s. He was familiar with her three works of fiction; The Quarry Wood (published 1928, four years before Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song) The Weatherhouse and finally A Pass in the Grampians, which was published in 1933. All three focus mainly on the lives of young women growing up in rural Aberdeenshire. Erlend asked me; “What would you do if a friend of yours gave an insulting review of one of your exhibitions?”. I replied that I’d at the very least make a mental note to avoid that person – I’d be hurt and probably angry. Erlend went on to describe Grassic-Gibbon’s review of Shepherd’s A Pass in the Grampians; “When I read it I thought … ooof! It was harsh”.
‘”His [Grassic Gibbon’s] 1933 review of A Pass in the Grampians claimed:
‘Miss Nan Shepherd writes about … a Scots religion and Scots people
at three removes — gutted, castrated and genteely vulgarised’.’
Ooof. What also gave me pause for thought was Erlend’s conclusion to the tale; When Lewis Grassic Gibbon died, Nan Shepherd set up a trust fund to help support his widowed wife and their children.
Charlotte Peacock and Erlend Clouston both speculate on the fact that Nan’s literary career never reached the glittering heights of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s, perhaps because she was never accepted or lauded by the influential London literary establishment? Or was it partly a lack of ambition? Or her circumstances? Nan cared for her mother in later years, then for the family housekeeper, Mamie Lawson, who became ill in later life. Erlend and I discussed, or speculated on, whether it was possibly the fact that Nan explored Buddhist philosophy quite deeply; perhaps in later years this influence may have diluted the efforts of ego required to promote literary ambitions? Possibly all of these influences played a part.
Having read the works by Grassic Gibbon and Shepherd mentioned above, it’s clear to me (and many other far more academic literary commenters and readers) that the work of these two authors is on a par. It’s thanks in part to a feminist-influenced, or female-centric, readdressing of Scottish literature that Nan Shepherd’s literary talents have been reintroduced and brought to light, which has in turn encouraged readers to re-assess her influence, at the time, on writers such as Grassic Gibbon.
There’s no doubt, though, that Erlend Clouston’s dedicated role as literary executor to Nan’s estate, following her death in 1981, has been most instrumental in the protection and promotion of her legacy. The author Robert MacFarlane’s introductions to publications of the Living Mountain, including this recent Folio Society publication, have also brought the work of Nan Shepherd to the attention of wider readership beyond Scotland – particularly as a welcome addition to the landscape and nature writing genre for which MacFarlane is widely known and appreciated. (More on Robert MacFarlane later in this journal).
I decided, at the risk of sounding odd, to recount to Erlend my interesting experience of sketching a valley and Lion’s Face Rock, though I’d had no previous knowledge of this landscape. Did Erlend have any knowledge of Nan’s experience of this area of the Cairngorms? Could he tell me about her interests in literature? In spirituality, or religion? She’d lived only a few miles from Huntly, where the author George MacDonald grew up. I explained that George MacDonald (probably best known for The Princess and the Goblin, amongst his many works of literature) had been a source of inspiration in my life, as had C.S. Lewis. I briefly described to him my most recent project for which I’d created a series of paintings in response to the imagined landscapes of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and the fact that each book in the series was (as discovered by author Dr Michael Ward) influenced by the planets as they were understood in Medieval cosmology.
Landscape, alongside faith and spirituality, had been a powerful and central focus for all of these authors; Would Nan have been influenced by them, or read their works? My (somewhat disparate!) questions and descriptions elicited a thoughtful and fascinating response. Firstly, Erlend replied:
“‘Coincidences’ are always slightly unsettling. I have had two involving Nan. The first was in 1982 when the (London-based) literary editor of the Guardian called in at the Manchester office where I worked and handed over a couple of books for me to review. One of these was ‘The Living Mountain’. What are the odds on a son of the woman informally adopted by Nan half a century earlier being asked to give Nan’s book its first national review?!”.
Erlend described his response to reading Nan’s book. He remembered sometimes seeing a copy of The Living Mountain in Nan’s house when he was younger. At the time, he’d supposed it was simply an account of mountain climbing – nature notes perhaps, or routes. When the book arrived on his desk for review, about fifty years later while working for the Guardian in Manchester, he began reading and it quickly became apparent that this was much more than a dry account of mountain-climbing. He was fascinated and moved by the book, which was published after Nan’s death; ‘To my infinite regret, Nan was actually dead by the time I got round to reading/reviewing TLM”.
Responding to my question about the author George MacDonald, Erlend replied that in fact he’d discovered a book in Nan’s library that was signed by George MacDonald – “I’ll send you photos” he promised. He went on to describe the second “coincidence” regarding his, and Nan’s, literary interests;
“A few years ago, when I was pursuing a thematic link between Nan and Alice in Wonderland I was interested in the fact that Charles Dodgson [aka Lewis Carroll] had been encouraged to publish ‘Alice’ by Scottish mystic-cum-author, George MacDonald. I wondered if Nan might have had any books by said George, and wandered over to the shelves where I keep what remains of Nan’s library. The very first (decrepit) looking volume I pulled out was ‘Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character’ by E.B. Ramsay, Dean of Edinburgh….and the signature inside was…. George MacDonald’s (dated May 11, 1898)”.
Erlend revealed yet another literary link related to my questions;
“Very quickly after this I remembered that Nan had made my sister presents of some of George MacDonald’s very highly-regarded children’s books, viewed as the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, and influential on Tolkien. I still have the copy of ‘The Princess and The Goblin’, inscribed ‘DEIRDRE, with birthday love from NAN, 16th June, 1950’. Then there is the curious fact that Virginia Woolf, to whom Nan is often compared, created a time-travelling hero(ine), Orlando whose multi-century master-work, The Oak Tree, is finally published in 1928, the same year as Nan’s first novel, The Quarry Wood!”.
I was intrigued by these coincidences, and delighted to hear the endorsement of MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin by Nan via Erlend! My sister and I were gifted this book by our mum in the 1970’s. Our edition dated from the 1950’s, with beautiful illustrations by Charles Folkyard (first editions were illustrated by Arthur Hughes).
The connection between Nan Shepherd and George MacDonald was meaningful to me for many reasons. Obviously they shared a love of Aberdeenshire landscape having grown up there (Nan in Cults, MacDonald in Huntly. It’s extremely doubtful their lives intersected in person at any point. Nan would have been a girl when MacDonald was in his last years (as an adult and until the end of his life he lived mainly in the south of England or abroad due to the poor condition of his lungs). Erlend continued on the theme of MacDonald:
“Nan was obviously very impressed by MacDonald’s qualities as a writer, and possibly as well by his qualities as a mystic. How did she come by the autographed book? I can’t think she got it from his hand when she was five. Maybe she sought it out in later life, perhaps at a library sale, or just struck lucky in a second-hand bookshop. Anyway, she clearly thought it was worth having!”
Had Nan sought to enhance Erlend’s imagination as a boy? I was intrigued with the sense of Nan as an influence in the young Erlend’s life. What interests might she have encouraged? As it turned out, Nan had in fact gifted Erlend with a copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Erlend was:
“… quite sure that Nan was, in effect, signalling her world view when she presented me with a multi-volume hard-back version of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ years before it was celebrated. She had seen the damage that Modernity had inflicted on the world; Tolkien presents a graphic and gripping metaphor for civilisation’s predicament. Eden – the Shire – is under enormous threat from the machine-and-conquest obsessed forces of Mordor. The dilapidation that Nan records in the Cairngorms and her novels mirrors the dilapidation that Frodo and friends find in the Shire when they return: trees destroyed, people uprooted, misplaced faith in the machine. The fight against brutalisation is an endless one. It is easy to forget that the Lord of the Rings was written over the same morale-sapping period as ‘The Living Mountain’. In his wartime letters Tolkien refers to bombers – of both sides- as “Mordor gadgets.”
MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien; each of them had written evocatively and atmospherically about landscape. Their descriptions coloured my experience of landscape as I grew up; I saw and felt the magic in mossy pools, spring flowers or trees in the wind. As part of my exploration of ideas and inspiration around the Living Mountain commission, I’d recently been looking at my own copy of The Princess and the Goblin – re-reading MacDonald’s euphoric description of spring in the mountains, alongside Folkyard’s illustrations to the book of streams flooding mountain valleys, flowing over cliffs of pink-orange granite as Irene and Curdie struggle through the storm. I thought of Nan’s evocative, atmospheric descriptions of water; ‘flowing from granite’ in the Cairngorms.
Illustration by Charles Folkyard from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
Excerpt from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
Excerpt from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
This inspirational conversation with Erlend brought me back full-circle to my initial sense of Nan Shepherd. His observation about the impact of war on Nan and her contemporaries – this terrible threat to the people and the landscapes they loved was powerful.
Nan certainly felt a sense of magic and wonderment in response to landscape, so much so that she was moved to write four books about her understanding and deep respect for the natural world. Her works of fiction, like MacDonald’s, Tolkien’s, C.S. Lewis’s and Grassic Gibbon’s, deal with the effects of war on the human psyche and on nature. Like her fellow authors, it was no doubt because of the times she lived in that she was particularly motivated to communicate a more urgent sense of her spiritual, imaginative and emotional response to it. Not only to readers through her writing but to the people she knew and loved personally, including Erlend.
Erlend’s reminiscences are also a reminder of Nan’s lifetime occupation as a teacher (Nan was a lecturer at the Aberdeen College of Education for Teachers from 1919 until she retired in 1956 at the age of 63) and they amply illustrate the fact that she encouraged a love of literature in young people, in her work and her personal life. I’d wondered, as had many researching Nan’s life, about the fact she’d never married or had children. Had she felt it might restrict her freedom in any sense? Marriage could be particularly restricting for women in Nan’s time.
It wasn’t a subject I felt would impact my creative approach particularly, but I was curious about it. Erlend had obviously spent most of his time with Nan in boyhood, and wouldn’t have been particularly curious on the matter at that time! He speculates though, that:
“Charlotte Peacock’s biography makes a very persuasive case for Nan’s attachment to John Macmurray, the distinguished Christian philosopher and husband of her best friend. Macmurray’s name had occasionally come up in conversation at Dunvegan – Nan’s Cults home – but nothing beyond that. Charlotte reckons that the collection of intense poems grouped under the title ‘Fourteen Years’ alludes to the time-span of the relationship. When that petered out – Macmurray was transferred away, and anyway believed in open marriages – Nan would have been disinclined to sacrifice the freedom she had won for herself”.
Yes indeed. All of my conversations with Erlend painted a vivid picture of Nan. I understood that it was not only love of landscape she communicated, but the joy of life lived free of arbitrary or meaningless restrictions. A freedom she felt when wandering the Cairngorm Plateau, which enabled her to communicate her vision, or her ‘calling’, so effectively.
Erlend had mentioned to me that when he thought of Nan, the word ‘outlaw’ came to mind. Why was that, I asked?:
“Nan the outlaw? Well, I think the idea works, to a certain extent. She has the classic Zorro backstory: the well-respected member of a well-respected family, expected to conform to respectable principles. But no. She refuses to assemble conventional feminine skills, like sewing and cooking and ‘home-making’. She uses her brain. And then she uses this brain, in conjunction with her free time, to ‘gallop’ back into the same wilderness that her ancestors had managed to struggle out of. She communed with the hills rather than polite society. She was deeply attached to a married man, and when that relationship withered she did not weaken. She did not sink back into suburbia; her connection with the raw universe intensified. As someone said about Coleridge; “To enjoy unnecessary discomfort and insecurity we must first be bored with comfort.” No swords, but a sharp apprehension of realities”.
By December 2020, as lockdown continued Adam and I welcomed a change from home comforts and the Cairngorms beckoned. My last trip to the Cairngorms had been in 2016, while visiting my sister Catherine when she worked near Nethy Bridge temporarily. It had been autumnal weather and we hadn’t encountered any obstacles to our hill-walking. I knew this project, if it was to be inspired by Nan’s life, required something a little bit more challenging though. First though, there was a deadline to meet –the book cover painting had to be sent to the Folio Society by the end of winter.
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.
Above But did I dream that roe? (The Living Mountain Series). Oil on 37x27x2 cm antique pine wood. Rose Strang 2021
“my eyes were in my feet” ― Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
I’m delighted to reveal (at last!) that in December 2020 I was commissioned by The Folio Society to create nine paintings for their new illustrated publication of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. This has been a beautiful project – a challenge that I wholeheartedly welcomed as I’ve loved this book for many years.
The project has been under embargo until its launch date of October 12th 2021, so you can imagine how thrilling it is for me to see it published on the Folio Society’s website!
The link below takes you to the Folio Society’s launch page for the new publication, which features most of the images from the book, accompanying information about Nan Shepherd, and why the book has become such an iconic work of landscape literature.
Robert MacFarlane (author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words and Underlands, among many much-loved books about landscape, flora and fauna) has written the introduction for the book. For MacFarlane, and countless other readers, this book has changed or deepened the way they experience mountain climbing and landscape.
I remember the way Nan Shepherd’s vivid prose enthralled me on my first read. Alongside painting the series (from December 2020 to April 2021) I kept an artist’s journal in which I recorded the creative process; not just inspiration for the paintings, but also everything I learned about Nan from the literary executor of Nan’s Shepherd’s estate, Erlend Clouston, plus the wonderful experience of climbing part of the snowy Cairngorms with my partner Adam in March this year.
I’ll be posting the journal in a series of blogs over the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a look at the newly published book on this link! …
Above: Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018.
As I’m currently painting a private commission which must remain secret until October 2021, I thought I’d post themed blogs in the meantime. Today’s theme is Sea.
In the next few weeks I’ll also share my paintings on the themes of trees, mountains, portraits, winter, abstraction, imagination and collaborations
Our emotional and physiological response to the ocean means that it’s one of the most painted themes in fine art. Capturing a visceral sense of its translucence, movement, moods and light is challenging and there are limitless approaches. To enhance your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of music pieces that conjure moods of the sea! A beautiful song by Ishbel MacAskill: An Ataireachd Ard and a timeless sound from the Hebrides: Lewisian Psalm Singing
I’ve headed each set below with these terms: Movement, turbulence. Light, sun. Night, dark moods. Colour, translucence.
Painting movement is best achieved by making a mess I find! I try to keep the paint loose – as soon as I lose that freeness of brushstrokes it disappears. I’ve noticed that if anyone’s watching this process it looks stressful – just as it seems I’ve carefully captured a moving wave it’s time to mess that up and recreate it in looser strokes. This is one of the advantages of working in oils or acrylics, with watercolour you have to strategise more carefully. In the process of messing it up several times though, texture and interest is created.
One of the best compliments I ever recieved as an artist was when the curator of French fine art from Scotland’s National Gallery bought two of my paintings and compared them to Courbet, Encouraging praise indeed – Courbet was an Impressionist known for his wild waves. An example of Courbet’s waves on this link; Courbet
Sold. ‘Waves in the Rain, Singing Sands Bay’. Acrylic and ink on 40×30″ canvas. Rose Strang 2014
Sold. ‘Wave, Singing Sands Bay’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas. Rose Strang 2014
Sold. ‘Ardban,. Green Waves. Oil on14x11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Sold. ‘Wave. North Berwick’. Mixed media on 5×5″ wood. Rose Strang 2012
Sold.’Traigh Bhan. Waves. Iona’. Mixed media on 12×12 inch wood board. Rose Strang 2020
Sold. ‘Winter 7. Ship, Glacier, Storm’. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2017
‘Sun. Planets Series’. Mixed media on 30×30″ wood. Rose Strang 2019.
Eigg Series No. 23. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood. Rose Strang 2013
Every landscape artist is obsessed with the way light creates landscape. Capturing the essentials of light on sea is a constant challenge. Some artists simply make a precise copy from a photo, but that usually just creates a flatness and lack of energy and there seems not much point in recreating a photo, except for practice. The artists I most admire are those who can say everything about light with very little – something I still struggle with. One of my favourites in that regard is Alex Katz. His paintings appear simple until you realise how much he expresses with minimal marks. Alex Katz painting here – Katz
Sold. ‘Ardban. Shimmering Sea’. Oil on 14×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Not for sale. ‘Pittenweem 1’. Mixed media on 8×8″ wood panel
Sold. ‘Lindisfarne Series No. 2’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood
Eigg Series No. 50. Acrylic, ink, salt and varnish on 5×5″ wood
Eigg Series No. 33. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood
Eigg Series. No. 10. Acrylic, ink and salt on 5×5″ wood
‘Orkney Light’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas
Eigg Series. No 3. Acrylic, ink and salt on 5×5 inch wood
Night, dark moods
Probably the least commercial works are those that explore a more sombre mood. That doesn’t change my fascination with the subject though – it’s poetic and inspiring. We see landscape by light, so when there’s minimal light it has an emotional effect – we seek the light in the painting with a heightened focus. When painting in the introspective winter months, it’s instinctive to paint in a darker or more monochrome pallete. (subtleties of colour can be really difficult in the dark light of a Scottish winter). Tacita Dean, a hugely talented artist, captures an ominous mood in her chalk on blackboard works, yet there’s a romance to them that speaks of our long history of sea tales. Tacita Dean
Sold. ‘Stormy Sky, Lindisfarne’. Mixed media on 20×15″ canvas. Rose Strang 2014
‘Nocturn 3’. Mixed media on 20×16″ canvas. Rose Strang 2015
‘Nocturn 4’. Mixed media on 20×16″ canvas. Rose Strang 2015
Sold. ‘North Beach, Twilight II. Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 6×6″ wood block. Rose Strang 2018.
Sold. ‘Storm, Goirtean Beag beach, West Coast of Iona’. Mixed media on 1px10″ wood panel. Rose Strang, August 2018.
Sold. ‘Winter 2 . Antarctic Moon’. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2017
‘Black’ Ink, acrylic and salt on 5×5″ wood. Rose Strang 2013
Sold. ‘Leaving Ullapool 2’. Mixed media on 5×5″ wood. Rose Strang 2016
Sold. ‘North – Transmigration’. Mixed media on 40×40″ redwood panel. Rose Strang 2015
Sold. ‘Moonlight on Eigg’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas. Rose Strang 2014
Nothing expresses the unique quality of a particular sea more than colour and transclucency. The sea on Iona on Scotland’s west coast is transparent, impossibly turquoise and clear, whereas on the east coast it’s more opaque and grey-toned, even in bright sunlight. This is down to light (sun rise and sunset in east or west) pollution and geology – the sand on Iona is pinkish white, in North Berwick it’s warm brownish yellow. Go farther south to Cornwall and the sea is still magically green or turquoise but with less gem-like clarity because of a warmer-toned sun. Capturing clarity in paint is a case of clean contrasts and layers of colour. Also I find that a well-placed blob of seaweed in the shallows with just a hint of sunlit white froth on top can work well! Basically though it’s a challenge, and again I wish I could say more with less. Hockney’s paintings come to mind, view more here Hockney
Joan Eardley’s paintings of the sea have beautiful subtlety of colour and texture, to my mind, unmatched. One of her paintings on this link Eardley
Lastly, the Scottish Colourists are the yardstick by which artists are measured in terms of understanding sea and colour! Colourists
Sold. ‘Ardban Morning Sun’. Oil on 19 x 19″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Sold. ‘Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018
Sold. ‘Traigh Bhan. Turquoise Sea. Iona’. Mixed media on 12×12 inch wood board. Rose Strang 2020
‘North Berwick, Summer’. Mixed media on 18×18″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020. (NFS, Private Commission).
‘Sunrise, Ruby Bay. Fife. Acrylic and oil on 36×36″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020. (private commission)
Sold. ‘Storm coming, Goirtean Beag beach, West Coast of Iona. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang, August 2018.
Sold. ‘Sound of Iona II. (Isle of Iona)’. Mixed media on 36×36″ wood panel. Rose Strang, 2018.
‘Seagull, St Ronan’s Bay. (Isle of Iona)’. Mixed media on 16×12″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018
Eigg Series No. 18. Acrylic and ink on 5×5″ wood
Sold. ‘Traigh Luskentir 3’. Mixed media on 16×16″ wood panel.. Rose Strang 2017
‘Tràigh na Buirgh, Harris’. Mixed media on 9.5×9.5″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2017
‘September 2014 Eigg Series. No. 4’ Ink and varnish on 5×5 wood”
‘Sound of Iona I. (Isle of Iona)’. Mixed media on 16×12″ wood panel. Rose Strang, 2018
Sold. ‘Coral Bed. Ardban’. Mixed media on 31×22″ paper. Rose Strang 2019. £380
Sold. ‘Sanna Bay. Turquoise’. Mixed media on 20×16″ wood board. Rose Strang 2019.
‘Ardban, Morning Mist’ Oil on 17×112 wood. Rose Strang 2020
‘Oil Tanker Near North Berwick’. Oil on 19×11 inch wood panel. Rose Strang 2020
Sold. ‘Birthe Marie, St Ronan’s Bay. (Isle of Iona)’. Mixed media on 16×12″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018
In a few days I’ll share images and links to artworks on the theme of trees.
Today’s paintings – above; Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan. Acrylic and oil on 33×23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020 . Below, a forest stream in Glenfinnan …
‘Glenfinnan, Forest and Stream’. Oil on 33 x 23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020
These are for the Limetree Gallery, Bristol, for their upcoming Christmas show which launches December 3rd and ends December 31st. (If you have any queries, please contact them on their website).
I think that allthough these two paintings show a different style, they do reflect the fact that the mountains look quite ominous from a distance. Up closer, on the lower slopes at least, the flora, trees and wildlife bring you closer and it can feel less intimidating. Farther up is a different matter! Beinn Odhar means a dun-coloured hill and Bheag means smaller (as opposed to Mhor which means big).
Between now and April next year I’m working on a new and very exciting project for a new client, unfortunately I can’t reveal what it is until October next year! So I won’t be uploading any of those particular paintings until October 2021. I’ll still post occassionally and might feature a few interviews here, with artists, or anyone creatively engaged with landscape. After April I’ll no doubt begin a new series and will post that here.
Below, a clickable image of Beinn Odhar Beag, Glenfinnan (the one above doesn’t enlarge) ..
‘Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan’. Acrylic and oil on 33×23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020
‘Through Kintail’. Oil on 14×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
‘Ardban. Sea Shimmer’. Oil on 14×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
‘Ardban,. Green Waves. Oil on14x11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Today’s paintings in progress. More changes to Ardban Green Waves and Through Kintail. The new painitng – Ardban Sea Shimmer needs to dry a bit before I mist it up a bit more and work on the mountains.
‘Ardban. Green Sea’. Oil on 17×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Above, today’s paintings for the Applecross Series which launches at the Limetree Gallery, Bristol on 31st October. The featured painting at the top is ‘Road. Kintail’. Oil on 7×5″ wood.
I’m quite excited about ‘Road. Kintail’ as I love taking photos and sketching while in the car (as a passenger of course!) The road itself provides great perspective and it’s fun trying to sketch or photograph in a moving car. This has that optimistic holiday feel – going somewhere. I wonder if it will appeal to others the same way it does me.
I’m persevering with the oil paints. I love the effects but it’s so messy – I spend half my energy cleaning up at the end of the day!
That’s it for the week. My partner and I are designing a dress this weekend – our new creative adventure – oil-paint-covered hands and expensive fabric do not mix!