Our Curatorial Assistant Kari Adams recently attended the National Galleries of Scotland’s Research Conference on Women Collectors. In this blog she shares her experiences at the event.

Communicating an Identity - recognising women collectors throughout art history

On Saturday 28th September I attended the Scottish National Galleries conference on the topic of Women Collectors presented as part of their annual Research Conference. The event gave host to 6 research papers, written and presented by influential women working within museums and galleries, exploring the role of the ‘woman collector’; in order to highlight, and, more often than not, uncover the significance of their endeavours throughout art history.

Image 1 SNG.jpg

The reason for my attendance was to listen, to learn and to enjoy, but I was also there out of respect of the visionary foresight and remarkable gift of a collection by Margaret Gardiner (1904-2004) who founded the Pier Arts Centre in 1979. Without whom, the people of Orkney, and indeed the many beyond, would be unable to access and experience such a significant collection of British modern art. As we continue to celebrate our 40th anniversary year, celebrating other women benefactors through acknowledging and telling their stories on this day felt particularly poignant; and, on a personal level, made me all the more grateful for Margaret’s generosity and the importance of sharing her story too.

The initial question raised in the first paper, Two Hundred years of Women Benefactors of the National Gallery (presented by National Gallery Senior Research Curator Dr Susanna Avery-Quash and colleague, Curatorial Head of Department Christine Riding) of why is there no mention of women benefactors?, set the tone for the knowledge, ideas and considerations which followed. A repeating pattern very quickly emerged as to how this has happened; but the overall reasoning as to why is something which – as individuals and as public collections – we are still fighting for: giving women the recognition they deserve. Noteworthy points included were, 90% of artworks gifted by women in the National Gallery Collection are in the collection store at Trafalgar Square; and, in terms of documentation, the women donors’ names have become ‘separated’ from their gifts, giving way to their more significant male counterparts - which only adds to their invisibility, and underscores the thinking that ‘only the best’ bequests get pride of place. The National Gallery like many other institutions have been giving attention to women artists in recent years – for example, the acquisition of the seventeenth-century Italian Baroque portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi in 2018, which is to be followed by a major exhibition of her work in 2020 – the first solo exhibition on a historical female artist ever held by the National Gallery. This year has also seen a very significant bequest by artist Bridget Riley, who’s commissioned wall-based painting Messengers was influenced by their historic collection – engaging us in conversations surrounding the process of looking at art, and in relation to how we can adjust the gender-bias within national collections.

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria', about 1615-17, courtesy of The National Gallery

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria', about 1615-17, courtesy of The National Gallery

Image: Bridget Riley and our Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at 'Messengers' © 2019 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved/Photo: The National Gallery, London

Image: Bridget Riley and our Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at 'Messengers' © 2019 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved/Photo: The National Gallery, London

Indeed, how we look and how we understand the world around us seems to lie at the very heart of this discussion. Each woman given mention, which included Georgiana Spencer, Queen Alexandra and Naomi Mitchison, created their own unique viewpoint – their gifted, sociable and intellectual endeavours making them both extraordinary women, within their own lifetime, and in terms of culture today. They were all women who created their own artistic and/or collection practices, giving voice and colour to a narrative - essentially communicating an identity which we must acknowledge. It is evident that an important feature of their contributions as collectors was not solely the buying but also the commissioning of artworks. Which, remains unquantifiable in terms of the foresight they had in giving recognition to artists who were driving forces of the avant-garde of their period. All of these women demonstrated taste and understanding for and of the artist of their time. And perhaps, the most common thread I found amongst this ground, was the gift they had for forming friendships.

Image: The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image: The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Image: Photograph of the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, holding a No.1 Kodak camera at chest height. She is standing on the deck of a ship.  The No.1 Kodak camera was introduced in 1889 and took small circular photographs. There are many examples of these photographs in Queen Alexandra's album  © Royal Collections Trust

Image: Photograph of the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, holding a No.1 Kodak camera at chest height. She is standing on the deck of a ship.

The No.1 Kodak camera was introduced in 1889 and took small circular photographs. There are many examples of these photographs in Queen Alexandra's album

© Royal Collections Trust

Dr Kate Cowcher, Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, presented From Kampala to Campbeltown: Naomi Mitchison and the Argyll Collection, and I couldn’t help but draw similarities between Mitchison and Margaret Gardiner. Both of these women really strived for what they believed in, more often than not for the greater good of others. Mitchison is highly regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed writers and her friendships with artists such as Wynham Lewis are well-known. Mitchison’s idea for what is the Argyll Collection originated in the 1980s, which is perhaps the lesser known part of her story, raised questions of culture and education – ultimately, she wanted to give children who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves in an art gallery exposure to art. The ambitions of the collection were to expose Modern Scottish art, fuelled by her desire to buy ‘challenging things’. Mitchison showed a commitment to arts throughout her life, for example, the effect of WWII and the democratisation of the access of art, led Mitchison to auctioning commissions with Matisse and Picasso in the late 1940s. It was hard not to see the parallels with Margaret – both of these women through their friendships were actively supporting artists making ground-breaking work of their time. In 1941 Margaret commissioned Naum Gabo to make a maquette for J. D Bernal, supporting the production of new work during such difficult times allowed Gabo to ‘open a sluice-gate of creative waters’, for which he was extremely grateful. ‘I am very grateful to you, Margaret, for enticing me into doing that work. This construction has been in my mind for more than two years and I am glad that I made it now.’ (Hammer, M., extract from Constructing Modernity: The Career of Naum Gabo, (Yale University Press, 2000) p. 280. Gabo letter to Margaret Gardiner, 27th January 1942)

Image 6 Naomi Mitchison.jpg

Margaret’s gift of her collection to the people of Orkney tells us many things about her story which we must not forget and we must acknowledge. Lack of documentation has perhaps been responsible for her role as a woman collector not being better known. That, and interestingly her dislike of the very word ‘collector’ itself – Margaret did not wish to be rendered as one, as she felt her artworks were as much or indeed more about the friendships they represented. Margaret’s many friendships with both literary and artistic figures, and particularly with the St. Ives artists – Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Margaret Mellis, and Terry Frost – are known and documented, mostly through correspondence amongst them. Margaret was very dear friends with Barbara Hepworth whom she was introduced to in 1930 through artist friend Solly Zuckerman. It was through this friendship that Margaret believed she really began ‘looking’ at art and started to develop a real taste and flare for visual things. She was very aware of the struggle her contemporaries faced, especially during the war years to keep producing artwork. Like the commissioning of the Gabo maquette, Margaret would purchase artworks from friends as a means to encourage their output and support them financially. Margaret’s ambition for the Pier Arts Centre was simple – she wanted to gift her works to a community who would otherwise not be exposed to such examples of British Modern art. Amongst other factors, creating a centre where local artists could display their work was of great importance. So to, Margaret was also very adamant there to be a ‘Children’s Room’ in the gallery when they were outlining plans for the Pier. A room which still functions with this intention at its core.

Image: Margaret Gardiner c. 1932 by Ramsay and Muspratt photographers

Image: Margaret Gardiner c. 1932 by Ramsay and Muspratt photographers

Image: Still Life by Margaret Gardiner

Image: Still Life by Margaret Gardiner

By the end of the conference, there was an overriding feeling that we were only just skimming the surface of who the women collectors we need to be recognising are, and to what extent they have contributed to collections. Each collector outlined represents a vast amount of research which has already gone into uncovering their individual stories. Which only leads to the fact that so much more has still to be done to fully expose the magnitude of their efforts. It is apparent, due to a lack of documentation in many cases, it sadly may well be the case that some stories are just forgotten. But all the more reason to do whatever we can to shine a light on the things we can find out. I am about to embark on a research trip to the Tate Archive in London, where I plan to look into the files pertaining to Margaret. We already know many wonderful and interesting threads of her story, such as those mentioned above, but I feel now more than ever it is important to keep going. How we use this information is also important, in terms of Margaret’s biography, the legacy of the Pier Arts Centre and its Collection, and within the wider context of art and culture. Margaret’s story only gets more compelling the further you explore, and it would be wonderful to think that through continued research we could inform many others of her life’s work. I would like to hope this is the first of many conferences which have the ability to raise awareness of women collectors, and maybe there will be more opportunity to share the joy of Margaret Gardiner in the future.

Image: Margaret Gardiner c. 1980 at the Pier Arts Centre  with Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture  Curved Form (Trevalgan)  1956

Image: Margaret Gardiner c. 1980 at the Pier Arts Centre
with Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Curved Form (Trevalgan) 1956

As we continue to unfold Margaret’s original gift with contemporary collecting and a programme of education and events, how we feed this information into our efforts will hopefully underscore and encourage new and meaningful connections and relationships. As we look ahead to the very near future, the Pier is delighted to be working in partnership with the National Gallery, in collaboration with Contemporary Arts Society, with artist Rosalind Nashashibi who is the 2020 resident selected for their inaugural Modern and Contemporary programme. Click here to read more about the residency.

AuthorIsla Holloway

As we celebrate the birth of Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) this month, our Curatorial Assistant Kari Adams looks at his significance within the St Ives group and British Modern Art in our latest blog.

Alfred Wallis,  Headland with two three-masters  (recto) c. 1934-8, oil on card

Alfred Wallis, Headland with two three-masters (recto) c. 1934-8, oil on card

The Early Years

Alfred Wallis was born on 18 August 1855 at Devonport, Plymouth. His father was a master paver from Devon, and his mother was Cornish and from the Scilly Isles – she died when Alfred was only a small child. At the age of nine, Alfred went to sea in the deep sea fishing fleet where he worked as a cabin boy and later as a cook - the schooner boats fished for cod in the North Atlantic waters off the coast of Newfoundland. In around 1880 he changed to inshore fishing, working on boats which fished for pilchards, herring and mackerel.

Alfred Wallis,  Black Steamship  c. 1934-8 oil on paper

Alfred Wallis, Black Steamship c. 1934-8 oil on paper

In 1875, aged 20, Alfred married Susan Ward who was a widow twenty-one years his senior (she had borne 17 children, the eldest living was one of Alfred’s closest friends). Together they lived at her family home of 2 New Street, Penzance and had two daughters, but neither survived infancy.

The family moved to St. Ives in 1889 and Alfred decided to leave the sea for good, opening up a ‘Marine Store’, much like the one his brother owned in Penzance. He made some inshore fishing trips at this time, but the marine store soon proved a full-time occupation. Susan ran the store during the day whilst Alfred worked as a scrap merchant. The business thrived up until 1912 when he decided to retire and buy a house of his own. He then began to make ice cream, and is believed to be the first man who sold ice cream on the streets of St. Ives. Alfred and Susan suffered a period of disagreement in the years which followed, as it is believed she helped one of her sons financially, giving over the majority of their savings without Alfred’s knowing. By the time of her death in 1922, Alfred felt quite distressed by the situation and cut himself off from the rest of the family.

The Painting Years

Alfred Wallis,  Seascape  date unknown, oil on plywood

Alfred Wallis, Seascape date unknown, oil on plywood

 From this point he lived alone and became increasingly reclusive. For him, painting was the only thing he had ‘for company’. Alfred’s interest in painting had started when he was still working in the store - he would use bits of cardboard and any paints that came to hand. But now, at the age of 67, he gave painting his full attention and it very quickly became an obsession.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham had a studio only a couple of doors away from Alfred Wallis’ cottage. For two years, part of her daily routine included seeing Alfred coming and going, putting rubbish out, and occasionally the pair would chat. Barns-Graham remembers seeing “paintings all down the side of the – inside door[,] on the walls, there were paintings from the ceiling to the floor, done on the wall and on top of the table”.’

Wilkinson, D., The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St Ives Art, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2017) p. 10

Photograph of Wallis’ studio in St Ives, from,  Art About St. Ives  (St. Ives Printing and Publishing Company in conjunction with Wills Lane Gallery: 1987 )

Photograph of Wallis’ studio in St Ives, from, Art About St. Ives (St. Ives Printing and Publishing Company in conjunction with Wills Lane Gallery: 1987 )

Alfred became very nostalgic living alone, reflecting on his youth and his experiences of deep sea fishing, but also on his surroundings of St. Ives. In a letter to friend and art collector H. S. Ede, dated 6 April 1935, Alfred explains, “what I do mosley is what used To Bee out of my own Memery what we may never see again as Things are altered all to gether”. [1] The local grocer, Mr. Baughan, often gave Alfred spare cartons, advertisement cards and packets from Quaker Oats – in a variety of different shapes – to paint on. Alfred would use the plain side to work on, often leaving the colour of the packet as the background, stating, ‘I do not put Collers what do not Belong’. Marine paint was his medium of choice as it came readily to hand, which may well have influenced his limited colour palette. Ben Nicholson gave him sketchbooks which he filled with crayon drawings – still favouring a limited palette of mostly blues, with occasional yellows and hints of red.

Early St. Ives photograph from,  Art About St. Ives  (St. Ives Printing and Publishing Company in conjunction with Wills Lane Gallery: 1987)

Early St. Ives photograph from, Art About St. Ives (St. Ives Printing and Publishing Company in conjunction with Wills Lane Gallery: 1987)

Alfred Wallis,  White sailing ship – three masts  c. 1934-8, oil on paper

Alfred Wallis, White sailing ship – three masts c. 1934-8, oil on paper

 Indeed, it was Ben Nicholson who ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis when he and Christopher Wood went to St. Ives for the first time in August 1928. On passing Alfred’s cottage, they were both intrigued and excited by the paintings they could see through an open door. They knocked on the door, met Alfred and subsequently purchased some paintings from him. What was paid for the works was not recorded, however, it is believed subsequent paintings were bought and sent off in the post for sixpence a piece – a price Alfred thought was ‘fair’. The paintings bought by Nicholson and Wood that day were the first Wallis had ever sold.

Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson in St. Ives, courtesy Tate.org

Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson in St. Ives, courtesy Tate.org

One of Nicholson’s acquisitions ended up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is believed that Nicholson visited Alfred on one occasion to tell him about it and he showed him a reproduction of the work. Alfred’s response was full of disinterest, exclaiming, “O yes!” he said, “I’ve got one like that at home”.’

Wilkinson, D., The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St Ives Art, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2017) p. 19


At the age of 86, Alfred wasn’t able to look after himself properly and became somewhat unwell. He was moved from his small home to Madrona Workhouse above Penzance, where he continued to paint. However, fourteen months later on 29 August 1942, Alfred died. As per his request, he was given a Salvation Army funeral, which was attended by many of his artist friends including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Bernard leach and Adrian Stokes. A great many paintings still remained in Alfred’s house at the time of his death, of which Stokes managed to rescue a number of before the Council got the chance to incinerate them.

His grave at Porthmeor Cemetery is a raised slab which is covered with tiles made and hand-decorated by Bernard Leach. The tiles feature a lighthouse standing amidst waves, and depict a small man carrying a stick, on which there are the words: ‘Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner’.


Alfred Wallis,  Three ships and lighthouse  c. 1934-8, pencil and oil on card

Alfred Wallis, Three ships and lighthouse c. 1934-8, pencil and oil on card

The Artist

Alfred’s circle of St. Ives artist friends played a significant role in making his work more widely known through their support of his painting endeavours. Initial enthusiasm was sparked by Nicholson and Wood during the summer of 1928 when they were immediately inspired by Alfred’s unique vision. Along with all of those who befriended Alfred, they helped shape a legacy which now places him as one of the most important artists of British modern art.


‘When art reaches an over-sophisticated stage, someone who can paint out of his experience with an unsullied and intense personal vision becomes of inestimable value. The way in which he used the very simple means at his disposal – yacht paint and odd, irregular scraps of cardboard and wood – is an object lesson to any painter. Wallis shows such easy natural mastery of colour and forms that one can only look with delight and astonishment.’

- Exhibition Publication, Alfred Wallis (Arts Council: 1968), from the Introduction by Alan Bowness


Alfred Wallis works are represented in collections of modern painting throughout the world. The Pier Arts Centre’s collection holds 6 works, 3 of which are recto, verso and feature paintings on both sides as in the example below.


Alfred Wallis,  Yacht, pink and green  (recto)  c. 1934-8 oil and pencil on card

Alfred Wallis, Yacht, pink and green (recto) c. 1934-8 oil and pencil on card

Alfred Wallis,  St Ives harbour and Godrey  (verso) c. 1934-8 oil and pencil on card

Alfred Wallis, St Ives harbour and Godrey (verso) c. 1934-8 oil and pencil on card


In the gallery, his paintings sit alongside his contemporaries - works by Nicholson, Hepworth, Gabo, and Mellis; unfolding conversations about colour and shape, and the relationship between artist and landscape. Alfred was well respected amongst his friends and his creative output had a great influence on the work they produced at this time: in the words of Barbara Hepworth, “He certainly didn’t know how much we all learned and took off him.” (as quoted in, Icons of the Sea: Recollections of Alfred Wallis, in ‘The Listener’ 20th June 1968).

Alfred’s paintings and drawings speak of the sea and of a time gone by, but they can also be very much telling of the here and now. As we look at these works today, their intimacy has the ability to capture the viewer and provide a porthole to our own experiences – past, present or indeed future. In such moments, there is the potential to inspire, which carries with it the hope that his work will continue to delight and inform others throughout time.


A selection of Alfred Wallis paintings are currently on display in our Collection exhibition, THEN NOW WHEN.

Framed and unframed Alfred Wallis prints are available to purchase through the ArtUK website.

[1] Exhibition Publication, Alfred Wallis (Arts Council: 1968), from the Introduction by Alan Bowness

AuthorIsla Holloway

In this blog, Curatorial Assistant Kari Adams discusses how artists, including Naum Gabo, became acquainted with Margaret Gardiner through her endeavors with the Artists Refugee Committee.

Against the backdrop of Fascism in Europe, 1930s Hampstead saw a great influx of refugees, including many artists and creative people. Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005), the founder of the Pier Arts Centre, lived at 35 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, was instrumental in establishing the Artists Refugee Committee along with her friends and neighbours Roland Penrose and Fred and Diana Uhlman. Hampstead quickly became a centre of activity for practical and moral support for refugee artists, including Piet Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Naum Gabo.

Margaret Gardiner described Naum Gabo (1890-1977) as, ‘small and compact, with a look of slightly puzzled expectancy and a slow smile, he enchanted us all.’ (Margaret Gardiner, a scatter of memories p. 182). Gabo responded in new and unprecedented ways to the revolutionary political and scientific ideas of his time. And, together with his fellow artists, Gabo shared the same passions and beliefs – ultimately, the conviction that society could be changed for the better through the power of art.

Gabo is predominantly associated with the fundamentals of Constructivism* – which was supressed in his native Russia during the 1920s – and along with his brother Antoine Pevsner, has been a major influence on modern sculpture.

* Definition: Constructivism was a branch of abstract art founded by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko in Russia around 1915. The movement was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes and saw the development of new techniques, influencing architecture, photography, photomontage and graphic design.

‘His own beautiful and lucid sculptures – constructions in space, he called them – in which ‘space is an absolute sculptural element, released from any closed volume’, were of great importance in this new conception of art. Space as an element in sculpture was not, of course, a new discovery – but Gabo’s use of it and his use of a new material – Perspex – was an exciting development.

(Margaret Gardiner, a scatter of memories, p. 183)

During the war years (1936-1946), Gabo settled in England and produced many artworks concerned with modern geometry and physics, and the idea that empty space could be used as an essential element of sculpture. An example of such is Linear Construction No. 1 (1942-3), made from perspex and nylon monofilament (single fibre fishing line), which is included within the Pier Arts Centre’s current Permanent Collection display.



To discover more about Margaret Gardiner and her life-long active approach in defence of peace, liberty and culture, visit our exhibition Margaret Gardiner – A Life of Giving.

The exhibition is part of Insider/Outsider, a nationwide arts festival taking place from March 2019 to March 2020 to celebrate refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

AuthorIsla Holloway

by Curatorial Assistant Kari Adams

 ‘… I don’t feel that there’s a direct line in my life but that I was blown here and there by friendships and suggestions from others and by loves.

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories, p. 4)

the life

Margaret Gardiner c. 1932

Margaret Gardiner c. 1932

Margaret Gardiner was born in Berlin on 22 April 1904, to parents Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner and Lady Hedwig Gardiner. Margaret had a privileged upbringing and described her childhood years as well-regulated but not unhappy – in her own words, it would have been ‘a kind of cheerful grey’ in colour. The family lived in the heart of the city and moved in well-respected social circles, and, during the summer months they holidayed in Hampshire (England) with Margaret’s paternal grandfather, or in Finland with her maternal grandmother. (Margaret’s English grandfather was a business-man in London and had sufficient family wealth)

The family were based in Berlin until the outbreak of the First World War, at which point they moved to England. Margaret, then aged six, began an early education - firstly, at the Froebel School in Hammersmith, before attending the left-wing progressive school Bedales in Hampshire. Margaret recalls that she stood as the Sinn Fein candidate in mock elections but, ‘only because nobody else would stand for it.’

‘I think Bedales was considered on the whole left-wing. I make a distinction about myself which is not a very flattering one: it is that I think that I’ve always been a rebel, but never a revolutionary.’

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories, p.3)

Margaret spent 6 months in Vienna prior to beginning her studies at Cambridge with the intention of improving her German. She lived with a Jewish family and saw it more as a time to forge new friendships than commit to the complexities of the language. Margaret started studying at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1923; initially to read Modern Languages, before transferring to Moral Sciences (the Cambridge term for Philosophy); and, finally to Russian. For Margaret, the main purpose of her time at Cambridge was to meet new people – the excitement of new acquaintances and having the opportunity to discuss new ideas with them was to her ‘intoxicating’. (Footprints on Malekula, p.4)


‘They managed things very differently for women undergraduates in the Cambridge of my day… Certainly we were hemmed about by rules and conventions not experienced by the young women of today. But rules can be broken and conventions flouted and I don’t think we unduly fettered. Certainly at the outset it was strange – but it made you feel splendidly grown-up – to be addressed by everyone, both dons and fellow students, as Miss-so-and-so. All the same, there was something to be said for the gradual slide into anonymity and then that transition to first names which ratified a friendship.’

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories, p. 62)


Margaret thrived within the social and intellectual circles of Cambridge, and became acquainted with many highly regarded literary figures such as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Herbert Read (1893-1968) and W. H. Auden (1907-1973).

Perhaps the most important friendship to blossom was that between Margaret and her first great love, ethnologist Bernard Deacon (1903-1927). Deacon obtained several First Class Honours degrees from Cambridge before parting to spend 14 months (from 1926-27) on Malekula, an island in the New Hebrides. During this time, their love developed through a series of letters. Whilst packing-up at the end of his field work, Deacon caught black-water-fever and tragically died, aged 24. Margaret was deeply saddened of the news, and not knowing quite how to deal with her grief she packed up all of Bernard’s letters, placing them in a box as a means to overcome her sadness. In 1983, which would have been the 56th anniversary of his death, Margaret travelled to Vanuatu to visit Deacon’s grave, and in 1984 published a memoir, Footprints on Malekula.

The memoir is composed of this series of letters between Bernard and Margaret , and, as a body of work, his writing conveys a very personal account of his lived experience there – an account which Margaret thought to be an important story to tell.


 After her studies at Cambridge, the grief of Deacon’s death prompted a brief period of uncertainty for Margaret, before she made the decision to undertake studies at the Froebel Institute of Education to become an elementary school teacher. She took the necessary teaching exams and was duly appointed a position at Gamlingay elementary school in Cambridge. It was a short teaching career for Margaret - which she described as both exhilarating and disconcerting. She had very liberal ideas surrounding teaching - and indeed life - influenced by A. S Neill (1883-1973); which, ultimately clashed with the views of the school’s headmaster and those of the parents.

Following on from her teaching days, Margaret moved to Hampstead where she initially lodged with Jim Ede who was then an assistant at Tate – and later, the creator of Kettle’s Yard Cambridge. This move was partly to be closer to her friend Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975).

 Margaret was introduced to Barbara through a mutual friend (Solly Zuckerman, 1904-1993) early in the year 1930. After an initial meeting over tea, Barbara invited Margaret to visit her in her studio and so their friendship began. Many more visits followed; talking, smoking and drinking tea into the midnight hours, ‘…spending long evenings with Barbara ending up with a beef steak or something – she really liked food.’ (Margaret Gardiner, as quoted, Time is a Country)

 In a letter to Margaret, written many years after their initial meeting, Barbara wrote,

 ‘You know me better than anybody else and will understand how I feel. When I express a thought to you, you know what I mean.

(Barbara to Margaret, from a scatter of memories, p. 164)

 The friendship between Margaret and Barbara blossomed through deep layers of conversation on subjects from food to fashion, art to politics. They were both ‘fiercely partisan’ and showed great awareness and feeling towards current social problems and anxieties surrounding such things as unemployment, the coming to power of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In later life, Margaret and Barbara travelled to Greece together; Margaret providing the guarea wood for some of Hepworth’s finest sculptures - as in Oval Sculpture, which would later be acquired by Margaret and included in her original gift to the Pier Arts Centre.

Barbara Hepworth  Oval Sculpture  1943 © Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth Oval Sculpture 1943 © Hepworth

Margaret had a great admiration for Barbara and her approach to everyday life – inside and outside the studio - especially her work ethic as both a mother and as an artist. Margaret notes, ‘Work was at the centre of everything for her; it was what sustained her through the stresses and strains of her life’.

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories, p. 164)

‘I knew nothing at all about sculpture, and only very gradually began to look at Barbara’s work in her studio in the Bell in Hampstead. And almost began to take it all in through the back of my head; and began to see what she was at and like it. And I also began to see what she had to say about it, and have feeling of the great excitement of that particular group of artists to which she belonged; with a feeling that they were creating a new world – that they were doing something to change the world, and change the rottenness of society – a tremendous idealism and exultation.’

(Margaret Gardiner, as quoted, Time is a Country)

Further to the great support Margaret offered to her artist friends, she played a significant role in the origins of the Institute of Contemporary Arts through her associations with Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), ‘It was because these artists were really struggling, were having a hard time to keep going at all.’

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories p. 6)

Throughout her life Margaret was involved in great political activity, most notably, her endeavours in the anti-fascist movement, as well as her commitment to anti-war peace protests during the Vietnam War. Margaret was Secretary For Intellectual Liberty (FIL), an organisation formed between the wars composed of intellectuals to alert people to the dangers of fascism. It was a fairly small organisation but included many extremely well known members such as Henry Moore and E. M Forster. Its main objective was to be a rallying point for intellectual workers who wanted to call for an active defence of peace, liberty and culture in response to growing concerns over the condition of the world.

At different points in her life, Margaret Gardiner associated with the campaign against the Vietnam War, liaison with the Soviet Union and the cause of dissidents in Eastern Europe. Through her friendship with English artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988), Margaret developed an interest in peace protests and was introduced to advertisements in the New York Times by American artists against the war. As a result of this exposure, Margaret inaugurated a series of full-page advertisements in The Times to the same effect.

[Margaret’s active approach can also be found in two travel pieces about the Soviet Union, ‘Moscow Winter’, and the report of the World Congress of Peace Forces.]

Read a short extract, https://newleftreview.org/issues/I98/articles/margaret-gardiner-moscow-winter-1934


the gift

Margaret never defined herself as a collector, and only really became interested in ‘looking’ at art through her meeting with Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Furthermore, it was through this friendship that Margaret believed she started to develop a real taste and flare for visual things; which, during this period, was primarily focused on the work of a small group of artists - Hepworth, Nicholson, Terry Frost, Margaret Mellis, and Alfred Wallis; otherwise known as the St. Ives Group. Friendship formed the very core of her collecting and is essentially how Margaret’s ‘collection’ was built up. She always selected and purchased works on the simple principle of what she ‘really liked’; and, seeing her artist friends struggling to sustain their ambitions, she was always eager to support them in any way that she could.

Barbara and Ben always remained close friends and they were always grateful; they always harked back to the fact that I really had saved their bacon at that difficult period.’

(Margaret Gardiner, from a scatter of memories, p. 6)

Over the years, Margaret built up an inspired collection of works – works which brought her great joy. Since 1979, these works have formed the very core of the Pier Art Centre’s permanent Collection.

RY: Where did the idea to set up the museum [the Pier Arts Centre, founded in 1978] in the Orkneys come from?

MG: It really started off when Martin was doing national service and was absolutely hating it because he wanted to learn Chinese. And he was all set to go to the very good language school of the RAF when they suddenly decided that he was a security risk because of his father. (his father was a Communist)… And so he had to become an accounts clerk in the RAF and he was terribly bored with this. So he thought that if for his leave he could persuade them to let him go to Orkney, he would get two days’ extra travelling time and extend his leave in that way.

Together, Margaret and her son Martin purchased a cottage on Rousay - and so, their love affair with Orkney contunied.


It became evident to Margaret that there wasn’t really anywhere suitable for local Orcadian artists to exhibit their artwork – they either had to display work in the library beside the books or in shops next to stock.

To that end, when Martin posed the question to Margaret, ‘What are you going to do with these works because I shall never live in a house with valuable works of art and I don’t think my children will want to either – so what are you going to do with them?’, Margaret replied, ‘Oh, I’ll give them to the people of Orkney’.

News of Margaret’s intentions travelled and excitement surrounding the prospect made her want to start proceedings straight away.

At the time, there were two buildings available on a pier of their own – an eighteenth century warehouse (formerly the whaling depot and recruitment office of the Hudson Bay Company), and an eighteenth century house just adjacent. The buildings appealed greatly to Margaret and so she began writing around to raise the money needed to purchase the buildings and house the collection.

Margaret’s careful planning together with her trusted relationships with various artists and gallery directors meant that she was able to transport her entire collection up to Orkney free of cost. Her collection works were displayed in various galleries including an exhibition at Tate London, before shows in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow; all of which made for a great boost in terms of publicity and funding for converting the buildings. And that is essentially, how it all began…


Ben Nicholson was already old when Margaret was planning the Pier Arts Centre. He showed interest in her ventures but was also a little concerned about its location, commenting ‘It’s so far away.’ (from a scatter of memories  p. 203) After further discussion, it appeared his worry stemmed from not enough people being able to see what he considered to be some of his best work. However, his friends fed him with gleaming accounts of the centre and it put his mind at ease.

‘Your Pier affair looks like a place I’d like to live in, it’s so nice – I think it’s so unlike what I don’t like in a gallery.’ (Ben Nicholson, from a scatter of memories p. 203)

Margaret writes that she was sorry Ben never got to visit the Pier, for it was her friendship with him, and of course Barbara, which ultimately led to the very making of the Pier.

the legacy

As we celebrate the 40th year of the Pier Arts Centre, the rooted and unfolding joy of Margaret Gardiner’s gift is brought to the fore. It is a time for reflection - a time to pause and revel in all that this gift has bestowed on the people of Orkney, and indeed on the great many it’s reached beyond. For the local community the Centre has provided a space in which people can engage with the Collection and its ever-evolving programme of exhibitions and events. It provides a welcome and calm atmosphere to find comfort in – as Margaret affirmed, it is a wonderful space for thinking. For local artists, it is a treasured resource which has undoubtedly shaped and inspired thinking and creative output. Our annual Christmas Open Exhibition continually supports this talent, showcasing a remarkable yield of creativity year on year. Visitors to Orkney consistently show their appreciation and amazement towards the Collection and its setting; especially the way in which the artworks and landscape harmonise together - the windows providing both a framework for what’s inside and a port-hole to the humming harbour beyond.

If you are a regular visitor to the Pier Arts Centre we hope that you are able to join us in the gallery to observe and participate in this celebratory year – whether it is for a quiet moment of thought, to experience and explore our exhibitions, or to attend one of the many events over the coming months. If you haven’t been before, I urge you to make a visit. Whether you have grown-up visiting the Pier or you have yet to walk through its doors, Margaret’s gift is here and has a story to tell for all who want to uncover it.

In a world which perpetually tries to divide and displace, Margaret’s gift – a collection which was brought together through the solace of friendship – needs to be celebrated now perhaps more than ever before. Undoubtedly as a meaningful and significant collection of twentieth-century art, but also for everything good that it stands for.

In the words of Emily (local nursery school visitor) my favourite part was: ‘Everything’.

For ‘everything’ Margaret - thank you.

Margaret Gardiner at the Pier Arts Centre c.1980

Margaret Gardiner at the Pier Arts Centre c.1980

For more information about our 40th anniversary exhibition programme and upcoming events, please visit our website or subscribe to our social media channels.

AuthorIsla Holloway

In this Blog, Rachel Wood, Level 3 BA Fine Art Textiles student at Orkney College UHI, documents the process of curating an exhibition from the Pier Arts Centre’s Collection.

We have been given the task to work as a group of 6 people to come together as a team and curate a mini exhibition with the use of the Pier Arts Centre’s permanent collection. The brief allows us to be open to any themes, any artists and any selection of works.
The outcome should include effectively working alongside the professional staff at the Pier, efficiently operating as a learning group of curators, thoroughly recording all processes, and finally a successful exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre.
Exhibition will open on the 9th of March, with installation days being the 7th and 8th

On the 27th of November we had our first meeting at the Pier Arts Centre to go over the brief and discuss any first thoughts we had. We were shown the room that the exhibition would take place in so we had a visual idea of what we had to work with.

Speaking as a group and looking at the book including the Pier’s permanent collection, we all put forward some of our favourite artists as a starting point. These included artists such as Ben Nicholson, Margaret Gardiner, Alan Johnston, Anish Kapoor, Barbara Hepworth, Sara Barker and Margaret Mellis. Through looking at some of these artists and works we came up with some early themes that we could base the exhibition around, which included mixed media, abstract, geometric form, relief, line, black and white contrast with colour, impact, contrast, and for artists such as Barbara Hepworth to have her sculptural work and graphic work. Personally, at this point I was most drawn to the theme of black and white works contrasting with vibrant coloured pieces due to my love for Anish Kapoor’s etchings.

At the second meeting at the Pier on the 18th of December, the group managed to narrow down the works to a selection of 9 works and 8 artists along with the theme of ‘FLOW’.

The theme of flow was raised through the ideas of having the chosen works blend and work well as a whole. The thought of having the colours and/or shades evolve around the room.

The artists and works that had been chosen were as follows:

• Ben Nicholson – ‘3 circles’

• Bet Low – ‘Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy)’

• Garry Fabian Miller – ‘Towards a Solar Eclipse’ (4 April) and (18 May)

• Anish Kapoor – 2 of his ‘12 Etchings’

• Roger Hilton – ‘Black and Brown’

• Kenneth Armitage – ‘Maquette for the Krefeld War Memorial ’

• Barbara Hepworth – ‘Two Forms (Orkney)’

• Edward Paolozzi – ‘Untitled 1965’

These artists and their works were chosen as we felt they all had links within the works to one another and sat well together. The pieces had similar attributes of shapes and forms (circles/curved line), similar colour schemes that was important for the theme of flow and similar looks due to how they were created.

On the 22nd of January we were back at the Pier to see the physical artworks we had chosen, to see them in the room and to possibly arrange and cut down/change what we had initially concluded.

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We started by seeing the Anish Kapoor collection of etchings as we knew they were the largest pieces and that we were probably going to have two of them.  To begin with we were drawn to the brown and deep red/yellow and orange coloured ones in the aspect we knew the other works we had chosen had similar colours that we could all link together.

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Personally, I preferred the blue and red/pink ones as they just took my attention more than the brown and more subtle ones.


We then brought out the Garry Fabian Miller Eclipse pieces and stood them along side the majority favoured Kapoor works.

Kapoor and GF Miller.png

When seeing these standing together, I liked it but knew it just wasn’t quite right. I really thought the red and orange glow etching worked well with the Fabian Miller works as they linked, and both evoked the softness and luminescent feel. But the brown etching just wasn’t working. I suggested trying one of the blue etchings in replace of it just for a mix in colour and because some of the other works we had chosen had blue tones also.

I immediately thought this worked so much better. The orange and red and blue bounced off each other and made one another stand out more. The darkness of the blue still linked with the ‘Eclipse’ pieces with their darkness in the middle, and it still had a wispiness to it also. The blue piece having a harsher line and the movement of it also linked very well to the Paolozzi sculpture in the middle of the space.

After good debate we were finally happy with that outcomes, meaning it was now time to see the other pieces we had initially chosen. Next was Calm Water (at Mill Bay, Hoy) by Bet Low. I think it felt smaller than most of us had imagined but we still loved and wanted to include it. The blue/grey soft tones tied in with the blue etching, also the yellow strip of moonlight reflection allied with the red and orange one.

Low and Fmiller.png

We tried it alongside the Fabian Miller works but felt each of the two artists pieces would breathe and stand out more on their own.

Then was the Ben Nicholson ‘3 Circles’. Again, it was smaller than we initially thought but still agreed to keep it in the collection.


Roger Hilton ‘Black & Brown’ was next to be taken out. With then seeing all the pieces together it looked slightly empty, so we were suggested to look at another artist or another work from one we already had. We chose to add another Hilton piece, and we all agreed on the ‘Brown, Yellow & Black’.


In our initial selection of works and artists we had included sculptures ‘Two Forms’ by Barbara Hepworth and ‘Bronze 1956’ by Kenneth Armitage but were advised at first that what we already had collected and placed within the space was enough and worked well but also for security reasons it would be too difficult to have them. This is because we had thought about placing them in the two windows, forgetting that there would need to be a screen or some sort of barrier between the sculpture and public to ensure its safety.

But this now meant between the six of us we had 6 artists to each write about. The concluded artists and works are as follows –

• Anish Kapoor – 2 Etchings

• Garry Fabian Miller – 2 of the ‘Eclipse’

• Edward Paolozzi – ‘Untitled 1965’

• Bet Low – ‘Calm Water’

• Ben Nicholson – ‘3 Circles’

• Roger Hilton – ‘Black & Brown’, ‘Brown, Yellow & Black’

I felt through that process we worked brilliantly as a team, listening to what one another had to say and suggest, always being open to change. Andrew gave us space to have our own thoughts and ideas but gave great advice when we needed it. Even though 6 people in a group for this type of project can be a lot for some people, it worked. This is probably due to our relationship as a close net group already, we are always around each other giving advice and constructive criticism and always have each other’s best interest. Working as a group gave a calmer feeling to the first-time experience of doing something like this and will allow me to feel more confident in myself if I ever had to do it on my own or another group again.

Flow: Transitions of Shape and Form is on display at the Pier Arts Centre until Saturday 23 March 2019.

AuthorIsla Holloway

At the end of last month we said farewell to our Young Persons’ Programmer Creative Scotland Trainee Issie. In this blog she talks about her time with us and the last project during her traineeship looking at the work of Orcadian filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait.

Margaret Tait still from  Painted Eightsome 1970

Margaret Tait still from Painted Eightsome 1970

One of my last projects at the Pier has been coordinating a project that celebrates the work and life of the Orcadian poet and filmmaker, Margaret Tait. The project has involved me working with groups which are often overlooked within the Orkney communities, especially young people and children, as this is an area which my traineeship has focused on. The project has developed ideas around growing up in Orkney and how this differs to other coming of age narratives. This has included Voluntary Action Orkney’s Connect Project, which supports young people who are not in employment or education. Working with Connect has been a great experience for me, as I have been able to see the young people explore different ways of being creative whilst also thinking about their background. I also worked with the Connect group through the ScotArt project, so we were able to develop ideas that we discussed in November about Orkney. We experimented with animations using scrabble letters and further went onto creating a short film within Kirkwall. The film focused on areas such as Orkney’s rich history, from the sinking of the Royal Oak to the discovery of the North West Passage by Orcadian, John Rae.

Working with Connect group

Working with Connect group

I also visited Papa Westray, one of Orkney’s smaller outer isles (known as Papay), as a part of the project. I coordinated a screening of Tait’s films at the hostel, Beltane House. Some of Papay’s older residents came along for the lunch club screenings and enjoyed films such as Place of Work, 1976, a film which focuses on the woman’s role in the home during the 1970s. Tait contrasts this with shots of workmen painting her windows, giving the audience a sense of confinement within the garden and walls of the house. It is also seen as a homage to the house, as during the time of filming, her Kirkwall house was due to be demolished. The short film was described by Tait “Place of Work was meant to define a place, or the feeling of being in one place, with the sense this gives one, not of restriction but of the infinite variations available”.

The audience at Beltane were able to reminisce over images of Orkney in the 1970s, with one of them recognising one of the workmen in the film. I also showed them Portrait of Ga, 1952 and Colour Poems, 1974 which take a more avant-garde route.

Film screening at Beltane House, Papa Westray

Film screening at Beltane House, Papa Westray

One of my favourite parts of my visit, was working with Papay school, which is currently made up of 6 pupils. I started the morning showing the class Happy Bees, 1954, one of Tait’s most recognised works, which revolves around the joys of childhood in Orkney. We played around with making animations, and the children experimented with lots of different techniques and topics, from a seagull being chased to scene in a jungle! In the afternoon we wondered around the school and the grounds taking short clips of the children’s surroundings, which includes a green house and 3 alpacas.

Although my time on Papay and working with the Connect project has been short, it’s been a great highlight of my traineeship and a nice way to finish my time at the Pier.

AuthorIsla Holloway

Review by Rachel Boak

Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage

22 September – 10 November 2018

The Pier Arts Centre


In 2013 internationally-renowned artist Barbara Rae CBE RA RSA began a series of journeys of discovery into the Arctic, following in the footsteps of her namesake, Dr John Rae. She first travelled to the Northwest Passage with One Ocean Expeditions in 2015, returning in 2016 and 2017.

The Northwest Passage is a collaborative partnership between the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and the Royal Academy (RA), London. A larger assembly of works was shown in Edinburgh in summer 2018, and a smaller selection will travel to Canada House, London. This project, with Art Fund support, forms part of RA250 UK: exhibitions and events celebrating 250 years of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Barbara Rae studied drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She taught in secondary and higher education before opening her own studio as a full-time painter and print-maker. Her work is in public and private collections all over the world.

The inspiration drawn from the story and travels of John Rae is acknowledged at the start of the exhibition with a view of his birthplace, the Hall of Clestrain, Orphir (no. 2). There are works which were produced where their paths crossed in the Arctic, and the routes taken by John Rae in the 19th century and Barbara Rae in the 21st century are marked on a map in the accompanying exhibition catalogue.

The Pier Arts Centre has expanded on this connection, highlighting the role played by the oldest parts of their building in the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the great contribution by Orcadians who worked for the Company. John Rae himself is represented by his snowshoes, on loan from Stromness Museum, and his influence on Barbara Rae and his legacy in both Orkney and Canada is further explored in catalogue essays by Tom Muir and Tagak Curley.

Barbara Rae’s fascination with maps and the history of Arctic exploration makes subtle appearances in Sea Ice – Northwest Passage (no. 1) and Fort Ross (no. 96), and, with another nod to John Rae, two prints showing the Halkett Boat (nos. 127 and 128). The cost of human endeavour in these surroundings is remembered in Hartnell Grave, Beechey 1 (no. 46).

Rae’s approach to her work is grounded in the history of a place and its people. The spectacular landscapes and colours of the Arctic immediately strike the viewer, but, looking closer, some of her themes reflect traces of human occupation and the passing of time. One gallery contains a series of views of Hudson’s Bay Company huts. The simple wooden buildings are at once monumental and timeless, domestic and pathetic, with ladders and cans among the items littering the foreground. This dichotomy is best represented by Trading Post (no. 36) and Ghost Hut – Port Leopold (no. 42): the empty huts are now part of a very different trade.

Barbara Rae readily acknowledges the privilege of travelling to this remote part of the world, but is wary of the long-term effects of increasing tourism on Arctic landscapes and people. That ships can navigate the Northwest Passage is a result of the retreat of sea ice. Her work reflects this tension between beauty and fragility.

Rae’s working methods are explored through sketchbooks and small-scale paintings created during the voyages, while the visual experience was fresh. Larger paintings and prints were produced later in the studio and show the development and distillation of ideas and memories into colours and shapes. She writes, “There is so much unexpected colour in glaciers, icebergs and icecaps – strong manganese blues and water a deep indigo.”

This intensity of colour is magnified by metallic and fluorescent paints, especially in Devon Island Beach (no. 50), and works produced around Peel Sound (nos. 105-107), with bright strips on the horizon from the setting sun. The largest work in the exhibition, Dark – Passing Peel Sound (no. 92), is unusual in being executed on canvas and unframed. Examination of the surface shows the variety of textures, materials and techniques used by Rae, and the subtlety of tone and subject within one large, blue square.

It is a privilege to be able to see Barbara Rae’s work in Orkney, but her themes and our shared history make it entirely appropriate that the Pier Arts Centre should host this beautiful and timely exhibition. It is exciting to read that the artist is still working through the inspiration of her voyages to the Arctic and we look forward to seeing which direction she takes next.

Rachel Boak

Hall of Clestrain by Barbara Rae CBE RA RSA © Barbara Rae

Hall of Clestrain by Barbara Rae CBE RA RSA © Barbara Rae

AuthorIsla Holloway

Our Creative Scotland Young Persons’ Trainee Issie Tovey talks about her recent trip to Shetland to take part in a Scotart project.

Group photo of participants and fellow workshop runners in Shetland

Group photo of participants and fellow workshop runners in Shetland

A few weekends ago I was lucky enough to take part in Edinburgh Hogmanay’s ScotArt project in Lerwick, Shetland. ScotArt invites young people from across 14 different regions of Scotland to come up with a symbol to represent their area. The symbols will then be made into wicker sculptures, which will form part of the torchlight procession on the 30th December in Edinburgh as a part of the Hogmanay celebrations.

I first heard about the ScotArt Project a couple of months ago through my current job as a Creative Scotland Young Persons’ Trainee at The Pier. Both the traineeship and the ScotArt project are part of Scotland’s Year of Young People 2018. My role as Young Persons’ Programmer involves getting as many young people involved with the gallery’s exhibitions and activities as possible. ScotArt is a great opportunity for young people across Scotland as well as Orkney to take part in creative activity. I think that art is a subject which young people often see as an "add on" or are given the impression that it isn't important, much like how young people aren't taken seriously in many aspects of society today. The ScotArt workshops where open to all young people aged from 8 to 25, who didn’t need to have any artistic experience prior to this. So it was great seeing young people’s confidence grow in the workshops, as they may not necessarily have worked in this type of creative format since they were much younger.

Activity in the workshop at Connect, thinking up some symbol ideas

Activity in the workshop at Connect, thinking up some symbol ideas

For me, not being from Orkney originally, the ScotArt project was a great way to find out about different groups of young people, who I hadn’t worked with before. I hosted two workshops in Orkney before heading to Shetland. One of these was with Voluntary Action Orkney’s Connect group – they were very enthusiastic about coming up with symbol ideas. I was very impressed by their knowledge of local history, and they came up with ideas such as The Rose of St Magnus. We also had a session with the Centre’s Piergroup with lots of new members who came along and who will hopefully join in again! The workshops helped them discuss ideas for symbols such as a ‘groatie buckie’ and others involving the wind and sea.

Piergroup sketching out their ideas for the symbol

Piergroup sketching out their ideas for the symbol

The final workshop in Shetland was a great success and it was brilliant to bring the input directly from young people in Orkney. 27 young people came along ranging in age from 8 to 18, which meant there was an interesting variety of ideas for what the symbol could be. We also created wire hearts with a wicker saltire which were spray painted. It was a challenging but good way for everyone to bond and get creative.

Although the main workshop was in Shetland, I wanted to make sure that young people living in Orkney had as much input as possible. Young people in rural communities are often not given as many opportunities to those living in cities. It’s great that ScotArt have recognised this and will hopefully continue involving young people living in Orkney in projects after Scotland’s Year of Young People.

Participant with wire heart in the Islesburgh Community Centre in

Participant with wire heart in the Islesburgh Community Centre in

AuthorIsla Holloway

Museum & Gallery Assistant Kari Adams gives an insight to the world of art couriering and accompanying works ‘on loan’

Currently, we have two artworks from our permanent Collection on loan to the Barbican for their exhibition, Modern Couples, Art Intimacy and the Avant-garde (10 Oct 2018 – Jan 27 2019). Firstly, the alabaster sculpture Large and Small Form (1934) by Barbara Hepworth, and secondly, the oldest dated work in the Collection 1929 (fireworks), an oil painting by Ben Nicholson. In order for these artworks to journey from their home here in Orkney to a gallery in London, certain procedures were put in place and a ‘courier’ was required to oversee their installation. On this particular occasion, I travelled to London to witness their handling and integration into this noteworthy Barbican exhibition.

Barbara Hepworth Large and Small Form , 1934 © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth Large and Small Form, 1934 © Bowness

The role of the courier

When artworks have to travel between venues, a courier is responsible for the safety of the object(s). This requirement can entail travelling with the object ‘door-to-door’ on a fine art truck; sometimes hand-carrying the object and supervising crates until they are safely placed on their selected mode of transport. On other occasions, as was the case with this particular trip, the courier is there to ‘meet’ the object(s) at the destination. It all really just depends on the nature of the piece and what is going to offer the most appropriate level of care and supervision. (Similarly, the courier’s presence is required for the de-installation of the exhibition to ensure a seamless return.)

Before the artworks leave the gallery

In preparation for these two artworks to be packed and shipped to the Barbican, condition checks had to be carried out. As in museums and galleries the world over, detailed records relating to all the artworks in our collection are kept so that their overall condition can be monitored; and, when they are requested for loan, these records are reviewed and updated before they can be packed. Both written and visual documentation is contained within these files which archive their continued conservation and condition. This is a highly important part of the process as it reinforces the long term conservation of the object. Like many pieces in our Collection, Large and Small Form and 1929 (fireworks) have crates which have been specially designed for their needs. After thorough condition checking, the works were very carefully packaged by myself and the curator into their crates. At this point we would always ensure that the crates are stable, and that any movement through travel will not disturb the artworks enclosed. Crates are always clearly labelled so that the art carrier collecting the work knows exactly what is contained within each crate. We can then be satisfied they are ready to begin their journey.

Barbican Centre art gallery

Barbican Centre art gallery

From the Pier to the Barbican

The crates were collected by a fine art carrier truck, and travelled via ferry and road to London. On their arrival to the Barbican, the crates were securely stored until I was present. The Exhibitions Organiser met with me on the morning of the install day, and a rough schedule of the day was given. I was then taken to the space where our Hepworth and Nicholson were going to be displayed and I was re-acquainted with our crates. A lot was happening in the gallery space and there were sparks of anticipation and excitement in the air - it really was a hive of activity; technicians, exhibitions staff, curators and couriers unpacking works, carrying out condition checking, and mounting and installing a variety of different works on loan from an array of different museums and galleries around the world. If I take anything away from this experience it would be a new found appreciation for the organisation of an exhibition on this scale. The time, care and dedication given to the careful installation of artworks at every stage was very much plain to see.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre

The value of patience

Initial condition checking commenced. I worked with a Barbican technician to unpack our crates, who was then on-hand to create itemised packing instructions for their later reference – photos were taken at each stage of the ‘unpack’, and notes were made pertaining to each artwork on how they were wrapped, packaged and secured. The Exhibitions Organiser then joined us to witness the official condition checks, making sure that both parties (Barbican and Pier) were satisfied that everything was recorded accurately and that the journey hadn’t inflicted any loss or damage. Once complete, there followed a period of time to allow for other threads of the exhibition to materialise. The Pier’s artworks were carefully stored on packing tables where they remained until it was time for installation. Our two pieces from the Pier are curated within a room of further Hepworth’s and Nicholson’s, thus, their installation was dependent on nominated couriers being present for checking and install. The result being, although our sculpture and painting had been condition checked, they were only actually installed much later on that afternoon.

After a breadth of time, following the install of surrounding artworks, we were able to place the artworks in situ. As expected, this was the pinnacle moment of the day – seeing Large and Small Form next to another significant alabaster Hepworth sculpture on loan from Tate, and 1929 (Fireworks) alongside a lively Winifred Nicholson, I was very much aware of the new and intriguing conversations which were emerging. Another highlight of the day was simply being able to watch the Barbican technicians ‘at work’, carefully measuring and hanging works in their designated spots – meticulous measuring and considered handling made for very interesting viewing. By far the biggest draw of the installation process, aside from seeing the artworks ‘in place’, was being able to meet people from other museums and galleries. This trip as a courier provided me with the invaluable opportunity to engage with technical staff, conservators and curators from various institutions and learn from their diverse and profound wealth of knowledge.

Revealing matters

Ultimately, this courier trip gave me a wonderful insight into the journey of an artwork - from the comfort and familiarity of our Collection, to a temporary home within the arms of less familiar gallery walls. Knowing the works have settled into a new environment where they will live and breathe within the framework of an exhibition for the next few months gave a great sense of pride. I feel there lies a true significance within the role of caring for an artwork which is to offer that artwork ‘on loan’, and essentially show it off in all its glory. Exposing artwork on a platform to attract a new audience is a level of care in itself - giving it the opportunity to revel within new grounds, gather fresh appreciation and fundamentally extend its life beyond the margins of the Collection to which it belongs.

Follow the link to read more about Modern Couples


AuthorIsla Holloway

October began with preparations for the national Fun Palace activities which were due to take place on Saturday the 6th of October. The Fun Palace is an event that takes place around Britain mainly, but not exclusively in Libraries. We were due to have a workshop in the Orkney Library so we compiled some activities to do with the participants.


I arrived at 9:30am and begun setting up the activities for the day, our activities were all inspired by Sylvia Wishart – one of the workshops included making hare puppets using card and premade templates which we stuck onto lolly sticks. This activity proved to be very popular, garnering quite a lot of little enthusiastic artists ranging in age from 2 to 14.

The second most popular one, was the bird chains, comprising of three little birds, decorated by the young folks, which we then joined together using string. The final activity that we put on was a drawing activity – the participants each drew their own piece of art on a bit of tracing paper that was then sealed in a frame made out of card.  The event gave me a good chance at engaging with the community and was a great success from everybody’s point of view.


The next week involved arrangements for the October Break children’s activities which were scattered throughout the gallery spaces at the Pier. We arranged an activity for each day of the week and put them into separate trays for ease of organisation. Some of the activities included drawing pictures and making paper versions of the Hudson’s Bay Company Huts Inspiration for this activity came from the current Barbara Rae RA exhibit that is on show in the gallery until November the 10th.

Octo Blog.jpg

Other activities included, still life workshops based on the work of Keith Vaughan who is an artist featured in the permanent collection. Some weaving activities using cardboard with twine and wool – inspired by the famous Hudson’s Bay Company blankets. There was a ‘pumpkin’ hunt that was running for the full to weeks in anticipation of Halloween. The object of the activity was to find the various pumpkins dotted around the gallery and to draw the paintings that they were beside. If the kids got all nine right they got the prize of a sweetie or a sticker.  

Activity for October Blog.jpg

All in all this month was a pretty fun filled month with a lot of practical craft activities, it gave me a lot more insight into the public engagement side of the gallery and how to put together and oversee workshops for the community at the Pier. I look forward to more of these kinds of events in the future!

AuthorIsla Holloway

Voice and Vision: The Poetry and Art of W.S. Graham

By David Nowell Smith 

As we reach the centenary of W.S. Graham (1918-1986), his reputation as one of the great poets of the twentieth century seems assured. But there was another side to this incredible creative spirit—a visual oeuvre that has never before been shown.

W.S. Graham detail Malcolm Mooney’s Land, 1966 Reproduced by permission of the Special Collections at the McPherson Library, University of Victoria, BC, Canada © the estate of W.S. Graham

W.S. Graham detail Malcolm Mooney’s Land, 1966 Reproduced by permission of the Special Collections at the McPherson Library, University of Victoria, BC, Canada
© the estate of W.S. Graham

Graham spent his life surrounded by painters. In his early 20s, he was a central figure in a vibrant community of artists congregated around Sandyford Place in Glasgow: the Polish émigré surrealist Jankel Adler had fled the Nazis and made his home in Scotland, and many young Scottish painters were drawn to him—including graduates of the Glasgow School of Art such as ‘the two Roberts’, Colquhoun and MacBryde, who would become significant figures in mid-century British painting, and a third Robert, Robert Frame, who would provide images for Graham’s first volume, Cage Without Grievance (1942). In London, Colquhoun and MacBryde introduced him to other neo-Romantic painters and artists, including John Minton and Dylan Thomas, but it was in Cornwall, where Graham lived off and on from 1943, settling for good in 1955, that Graham’s most abiding engagement with visual arts took place. Graham’s elegies to Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Alfred Wallis and Bryan Wynter are among the most celebrated lyrics of the twentieth century; he was also a friend and interlocutor to fellow Scot Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, to Sven Berlin, Terry Frost, Alan Lowndes, Bryan Wynter—as well as Margaret Gardiner, founder of Pier Arts Centre.

W.S. Graham  Tin Mine  watercolour, on loan from private collection © the estate of W.S. Graham

W.S. Graham Tin Mine watercolour, on loan from private collection © the estate of W.S. Graham

But Graham was more than a friend to these artists: he was a visual creator in his own right. Growing up by the shipyards at Greenock, Clydeside, when he left school he was apprenticed as a draughtsman for a shipbuilding company. Later he would produce meticulous calligraphic copies of his poems, and even abstract works drawing on calligraphy. Then, in 1949, on the advice of Sven Berlin, he took up what he called ‘automatic drawing’ as an exercise for channeling his creativity. From then on, his notebooks were filled with sketches: portraits, abstracts, doodles, and drawings of two distinctive features of the environment in West Cornwall: fishing boats and tin mines.

Graham would produce visual work on any materials he had to hand. As he was very poor for most of his lifetime, this could include the hardback covers of books, blank postcards, scrap paper… even the wall of his bedroom. In particular, his visual imagination is present in his letters to friends: sometimes these are ornately decorated, whereas on other occasions automatic drawings and sketches of new poems replace the body of the letter entirely.

pages from W.S. Graham notebook, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Victoria Libraries © the estate of W.S. Graham

pages from W.S. Graham notebook, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Victoria Libraries
© the estate of W.S. Graham

Graham was a central figure in Cornwall for almost 43 years, from that first winter spent in Germoe until his death, in Madron, in January 1986. The four decades of his association with the area and its artists was longer than many of the artists synonymous with the ‘St Ives School’—Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton. During this time he produced one of the most distinctive bodies of work of any poet of the twentieth century; he also left behind a visual oeuvre no less distinctive, a fascinating but little known episode in the history of modern British art.

Voice and Vision: The Poetry and Art of W.S. Graham curated by David Nowell Smith of the University of East Anglia on display at the Pier Arts Centre 22 September - 10 November 2018

AuthorIsla Holloway

Museums Galleries Scotland ‘Skills for Success’ Trainee Daniel Groundwater takes us through his first month at the Pier Arts Centre.

September at the Pier Arts Centre began in the Brenda Robertson Room on the first floor, a small room adorned with artworks by the likes of Bet Low and Stanley Cursiter. I was then greeted by a sculpture of George Mackay Brown whose bust was sitting in the window with the cobbled streets he knew so well as a back drop. The Centre’s Education Officer Carol Dunbar then went over some paperwork with me and got me settled in.

The first exhibition I worked on was called ‘Magic!’ which was a collection of artworks that were made by various 3 and 4 year olds from around Orkney’s preschools. We put the various pieces on plinths which we dotted around the room and on the walls. After a bit of deliberation we came up with an idea of how we liked them. One of the most important things I learned was not to take the pieces for granted. Whether the piece is worth £1 or £100,000 – you always handle the artworks with the same amount of care and devotion.

Hanging  ‘magic!’  exhibition

Hanging ‘magic!’ exhibition

Later on in the month I went down to the Edinburgh City Art Centre for the monthly Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) Trainee meetup where we were greeted by Markus our MGS Education Officer. We all exchanged emails and got down to talking about our individual experiences – which we all agreed were proceeding very successfully.

After that Markus introduced two guest speakers, a woman took to the floor first and told us of how she had been a candidate on the same course as we are undertaking and told of how it had benefited her life and in fact kick-started her career in the museum sector. She spoke of her dislike for the word ‘Just’. She didn’t want to hear the words “I’m just a trainee” or “I don’t have a degree, therefor I’ll just have to aspire to the lowly positions of a museum or gallery”.

Next the man spoke – he had spotted an opportunity in 2015 for a traineeship with MGS in Dundee on the RRS Discovery for which he decided to apply and got picked out of all of the candidates even though he had no experience in that field. He was put in charge of touring kids around and educating them. He was then made Education Officer after the previous one was promoted – this placed the care of a total of some 7200 children in his hands.

After the speakers had finished the supervisors and trainees were split up and made to do and activity titled a fear, a hope and a solution whereby we would write down our hopes and fears for our traineeship and the other team would then swap over and give you solutions to the fears.

After the activity we had a short speech from Markus and said our goodbyes to each other.

The day was very good and it taught me a lot about the course I will be doing and what to expect along the way. I think it is going to be a very important step in my working life and I look forward to meeting my mentor and endeavouring into the heart of the gallery and course.

At Museums Galleries Scotland event in Edinburgh

At Museums Galleries Scotland event in Edinburgh

Back at the Pier Arts Centre, on the 14th of September the Curator gathered the exhibition team to await the arrival of the courier who was delivering work by Barbara Rae CBE RA RSA for the Northwest Passage exhibition. The Northwest Passage is a series of paintings by Barbara Rae as she follows the footsteps of her namesake, the explorer John Rae. The exhibition, originated by the Royal Scottish Academy and in collaboration with the Royal Academy.

We took the pieces inside and got them prepared for the week’s installation by cataloguing them and laying them around the gallery. This day’s work was very important of me as it gave me a detailed insight into the process of beginning to install an exhibition for display and helped me to understand the responsibilities given to each member of the team.

The next day we started figuring out what we wanted to do in the gallery and played around with the layout of the exhibition, we also erected a display case for John Rae’s snow shoes. After a bit of negotiation we finally got a pattern of paintings with a nice change of scale throughout, deciding that the biggest painting should feature on the wall as you come in to the double height gallery.

After receiving the go ahead from the Curator at the Pier Arts Centre, we began to hang the pieces. We hung all of the pieces throughout the gallery with help from an exhibition volunteer and tidied up after we had finished. Later on we decided that the painting of John Rae’s childhood home should greet you as you first enter the corridor and so we swapped it for two other paintings that were in the corridor.

Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage

Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage

This month really has been a blast for me! The intensity, the puzzle solving and all of the processes involved with unboxing, arranging and hanging an exhibition really gripped me and left a lasting impression on me.

Keep an eye on our website for further blogs by Daniel as his traineeship progresses!

AuthorIsla Holloway


Rediscovering Margaret Tait at 100: Sarah Neely reports on three important exhibitions. 

Portrait of Margaret Tait by Gunnie Moberg: photo courtesy Tam MacPhail and Orkney Library and Archive

Portrait of Margaret Tait by Gunnie Moberg: photo courtesy Tam MacPhail and Orkney Library and Archive

The days never seem the same: Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait, Stills, Edinburgh, 27 July-28 October 2018

Margaret Tait: film/poems, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, 23 June-8 September

and…, curated at home by Peter Todd, South London, 16-17 June 

“I would like to write a poem carefully laid in place like the table in candlelight with rowan jelly matching some other browns. I would like to lay it out square and simple and set in what is needed, completing it in a roundelay. The eye goes round and round it, receiving. The mind reads. Hear the soft sound of the flame of the candle, watch the exact formation of a word.” Margaret Tait, Personae (unpublished manuscript), Orkney Library and Archive 

Margaret Tait, born in Orkney, 11 November, 1918, produced an astonishing body of work in her lifetime, from the films and poems she is most known for, to other lesser known works — her photography, found object collages, paintings, and a wide variety of different forms of writing.  Her key concerns as an artist resonate across the various forms she worked in.  Like the movement of the camera in many of her films, Tait circled around her subjects, often returning to them in new ways and with fresh eyes and approaches, building, over time, a life’s work. 

Circles, cycles, roundelays appear in much of Tait’s oeuvre:  in the movement of the camera, in the refrain of images, and in the music and words that appear in her films and poems, then reappear in other works, several years, sometimes decades later.  She was drawn to traditional Scottish music — the Highland Reel.  Her hand-painted films Calypso (1955), Painted Eightsome (1970) and John MacFadyen (1970), use music to spin energetic circles of colour onto the film stock she used as a canvas. In her films, poetry and other work, themes and motifs repeat and resurface, including the musical motifs played or whistled and the images repeated from other films or revisited through newly filmed material.  Glimpses of gardens, children at play or looking, roofscapes, staircases, the outlines of doorways, things and people at work. There is a continual return.  

Margaret Tait’s centenary provides an opportunity to return to her work — to share it with new audiences and bring to light other lesser known works, not just her films and poetry, but also painting, photography, writing and other aspects rarely seen outside of her archive.   

Today’s Screening Programme poster: photo courtesy Pier Arts Centre

Today’s Screening Programme poster: photo courtesy Pier Arts Centre

The first exhibitions to focus on Tait in her centenary year also serve to situate her work in new contexts. Stills Gallery’s exhibition in Edinburgh, The days never seem the same: Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait, features a selection of the latter’s films, photographs and other archive ephemera, alongside work by Swedish-Orcadian photographer, Gunnie Moberg. The solo exhibition, Margaret Tait: film/poems at Orkney’s Pier Arts Centre, presents a treasure trove of Tait’s diverse body of work — films and archive ephemera, as well as paintings, found object collages and audio recordings of Tait reading her poetry, and is accompanied by an exhibition that brings together sculpture by Tam MacPhail, Gunnie Moberg’s husband, with photographic work by their son, Paul MacPhail. 

The days never seem the same, installation view, Stills Gallery, photo: Alan Dimmick

The days never seem the same, installation view, Stills Gallery, photo: Alan Dimmick


Finally, for two days in June, and…, a small exhibition, was curated by Peter Todd, a filmmaker and friend of Tait’s. Held in his home in South London, it featured watercolours by Tait alongside paintings and other art works by Sarah Christian, Prunella Clough, Caroline Gregory, Jane Joseph, Annabel Nicolson, Joanna Margaret Paul, Roxy Walsh, Suse Wiegand and Jacqueline Utley. 

and..., installation view, photo: Sarah Christian

and..., installation view, photo: Sarah Christian

It’s important that Tait’s work is seen in shows such as these. The recent release of new HD scans of a key selection of Tait’s films by LUX, the main distributor of her films, goes some way towards ensuring that those films don’t fade quietly away and that they continue to be shown, are returned to and revisited, shared with new audiences and seen with fresh eyes. This, alongside the recent exhibitions, allows for the opportunity to see Tait’s work in relation to other artists enabling new dialogues to emerge, further emphasising the contemporary relevance of the work.  

The sensitivity with which the exhibitions have approached the presentation of Tait’s work, also ensures that the integrity of the original work and Tait’s legacy is maintained. During her lifetime she, like many artist filmmakers, was intimately involved in the exhibition of her work, often holding screenings in her local community, or projecting her 16mm films onto a wall of her studio or home for family and friends. Tait was uncomfortable with her work being exhibited in galleries, and was particularly resistant to offers made to show her work on a monitor or small screen. In this respect, exhibiting Tait’s films in a way that is respectful of her own intentions presents a challenging task, but is one which both the new exhibitions featuring her films admirably undertake. At Stills, a dedicated, bijou cinema space is situated in the back of the gallery, while at the Pier, a cluster of screening spaces, varying in size, are devised specifically with the intention of recreating the intimate feel of Tait’s own screenings. Todd’s exhibition set in a domestic space, also captures the spirit of Tait’s own approach.

It is both moving and powerful to see all of the work together. Like the carefully laid out table that Tait describes above, which for her, serves as a metaphor for the kind of poetry she’d like to write (and, in many ways, is akin to the close observational style which characterises so many of her films), Tait’s work deserves the same kind of loving attention: to be looked at, considered, then returned to, again and again.

The title of this essay is taken from Margaret Tait’s description of filming A Place of Work, ‘a close study of one garden and house and what could be seen there and there within the space of time from June 1975 to November 1975’. See ‘Place of Work’, Luxonline, www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/margaret_tait/place_of_work accessed 3 September 2018.


Sarah Neely is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, where she teaches Film and Media. Recent publications include an edited collection of poems and writings by Margaret Tait (Carcanet, 2012) and Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (Peter Lang, 2016).

With permission MAP Magazine online: Issue 46, September 2018, www.mapmagazine.co.uk


AuthorIsla Holloway

Museum & Galleries Assistant Kari Adams discusses why is it important to showcase work as an artist collective?

AuthorIsla Holloway