New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 45: Drawing and grammar

That Saturday, Angus did not make the progress he had hoped to make with the Glenbucket portrait. He was working from photographs in-between live sittings, and he never felt entirely comfortable with that.

Friday, 9th October 2020, 7:30 am
44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

It was good enough for minor passages in the painting – for work on the detail of cloth, or buttons, or for general background – but when it came to painting the human face, there was no substitute for a live encounter between artist and subject. That was not only to do with light, and its unpredictable vagaries, but it was a question of life itself – the presence that one detected in an animate object, the pulse, the breath, the soul: there were so many terms that could describe it. It was the atman of Hinduism, the jiva of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, the soul of Traherne and Eckhart; it was the same thing, and although most of us never stopped to think much about it, or even to find a name for it, let alone a theological structure, we could tell when it was there and when it was not. Angus remembered his father telling him of how he had been present at the death of an elderly relative, a sheep-farmer from Lochaber, and of how he had known the precise moment when he had ceased to be. “The very transition was clear,” he said. “A light went out. There was nobody there any longer. It was, well, it was a passage.” That description had impressed itself upon him even though he was only ten at the time, an age when the whole issue of death is entirely academic, having nothing to do with oneself. The memory returned to him in life-drawing classes at art college, when the model sometimes lay in repose, and on a warm day might even drop off to sleep. The human body in sleep is not motionless: slight movements, brief flickers, proclaim personhood, reveal the presence of life; but it is not just these that tell you there is a soul within the physical envelope; it is something else altogether – an electro-magnetic field perhaps – that is unmistakeable.

Life-drawing classes … As he worked on the portrayal of a tablecloth behind his subject, he remembered those classes, compulsory in those days for all art students: drawing, it was believed, was a basic skill expected of any artist. Drawing is to art as grammar is to language: you can speak without any knowledge of grammar, but do not expect to be understood, and certainly do not expect to become a poet. And as a poet, even equipped with grammar, you will be severely limited in the creation of poetry if you do not understand how a language is put together, how the flesh of sentences conceals a skeleton of rules underneath. You may not use techniques of stress and meter – you may write nothing but free verse – but if they are not there in the background, the music of language will not come; the prose will never ascend to the level of poetry. So Angus believed, and nothing he saw in contemporary conceptual art persuaded him otherwise. Without rigorous training in the fundamentals of the craft, a pedestrian, inarticulate banality prevailed.

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At those life-drawing classes, starting three mornings a week at nine o’clock sharp – a punishing hour for the Bohemian ranks of art students – they sat in the echoing, cavernous studios of the Art College, with the light flooding in from the North; the Castle their background, stern, forbidding, redolent of ancient conflicts, its ramparts and the sheer drop of the Castle Rock a reminder of the days when burning oil might be dropped on unwelcome visitors below – Scotland in those days was most decidedly an non-inclusive place; sitting there, slightly cold, surveying the goose-pimpled model – in spite of the two-bar radiator that the college thoughtfully provided for the naked – conversing occasionally, and sotto voce, so as not to disturb one’s fellow students, one’s thoughts might wander from the task in hand. But that was no bad thing: the aim, after all, was to develop such a facility in drawing that the movements of the hand holding the pencil became automatic, guided by inner brain pathways that were laid down by constant practice, habilitating themselves for our human demands, as are our everyday movements, our walking, our gestures, our ways of conducting ourselves as physical beings.

His thoughts wandered to the circumstances in which he found himself, a newly-fledged art student, living in Edinburgh away from the confines of home – not that home was in any sense particularly confining, but it did represent a whole world from which Angus wanted to detach himself. That world might glibly have been described as a bourgeois milieu – and that was certainly how his fellow-students spoke of their predominantly middle-class backgrounds, disparaging, even if with a degree of fondness and humour, the attitudes of their parents, their work ethic, their petty concerns over the avoidance of debt and noise and messy relationships – but that description of the world from which Angus had migrated to Edinburgh did not capture the essence of the Perthshire circle whose dust he had brushed off his heels in going to the Art College. Angus came from something different to bourgeois suburbia; he had been brought up in an extended family of substantial farmers, against a background of large, rambling houses, where a hazy romanticism rubbed shoulders with a feeling for a Scotland of the past, where people were known by the name of their lands, or their clan; where the rugs on which one picnicked were always tartan – though nobody’s tartan in particular – where the name of the whisky you drank was important, and where there was a bone-deep conviction, never articulated, that Scotland was a place to which everywhere else could only be compared adversely. England, Ireland, France were all very well, but they were not Scotland; the English were tolerated, but not necessarily loved; the Irish were amusing, but different in a subtle way; the French were admittedly good players of rugby and artistically and gastronomically admirable, but the Auld Alliance, wheeled out at sentimental dinners, was a long time ago, remembered in Scotland perhaps, but forgotten in France. From that world, with its quaint certainties, Angus had escaped at the age of eighteen, with his A grade in Higher Art, a portfolio of drawings and watercolours executed in the art department of Trinity College, Glenalmond, and a belief that he had embarked on a journey that would lead to his becoming not only an artist but a great artist. In that spirit, he arrived in Edinburgh and took up the accommodation arranged for him in digs run by a Mrs Anna Symanski, the seventy-year-old widow of a Polish airman who had escaped to Scotland at the age of twenty, had married within months, and survived numerous aerial engagements, only to fall from the skies over Germany a few months before the end of the war. His young widow, from Dunfermline, had spent a total of fourteen weeks with her husband, but never remarried. She learned Polish to honour his memory – they had never conversed in his native tongue – and converted to Catholicism for good measure: touching acts of homage to a brave and good man.

These digs were far from comfortable, but Angus reminded himself that art students traditionally lived in garrets, and that being in a Georgian house off Leith Walk was a distinct improvement, especially if one pretended that the other residents were not there.

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