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Alison Watt – A Kind of Longing

By Gemma Batchelor, 15.03.2023
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Alison Watt, Frances, (2022) Oil on canvas 76 x 62 cm Copyright The Artist Photo: John McKenzie

A rose, a feather, a cabbage leaf, the skull of a goat; these are just some of the objects painted by Alison Watt as part of her continued fascination with the eighteen-century Scottish portrait paint Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Gemma Batchelor Reviews.

Watt has long been an admirer of Ramsay’s fashionable portraits with female sitters intriguing Watt the most, particularly those of Ramsay's first and second wives Anne Bayne (died 1743) and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick (1726-82). For the paintings currently on display at Tristan Hoare, hosted in collaboration with Parafin, Watt makes the objects that appear as sidenotes in Ramsay’s paintings and sketches her focal subject. They act as symbolic representations of the women, blurring the boundary between the genres of still life and portrait.

These genre-twisting studies are painted with Watt’s characteristic precision and unassuming tones, showing off her understanding of the fall of light and the form of an object. Their somewhat overly-romantic perfection is refreshingly offset by the looser traces of the artist’s paint found on the side of the canvases, a reminder of the materials at play here. The surprising humour of a lone cabbage leaf helps too. It is arguably the most intriguing object, eccentric even in Ramsay’s painting which it hails from.

Installation view, Tristan Hoare, 6 Fitzroy Square. Photo John Mckenzie

This series was first showcased at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2021. The 2021 exhibition juxtaposed Watt’s contemporary paintings with the eighteenth- century portraits that inspired them. In this new exhibition, the painted objects do not converse with their portrait counterparts, but instead with the architecture within which the sitters would have likely lived. Tristan Hoare’s gallery in Fitzroy Square is housed in a Grade 1 listed Georgian house, designed by friend of Ramsay, and fellow Scot, Robert Adam (1728- 1792).

It was Watt herself, who expressed a wish to show her paintings in an Adam interior - quite rightly, as they appear as if they were made for the space. The artist’s muted colour palette is in harmony with the still interior and the cool light pouring in from the outside. It is a space for quiet contemplation, of artists across the ages and their subjects. The historic interior also acts as a subtle reminder of something that is incredibly important to Watt’s practice - that she is part of a long tradition of painters. The art historical remains ever present, and revered, through her contemporary painting.

Alison Watt – A Kind of Longing was showing at Tristan Hoare, in collaboration with Parafin. Run ended.