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Into The Wild

By John Morrison, 21.06.2022
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James Morrison painting at Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island in August 1994. Courtesy the Artist's Estate.

In 1990, James Morrison travelled to Ellesmere Island to paint. At a latitude of 81° north, Ellesmere in the Canadian territory of Nunavut is the tenth largest island in the world yet contains only three settlements and has a permanent population of under 200 people. James camped and painted at Lake Hazen in the summer of 1990 and returned to the High Arctic on a further three occasions over the next six years.

The first visit was almost exploratory and the paintings from 1990 are small in scale. There are concerns expressed in his painting diary that the light is so different from anything he had encountered before that it was difficult to get at the ‘general values quickly enough to paint freely’. The early works there were, he felt, ‘all edges and storytelling’. It was, nevertheless, a hugely important experience for him and he was back in Ellesmere two years later, this time staying at Otto Fiord on the western coast. He knew more what to expect in 1992. He was able to bring larger 1.5m boards to paint on and produced less graphic, bolder paintings.

Back in Scotland, he hung all the work on the studio walls and embarked on a suite of very large paintings based on his Arctic experience and on the works completed in situ. The enormous scale, often 4m wide, was a response to the hugely powerful nature of the experience. Scale, colour range, light and above all the perceived implications for a human centred view of existence, were all radically different from anything he had done before.

James Morrison, Arctic Sketch, 1994. Courtesy the Artist's Estate.

James’ paintings in Angus on the east coast of Scotland became increasingly concerned with environmental issues. He was painting a man-made landscape and it often gave strong evidence of destruction. In his words, ‘I became slowly interested in this but the whole thing was given real sharpness when I went to the Arctic. The Arctic brought it all together and I now look at landscape painting completely differently from the way I did in the past. I see it now invariably in environmental terms. I don't mean it makes me paint it in an obviously different way, because painting is painting, and social and political concerns are to my mind not directly related to landscape. But if you're the kind of person that does have these concerns, they will affect how you paint without you having to force the issue to make the heavy political point. So this concern goes beyond just environmental considerations; it goes right to the root of what we're doing with the planet and I don't have an optimistic view of it. I think we are hell bent on destroying the planet. I simply do not see homo sapiens making the decisions, the self sacrificing decisions, to save the planet. I don't think that will happen. I think the planet will be run on to oblivion.’

Beyond the environment, the paintings prompted reflections too on the human condition. There were, he felt, other wholly unexpected elements about the Arctic. In an interview in 1997, he observed ‘if you go to the High Arctic that's really, really far north and you're into a landscape where there are no settlements, no people and there will be perhaps camps of only 10 people in complete isolation in a primeval landscape which has no signs of humanity in it. No paths, no roads, no huts, nothing. Humanity is completely irrelevant to the landscape. It doesn't care about humanity. You hear people say they're going to the Arctic for a holiday or whatever. They're going on a cruise ship up to Alaska and they're going to get off in wee rubber boats and look at polar bears. This is different. In the High Arctic, the landscape is transcendental. There's no question about it. I'm not religious in any way but there is a sense of some kind of spiritual thing. I don't know what it is in that landscape but everybody feels it.’

In August 1994, James again visited Ellesmere, choosing this time to stay first at the northernmost civilian settlement in Canada, Grise Fiord in the Arctic Cordillera mountain range, and then in north-west Greenland. As with the preceding visit, there are paintings from the month-long stay and images created back in the studio. This time, however, he was working towards an exhibition of his Arctic work to be mounted at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh University. It was for that exhibition that he painted a vast mural more than 6m wide and almost 3m high.

James Morrison with Arctic Mural at Talbot Rice Gallery. 1995. Courtesy the Artist's Estate.

The shape of the painting and the subject were evolved in advance through working drawings and then a preliminary sketch. The mural was then painted in situ on the walls of the Talbot Rice Gallery over a two-week period in the run-up to the opening of the exhibition in April 1995. The gallery was open while the painting was underway for people to watch the work progressing. As was usual for the artist, the oil paint is applied heavily mixed with turpentine. It is very thin and runs freely down the surface unless controlled and moved around with brushes and rags. Large house painter’s brushes are extensively used in conjunction with smaller ‘flat hogs’. Still, gradually throughout the day, liquid paint would pool towards the bottom of the boards. A photograph shows James cleaning off the bottom of the painting with the assistance of his daughter Judith and her son Jamie in preparation for starting again the following morning. Following the run of the exhibition, the mural was exhibited once more, in 1996, at the Meffan Gallery in Angus.

The painting was an important one to the artist. It was the culmination of his first three visits to the High Arctic and formed the centrepiece to the largest and most prestigious show of his Arctic paintings. The painter’s family wished to see the painting find a home in an appropriate collection. James had a long association with the Fleming Collection which owns many other works by him (a major retrospective exhibition of his work was held in the Collection’s galleries in 2015). It is with great delight that the family of the artist donate this mural to the Fleming Collection.

Dr John Morrison is an author and art historian. His new book, James Morrison: Land and Landscape, was published in May by Sansom and Co

James Morrison: A Celebration 1932–2020 is exhibited at the Scottish Gallery until 25th June.