Issue 218
September/October 2021


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Sep 27, 2021

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The House at A'Mhòine

THIRTEEN remarkable drawings by Edna Whyte of a ruined house in the far north of Scotland are the subject of an exhibition at Glasgow's Hughson Gallery, but due to Covid 19, it may only be seen, at present, online at hughsongallery.com/exhibitions.

Some of these drawings, however, were to be on display at The Dorothy Dick Studio Gallery, Scourie, IV27 4TE from August 21 and the exhibition may possibly move in November to the Hughson Gallery proper.

Although your ArtWork reporter failed to reach the island of Luing in Argyll, where the 90 year old artist lives, she managed to phone her. Expecting to hear a frail voice on the other end of the line, she was bowled over by Edna Whyte's descriptive powers, enthusiasm, clear memory and sharpness of mind.

During her artistic career, in being 'deeply interested' in the human form, Whyte has created and exhibited figurative work, including sketches and illustrations of historical rural life in Argyll, like ploughing, hay-making and threshing for Auchindrain Museum, situated six miles south of Inveraray. An accomplished draughtswoman, drawing has increasingly dominated Whyte's work.

"Graphite has great potential." she explains. "It's fascinating what paper can do for an artist."

A proportion of her work, in pencil or ink on paper, for this show was created within the past 18 months. Instead of tramping over hills, through bogs and along straths, as she used to do, Whyte works on her drawings from inside her car.

The artist spends time on each drawing, sometimes months. She rubs out, pays attention to how the surface of the paper can facilitate her intentions and concentrates minutely on a specific area. Hard cartridge surfaces interest her.

When, as a young woman, she studied at Kingston College of Art and later at the Royal College of Art, London, she drew on a number of surfaces and objects like stone and learned to print. Whyte finds that the pencil, ranging from 9B to 4H, 3H, 2H and beyond, allows her possibilities for 'indulgent discovery'.

After graduating from art school in the 50s, Whyte taught art near Liverpool at the Merchant Taylors' School for Girls. While working there, she was awarded in 1964, a 6 month travelling scholarship from the Goldsmiths' Company. She headed for the Western Isles and the north of Scotland to 'chase light'. To be specific, western or Atlantic light was what she wanted as its diffuse quality appealed to her more than the intense, sometimes fierce light of the Mediterranean. When she visited Uist she found it magical and after arriving on Benbecula, she sat on the sand, looked westward over the Atlantic and became so immersed in her work that she didn't notice the tide sweeping in around her feet!

At this period she visited Moine (A' Mhòine) House in Sutherland, the subject of her present exhibition. Situated on the Moine peninsula on the east side of Loch Eriboll on Scotland's north coast and to the west of the Kyle of Tongue, with the deep waters of the Pentland Firth to the north, the uninhabited building grabbed her attention. She found it intriguing as she was able to see it from all directions and in the 60s, it still had its roof.

Built in the 1830s by the Duke of Sutherland, after a road connecting Loch Eriboll and the Kyle of Tongue across the peat bog was completed, it was intended as a halfway house, a refuge for travellers in a remote and wild location. But, over the years, because it was uninhabited, it had been abused. Whyte wanted to buy the house but it was entailed and although she would retain clear memories of it, in 1973 she settled on the other side of Scotland in Cullipool on Luing.

For a decade, Whyte with colleague, Audrey Stone ran a successful seafood restaurant on Luing and when it closed the artist returned to drawing and painting, taking artistic risks and exhibiting regularly.

In 1982, in her pursuit of 'western light', she visited Sagres in the Algarve region on the Atlantic seaboard. Her intention was to record fishermen bringing in fish in wooden boats, their making and mending of nets, a traditional occupation that involved the whole family, but was in rapid decline. Mechanisation had arrived, when formerly oxen were employed to pull the boats in and out of the sea.

Whyte exhibited her work in Portugal under the title of 'Life of the Shore'. She returned to Sutherland and in 1989 completed 'Sanctuary', a study of Moine House in which she sites it on the horizon, where it looks hazy and ghost-like, while the foreground hugs the limelight. In the artist's recent drawings (2019-20), the house, now roofless and derelict, occupies the centre of the composition, dominating the wild and empty surroundings. A symbolic portrayal of our times, perhaps, or an elegy to the past?

Distinguished by her intensity and vigour, Edna Whyte possesses notebooks filled with subjects that move her. Seeing clearly and feeling deeply, it's natural that she is comfortable with abstraction and the strength of her vision leads her towards surrealism. "The world," she says, "has not yet been invented."

Her dedication to a single motif in her study of Moine House, is reminiscent of a musical theme with variations, and an energetic reminder of William Blake's words, 'To see a world in a grain of sand.'

Nature engrosses Whyte so much that it fills her entire life and she can never get enough of it or of solitude. "Human contact isn't needed when you are immersed in Nature," she says. "How do you capture wind," she wonders, "or space?" Also preoccupied by motion, Whyte is fascinated by "the way each living thing moves or gives way, even on a still day. For an artist, there are so many choices in Nature."

MARY GLADSTONE


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