Issue 205
September/October 2018

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Nov 16, 2018

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A patron of the arts and the environment

Mary Gladstone pays tribute to Tessa Tennant who made a difference

Tessa Tennant in picnic mode, with grand-daughter

THROUGH their bleaching industry, the Tennants were arguably, in the old days, the richest family in Scotland. They collected the work of the finest artists of the day and had their portraits painted by them. Not so now. From simple beginnings as Ayrshire farmers during the 18th century, their fortune soared to £ 1 billion but, through self-indulgence and bad management, they gradually lost most of their money.

However, Tessa, daughter-in-law of Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner (1926-2010), was made of sterner stuff. After her husband, Henry, confessed he was gay, leaving her and their son, Euan, only to die three years later of AIDS, Tessa, né e Davies, made attempts to influence the way we all treated our physical environment.

She was in the vanguard of eco investment when, thirty years ago, the idea of combining money-making with reconciling planetary limits was in its infancy. In 1988, she co-founded the UK's first green investment fund, The Merlin Ecology Fund and became head of NPI, another fund concerned with the environment.

Tessa's base was The Glen, near Innerleithen, Peebles, with husband, Bill Staempfli, an architect from New York. Together, they converted their Victorian baronial mansion, outbuildings, cottages and land into a money-making enterprise, hosting weddings, conferences and offering country weekends to visitors.

The Glen's restored clock tower, housing the Clock Tower Gallery and studio

"Tessa was a pioneer," states artist and one-time director of Edinburgh's 369 Gallery, Andrew Brown, who rents a flat in the stables at The Glen and works from his studio there in a converted hay-loft.

"She was a champion of the underdog." Not only did she achieve so much in ethical investment and business, but she also helped found and fund the Homerton Hope Charity for AIDS sufferers and research into curing the disease.

"Aware of the family's interest in art, which had dried up through their lack of money, Tessa hoped to introduce contemporary works to The Glen. Interested in my efforts in promoting Scottish women artists, she wished to support those who had not received their fair share of attention," said Andrew Brown.

They discussed the prospect of holding an exhibition in the house but her husband preferred to convert the Clock Tower, then crammed with gardening equipment and tools, into a small gallery and all three agreed.

Last November, they kicked off with a show of landscapes by Sheila Mullen, whose base was near Lockerbie. Having already exhibited Sheila's work in the 369 Gallery, Andrew knew that Tessa would be impressed.

"Like Joan Eardley before her, Sheila Mullen, now 78 years old, still paints 'en plein air', with an easel outside and in all weathers. If Eardley, was a painter of the sea," explains Andrew, "Sheila Mullen is of the forest and the woods."

When Tessa saw hundreds of Mullen's vivid, expressionist paintings stored in rows in her Dumfriesshire farm steading, painted over a period of 40 years, she was overwhelmed. The show opened last year on November 12 and closed on February 28.

Through her initiative, Tessa reinstated the career of this distinguished, but forgotten artist, and this summer (August 19 - 23) her paintings of more mythical subjects connected with the Border Ballads were exhibited at Neidpath Castle, near Peebles.

A third show, this time of her religious paintings, is planned for October at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Palmerston Place, Edinburgh.

Over the summer until October, the Clock Tower Gallery at the Glen is staging their second exhibition, this time by another female artist, 83 year old Carole Gibbons, also once shown in Andrew's 369 Gallery. For decades, Gibbons has turned out remarkable expressionist work, which has been bought by many galleries. Next year, The Clock Tower will exhibit Lil Neilson, who died twenty years ago and was a close companion of Joan Eardley.

Tessa appreciated Andrew's concern for the Scottish woman artist. "In most galleries, only 10 per cent of work shown is created by women. At the 369, at least 50 per cent of paintings were done by women," he claimed.

There is, however, a question mark over the Clock Tower's future. Bill Staempfli wants to fulfil Tessa's wish for the gallery to continue and with Andrew's reputation for picking good, original artists, especially women, it should flourish.

In 2012, Tessa was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tragically she lost her battle this year with the disease and on July 7, she died, aged 59.

With Andrew Brown, she built a strong platform for Scottish contemporary art and Andrew hopes to maintain this legacy. In October at Summerhall, Edinburgh, he is organising a show of work from his own collection and borrowed from galleries and private collectors, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of 369 Gallery with 50 per cent of the paintings created by women.

Jointly, Tessa and Andrew have made an inspired move towards reinstating once established but largely forgotten Scottish women artists.

The Clock Tower Gallery is open by appointment only. Email or call 07913 025 022. To reach The Glen: Follow B709 out of Innerleithen for approximately 2 1/2 miles. Turn right at signpost for Glen Estate. Address: Glen House, Glen Estate, Innerleithen, Peebleshire, EH44 6PX

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