Thursday, 18 July 2013

Girls and bridges, and masks and hats. And cats.

The Scottish artist Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) is now best known for his paintings of children in various idealised situations. The children, usually girls, are always very attractive, and the word 'winsome' has been used to describe the look Hornel gives them. Here for instance are the girls in two oil paintings of his from 1906, first The Music of the Woods, and then Seashore Roses:

These are cropped from my own photos, having now visited both the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, and the galleries at Kirkcaldy (more on that below).

Hornel's children are almost impossibly pretty and engaging, although in the first painting they seem like twee little adults, especially the two who are discussing something. I prefer the dreamy girls in the second painting, who have much more of the innocence of proper childhood (or at any rate, childhood as understood in the 1900s). When I was this sort of age, this is how I would have imagined myself, if I'd had developed an artistic way of seeing things. But of course the actual little girls I saw at school and elsewhere weren't like this at all: they squabbled, and pushed each other around, and were very noisy - grubby divas all of them. But I cherished the cleaned-up, pretty ideal in my mind all the same, wanting if I could to be like one of Hornel's girls. See for a bit more information on Mr Hornel.

Much later, M--- drew my attention to the artwork in the Flower Fairy books of the 1920s, which were illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) in a similar style, although to my eye her children, whether girls or boys, were sweeter and even more innocent and unsoiled by reality. Her style was so delicate: both children and flowers were exquisititely drawn and coloured. She used pen and ink, or watercolour, to achieve the result she wanted - quite different from Hornel's exploitation of the textural effects possible with oil paint. To look through any of the Flower Fairy books is to cast aside the world as it is, and refresh the soul, to become very young again - and of course to learn a little about flowers in various seasons. I personally possess the books for Autumn and Winter. See for more about Miss Barker.

What has this to do with bridges and masks and hats and cats? I'm coming to it. We must get to Kirkcaldy first.

Right then. While in Scotland I had a long day out in Fife, which is the area of land that pokes out eastwards like a giant tongue, to the north of Edinburgh, across the immense sea inlet called the Firth of Forth. To reach Fife, you have to get past Edinburgh (a whole lot easier than getting past London) and cross over the Firth. There are two choices: by the old Forth Railway Bridge, and by the more modern Forth Road Bridge, soon to be known as the Old Forth Road Bridge because it's now almost fifty years old and feeling the strain. Apparently it carried its 250 millionth vehicle as far back as 2001, and it's crumbling somewhat. So they are now building a new one alongside, and I hear that the old bridge will be relegated to lighter duties as an expressway for buses only, which will let it soldier on for a long time yet. Wikipedia has an interesting article at

Meanwhile the original bridge, the famous and very distinctive Forth Railway Bridge stands proud, lately rejuvenated with a coat of scientifically-formulated red paint that will not require endless never-finished repainting! I stopped off at Queensferry to contemplate both bridges for a while. Here are some of my pix:

This was but a pause. My prime objective was Kirkcaldy - which is pronounced 'Kirk-coddy'. Scottish pronunciations can trip you up, although really they are no stranger than some you encounter in Sussex, where there are towns and villages whose spelling completely misleads you, such as Bosham, Halnaker, Cuckfield, Ardingly, Lewes, Chalvington, Selmeston, Heathfield and Bodiam - which in reality are Bozzum, Hannaker, Cook-field, Arding-ligh (to rhyme with 'high'), Loo-iss, Charnton, Simson, Hefful and Bodgum. Anyway, I intended to stop at Kirkcaldy partly to give Fiona a drink, and partly to see the newly-refurbished Kirkcaldy Galleries. To get there, I sped across the (Old) Forth Road Bridge.

In these next shots, I try to capture a feel for the bridge's ongoing distintegration, with cables twanging and snapping, and concrete splashing into the Firth, as Fiona flung herself over the heaving, groaning, cracking and shuddering span...

...but I think I've utterly failed to capture that sensation of imminent disaster. Note however, not a single seagull was resting on the superstructure. They were all keeping clear. They knew.

Kirkcaldy Galleries were adjacent to Kirkcaldy station, in the centre of town. This is a place with an interesting past - local lino and pottery industries, for example - but nowadays I wasn't sure that it had a clear-cut identity or purpose. Small and drab Burntisland just down the road, for instance, was at least very well-known for its docks and ship-repairing. But Kirkcaldy? The last fatal pistol duel in Scotland in 1826? A visit from the Beatles in 1963? The Raith Rovers football team, whose glory years were 1913, 1922, 1949 and 1994? I can however commend it to the world for two wonderful things: the local price of diesel is really low; and it has its Galleries:

One of the rooms is devoted to experimental, interactive stuff like costume. An official printed notice invites you to try on a variety of things in front of a mirror. It may be that they have winsome children chiefly in mind, but I think they mean adults too:

Inspired by our wall of portraits? Why not follow in the footsteps of the great artists by creating a self portrait? Maybe you'd like to dress up? Have a look on the hooks and see what you can find. You can use the mirrors to help you with your drawing. If you don't have time to draw then why not take a photograph on your mobile phone instead?

Can you imagine I needed further urging? Out came the little Leica. On went a variety of odds and ends. I'd already got a feel for this kind of thing a few days earlier at Cragside in Northumberland:

Now, at Kirkcaldy, I tried on some dark glasses, masks, and more hats:

Hmmm. Cool and trendy. What a babe.

Irresistably Venetian! Nobody would guess that was really me.

That's the look! So understated and discreet. Now for the hats...

Hmmm. The author Raymond Chandler once said said there's nothing sadder than a sad Mexican...that's just not me. But what about this cheeky little number?

That's much better! I could have a career as a stand-up comedian with a hat like that, despite having no sense of humour whatever!

Some nearby ladies were very amused with my antics in front of the mirror, and even if they declined to have a go, they saw the fun-potential. I really liked that last hat...a pity it wasn't for sale. I went next into the smart café (Question: is 'café' the word I use most in life?) for a cup of tea and some cake, and became curious about its name - the Café Wemyss.

I simply had to ask the girl on the nearby tourist information desk. She was super-obliging, and not only explained that 'wemyss' was the common element in a string of little places along the coast just east of Kirkcaldy, referring to cliffs, but also provided the name for a type of very popular (if not cult) pottery produced thereabouts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was called Wemyss Ware, and the original pieces of that period had become extremely collectable, fans including the late Queen Mother and the not-yet-late Prince Charles. Naturally no ordinary person can now afford the prices asked for the first Wemyss Ware.

However, there were two more recent versions of the Ware, both using the original designs and the special production techniques, that included hand-painting each piece before final glazing. The pottery was produced in Devon for nearly thirty years from the early 1930s, then revived again from the 1980s by Griselda Hill, who now had her own pottery at Ceres, a village in Fife, not too far away. The modern stuff was just the same as the old, but easier on the pocket, although still not cheap because of all the hand-painting. One of the Gallery staff I chatted to told me that she had just bought a full-sized cat, spending £250! Phew. It must have been for a special birthday or anniversary, I'm thinking. She wasn't exaggerating on the cost. I have a current price list before me at this very moment. The price for a full-size, 'large' (33cm tall) cat, decorated on both sides with a fruit or flower design, is presently £276. For a large pig (30cm high, and 51cm long), similarly decorated, the price is presently £443.

They sold some examples at the Galleries:

I absolutely loved the china cats! It was by then gone 3.00pm, and the Ceres Pottery closed at 4.30pm. Let's go see! I fired up Fiona, and we tore up the road, leaving burn marks, to get to the place in time for a jolly good look at what was on offer. We made it with half an hour to spare.

After discussion, deliberation and decision, I came away with Rosie, at a just-affordable £59, but then she was only 18cm tall, and regarded as a 'small' cat. Here she is unpacked back at the caravan that evening...

...and next morning, with Fang and my laptop...

...and back home. I think you'll grant that she goes rather well will the general decor of my bedroom, and especially the curtains:

What a cheerful little presence in my house! And small enough to take away in the caravan too, given enough bubble-wrap.

Down in Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, there's a huge nineteenth-century painted cat like Rosie, of the sort that inspired Wemyss Ware in the first place:

One wonders what will happen if they ever chance to meet. In fact I can't get it out of my head. Supposing they do? Supposing one day I'm in the Museum and I have Rosie with me? What will happen? That's the question I keep on asking myself.


  1. Lucy, you have immortalised the boat sculpture by my late friend Martin Rayner with whom I once shared an exhibition space in Belgium. I photographed the sculpture in the gallery as it evolved over the months from lumps of fresh wood to the finished piece. If you had gone for a dip in the fine swimming pool at Burnt island you would have seen many more of his works too.

  2. What a coincidence! I admired that boat sculpture (Silver Darlings), and it wasn't the only one at Kirkcaldy either. Honestly, Scotland is a fantastic place if you like art. When I come again, I will travel up as far as Aberdeen, and that will mean the Catterline artist Joan Eardley.

    It's such a pleasure to process this year's Scottish shots, and relive so many good moments. Our day in Edinburgh gets posted up this weekend. I shall use playful pseudonyms so that I can mention all three of us, and make a reference to another friend too, without endangering anyone's anonymity. A batch of pix by email is also imminent.



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