I met with Nichol Wheatley a matter of days after the opening to his latest exhibition, ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ – he was sitting in the quiet of Òran Mór, gently welcoming the warmth of friends dropping in to share their congratulations. It was a chance for the paintings to once again fill the space over and above all else and I imagine further still from the two years previous, working in his studio to bring each painting to completion.
This, Wheatley’s 4th solo exhibition presents a series of 10 major works offering a pictorial journey of a poem, written over 200 years ago by the great bard Robert Burns. Its very name and narrative continuing to echo through the gates of history, retaining its enduring relevance not only within our own cultural and literary landscape but as reminder of the unwavering human condition.
Wheatley leads us into the narrative with a painting of Tam in the bustling market town square, before he moves into the folds of the warmth and familiarity of his local inn, and its equally acquainted characters. Tam of course makes way for home – leaving as witching hour keen approaches but first Wheatley contemplates a key shift in the poem – a direct reference to the only part Burns wrote in English.
‘But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, it’s bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;’
It’s a particularly reflective moment, a human tale of the foolish Tam fallen foul to the short-term fix of the beer glass as his wife and responsibilities await him. Wheatley moves focus to the outdoors, figures small in the landscape, a gentle movement of the grass, the slow pace of the river, the form of a reclining female in the clouds watching over – mother earth perhaps sympathetic to the innate opportunity for ‘good’ that is also within the bounds of our humanness. A wonderful scene that’s as much an allegorical reminder of the fragility of life against the power and might of the natural elements as it is for Tam as we contemplate the sober reality of fleeting pleasures ending, as they of course do.
There is beauty to be found in all Wheatley’s paintings and they captivate not just by their physical size and presence but for his artistic skill, technical brilliance and innate attention to detail. A cloud of thistledown is finely depicted in the lower left of the painting – so delicately worked and recognisable within the childhood memories of many Scottish children, as well as Wheatley. ‘I remember catching thistledown as a kid and when you blew it free, a fairy was to grant you a wish.’ So lifelike in its rendering that he recounts how his father thought it was ‘stuck on’ to the painting.
The pictures continue to journey through Burns epic poem, the play of drama intensifying. There is a reverence found in the deep azure blue of the night sky, boldly powerful above the solitary Tam riding on the back of his horse Meg – man versus world in the impending moments before high drama unfolds on the path before them at Alloway Kirk. Wonderful attention to detail is again found in the characters making their way through the blades of grass in the graveyard towards the golden glow of light ahead and what is to be a scene behold of merriment and one of terror for the drunken Tam. Evocative flames of light, dancing beings – the night unfolds with darkness holding power, a reality where truth and imagination blend, a thinning of the veil between the creatures of the unseen and the world of humans. Two spectacular paintings reflect Tams visions within the Kirk before we see him escape with Meg through the land and over Brig o’ Doon.
The landscape plays a significant part in Wheatley’s narrative. On my second visit there is more to see – the hordes of hell chasing Tam over the bridge, the clouds, which I found so captivating early in the series remain so, almost developing and reflecting their own shift in intensity within the pictures as the story unfolds. Yet, Wheatley was for many years reluctant to call himself an artist. Art School disappointed in so far as the training did not satisfy or go far enough for him to feel expert enough. ‘I had hoped to be taught as a painter,’ he tells me. So began a rather more unconventional journey, where the working world of industry presented opportunity to colour the mind, a fertile ground for learning – chef, blacksmith, barman, bouncer, building site labourer, each offered an eye for study and a possibility for the hands on practical.
All the while Wheatley continued to draw, and it was just 7 years after leaving Art School that he founded a commercial art company – Perfect Circle. A name that rose from an act of the Florentine painter and draughtsman Giotto (b.1266) who was reputed to have drawn a perfect circle of red paint in one brushstroke at the request of the Pope, as a measure of his skill. For Perfect Circle, a small team of artists were challenged to problem solve, project manage people, space and materials and budgets – a wonderful nod to the Renaissance studio.
The client list grew quickly, from set designs for film and television to private and public commissions. The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan was in fact one of the well-wishers who stopped by the day we met, and Wheatley briefly told me about their collaboration for Kelvingrove Station, a piece that he is extremely proud of. ‘Translating ideas through two different skill sets was exciting and is a fantastic challenge,’ he recounts, ‘yet we knew with absolute confidence that it would work.’
It was also interesting to learn that Wheatley’s ‘Tam O Shanter’ was first discussed with Òran Mór’s owner Colin Beattie some 12 years previous. At the time he was working with Alasdair Gray on the ceiling of the building and it took some years for the commission to bear fruit. On visiting the exhibition, Gray I have no doubt was impressed by his friend’s achievement although Wheatley did recount, with a smile that he thought there were, ‘things that could be improved.’
Now complete, it will share the same space each January in celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, at eye level under the might of Gray’s mural ‘Universe’, as yet unfinished but equally sublime in it beauty and his iconic painting ‘Fleck’, before returning to their more permanent home on the walls of the bar on the ground level.
From the lofts to the rather unique setting of the bar downstairs, connecting the story to a contemporary audience sees the journey of this series of paintings endure in a space where people gather, eat, drink, sit among friends and observe in solitude – a brilliant allegory and a perfect place for Wheatley’s magnificent paintings to call home.