There are times that I am so spellbound by a painting that only when the critical mind jumps to my attention does the awareness of that moment shock me.
Standing in the studio of Glasgow based artist Helen Flockhart, pictures laid out around the room, I am reminded of just how powerful the impact of art can be in evoking such a raw, deeply personal response.
The space is functional, creeping postcards of images and inspiration papering one wall, a window offering natural light, a palette of oils in perfect cones of colour on a small table and a quiet that clears the way for minimal distraction. Paintings for an upcoming exhibition are placed for my viewing but given it’s a working studio and that Flockhart often works on more than one painting at a time, not unusual. Time is also pressing – she opens her solo show Linger Awhile in Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh mid-September before it tours to Linlithgow Burgh Halls. The significance of which is noted considering this new body of work is firmly rooted on the life of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) – born in the town at Linlithgow Palace in 1542.
Crooked Rib is the painting that holds my gaze yet as it moves from one picture to the next the cohesion and collective power of these works is sustaining. With such an awareness of the impact of my response I am intrigued by the process and inspiration for the collection, drawn to the thread linking one woman in history to another as an artist centuries later and a viewer – how an image can evoke such a projection.
‘It was an article on Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise that first pricked my interest a few years ago and I visited Linlithgow Palace last summer, which had a real presence – from there I began reading books which sparked a lot of ideas for paintings,’ Flockhart tells me.
A figure of legend, Mary Stuart has since become a narrative of Hollywood – one of twisted myths, romance and stereotypes. Flockhart was studious in her research, delving deep into the written words of those who show dedicated efforts in researching her life, yet observant to the limits of the stories that weave through the national conscience. ‘Legend has interwoven over time – people seem to adopt a standpoint and then research to back up their standpoint,’ she adds.
In this collection the feminine strikes forth – theatre, history and beauty all pass through the image with the artist harnessing key moments in Mary’s life and transcending these details with a personal and compassionate response.
Each painting is a reflection – quotes such as the widely known ‘en ma fin gît mon commencement / in my end is my beginning’ embroidered by Mary during her long incarceration in England is painted onto her dress in Lachrymose Window. The symbol of The Mermaid and the Hare – a placard that was exhibited in Edinburgh (1) denouncing Mary as a tainted lustful siren and the Earl of Bothwell, whose coat of arms includes the hare, as a player in the murder of Lord Darnley is also shown in the fabric of the dress.
The painting captures the dominance of Mary as a solitary figure with a sense of stillness sweeping over the picture – Mary’s hands resting on her lap, her gaze straight and steady. Scottish ferns, regarded in Gaelic culture to have protective powers (2) look static, frozen almost as they fill the world beyond the window frame. She is held tight in a world where time itself is unforgiving and constant yet the red of her lips charge the energy of the feminine and Mary’s position during that period in her life shows one of resilience, presence and danger.
Every one of Flockhart’s pictures is rich in colour, dense in texture and filled with symbolism. O Elizabeth is a portrait of the English queen Elizabeth I, seen holding a jar in her hand – the captured butterfly a symbol of her power over her prisoner, Mary. The background to the portrait of Mary of Guise Do Not Touch Me Or I Will Prick is swathed in layer upon layer of intricately painted flowers while lush green foliage enfolds a number of portraits – the intrigue of what might reveal itself through the leaves as the tiger did for Henri Rousseau (d.1910) holds my thoughts.
I can’t help but notice that Flockhart herself has long red hair and albeit Mary Stuart was of course renowned for her red locks I do question her own identity creeping into these paintings and find it interesting to see the shift in the way she has portrayed her figures over the years. In a 1988 self-portrait the person is small in stature – a large head with a smaller body. Over time there has been a definite move towards a lengthening of the body and in these works in particular I think of the stylised female in the Art Deco period of the 1920’s and reminded of a sculpture by Eric Gill (d.1940) titled The East Wind – the angular proportions of the face specifically. This is an artist with a clear knowledge of history, from observation of these works I also see 17th century Dutch influences through the use of perspective in The Mermaid and the Hare and the detail and precision of draughtsmanship applied in the arches.
Flockhart is a highly skilled painter – her new paintings are original, enigmatic and provocative. They feel hugely significant and relevant, timely of the present while magically capturing the deep significance of the stories regaled from the past. The thread of history runs deep, the line of influence alive and enduring. She has the unique ability to keep the viewers look within the frame where they too are suspended between a feeling of safety, held tight within the richness and detail of the painted surface with an almost disturbed fascination. Flockhart’s voice is clear and distinctive and what a force as a painter – one of Scotland’s greats.
Flockhart attended The Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 1984 with a first-class degree in painting with works held in many British and International collections.
13 September to 7 October
– Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh
12 October to 20 January 2019
– Linlithgow Burgh Halls