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Visual arts >

In a monastery garden

Katy Hounsell-Robert enjoys watercolours of a Scottish abbey

THE beautiful sandstone medieval Benedictine Abbey of Pluscarden, set in a landscape of Scots pine, silver birch, and yellow gorse, is the subject of a current exhibition at Duff House in Aberdeenshire.

Understandably, the artist is one of its Roman Catholic monks, Dom Matthew Tylor, who had only dabbled in painting until he transferred from Quarr Abbey to Pluscarden four years ago and was encouraged by Father Abbot Hugh Gilbert to develop his talent.

In between the daily five divine services sung gently in Gregorian chant, and after lectio divina, the monks work in the kitchen or on the garden allotments, and also have special duties such as beekeeping and producing stained glass, when they change their white robes (of the French Valliscaulian order) for more practical blue overalls.

Fr Matthew was made warden of the women’s house, St Scholastica’s, named after St Benedict’s twin sister, a devout nun, which meant organising reservations, providing sup-plies of bread, milk, and other necessities, and talking to the women pilgrims on spiritual subjects. At Christmas, he would also be busy making large papier-mâché angels for the sanctuary and living rooms.

He hung some of his water-colours in St Scholastica’s, and people liked his naïve style and bought them, which pleased him, as it made it easier to ask for money for more paints and materials.

Last year, three things happened to accelerate his artistic development: a local artist died and left him a large collection of painting materials; the Abbot suggested an exhibition, which Duff House was delighted to display; and Fr Matthew was released from the wardenship in order to concentrate on the painting.

There are 16 pieces in acrylic, and four watercolours. These include scenes within the sanctuary, the cloisters, the monks’ simple little cemetery, and St Scholastica’s, and external views of the many-faceted Abbey through the seasons, with bluebells and apple blossom in spring, fruit and flowers in summer, and covered in snow in winter.

Although it is painted in most weathers, he observes: “I was amused to notice that I had not done justice to the almost continual rain.”

He hopes to put what he has learnt this year to paint at greater depth, to express in paint the monk’s life, essentially dedicated to prayer and worship, to do more about the mysteries of the faith — the nativity, baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension — and if possible to exhibit in the Biennale of Sacred Art in Malta, which takes place in March 2009. Above all, he hopes to play a little part towards kindling interest in specifically Christian art.

At Duff House, Banff, Aberdeenshire, until 4 November. Phone 01261 818181.

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