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Interview: Alison Watt artist

01 July 2022

‘The still life has often been viewed as somehow a lesser genre, below the allegorical figure. I’ve never really understood why’

Alison Watt

My father’s a painter; so, from a young age, looking at and making paintings seemed to me a very normal and natural activity. Some of my earliest memories involve being in my father’s studio, and the excitement around that.

I have no memory of ever wanting to be anything other than a painter. Artists who have inspired me greatly over the years are Zurbarán, Ingres, Cortés, Ramsay, Peale, Whiteread, de Clérambault, Vija Celmins, and Morandi.

I’ve spent some years studying the archive of the great 18th-century portrait-painter Allan Ramsay, and particularly the portraits Ramsay made of his two wives, Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay — paintings I’ve visited for longer than I can remember. Some time ago, I was asked by Julie Lawson, senior curator at National Galleries of Scotland [NGS], to engage with a particular work of my choice in their collection and make one work as a response, which would be shown at NGS. I chose the portrait of Anne Bayne.

I became so immersed in the study of the extensive archive, held at NGS — which has over 30 paintings, over 200 drawings, and two sketchbooks — that the project evolved into something much bigger. In the end, I made 16 paintings, which were shown at NGS as part of the Edinburgh Festival last summer.

As I explored Ramsay’s archive, I became increasingly drawn to the portraits he made of the women who inhabited his world, and the women who shaped it. His finest portraits are of women he knew well. They didn’t come about through some fleeting engagement with a sitter; but an affinity between artist and sitter exists. Looking at the archive caused me to question the nature of portraiture itself — not only how we view it, but what our expectations are of it.

I looked carefully at how Ramsay chose to portray the women he painted through the objects they hold, their clothing, and their surroundings. Certain attributes appear and reappear in his portraits. They’re often everyday objects: a book, a flower, a feather. Gradually, over time, these small elements of still life became the subjects of my own paintings.

The still life has often been viewed within the hierarchy of subject matter as somehow a lesser genre, below the allegorical figure, the portrait, the nude — even the landscape. I’ve never really understood why. Is it because of the association of the still life with the domestic? And therefore the feminine? Could it be because the still life often does things quietly, tending to whisper rather than shout? It’s the quietude of still life that gives it power. It has intimacy, and, because of its close connection to us, it’s continually being redefined as a genre. It continues to evolve because it reflects us.

I’ve always been fascinated by portraiture, from the very beginning, when I was a young artist and would stand in front of a mirror and paint myself obsessively day after day, to the more subtle representations of self which exist in the work now. It’s said that every work an artist makes is somehow a self-portrait. Over the years, my work has examined the different ways in which the human being can be represented without being present.

I’m still making work relating to Ramsay’s archive, and some make up my current show in Madrid. What’s very particular about the Madrid paintings is that they were made at the height of lockdown, when I had no direct access to my source material. The subsequent paintings have a strange, almost ghostly quality.

My interest in the relationship between the two genres of still life and portraiture is long-standing.

In the self-portrait I made which won the National Portrait Gallery’s annual competition, the elements of still life in that painting are treated with the same importance as the figure. All seem as subjects to me rather than objects.

I had what would now be considered a classical education at Glasgow School of Art. At that time, the importance of drawing was emphasised with regular study of the human figure. A minimum of 25 drawings of the human body from life had to be produced by each student every week. It was a practice which eventually fell away for most of my peers, but I chose to continue to work with available life models until after my postgraduate studies.

Working so intimately with another human being has always felt like a huge privilege. Being with a life model every day at the studio also had a profound impact on my work. Sometimes, I’d simply observe the subtle shifts in a human body without painting. I’d become lost in looking alone. I view this as a form of meditation. Prolonged looking is still an important part of my practice as a painter.

I think it’s important not to be prescriptive when it comes to how others might engage with my work. One of the wonders of looking at painting is that it should allow you room in which to imagine.

I’d long wanted to make a piece of work for a non-secular place, but I had no idea what form it might take, or where. I’d recently moved to Edinburgh — almost 20 years ago — when I was introduced to Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who has since become a good friend. He’d once been Rector of Old St Paul’s [OSP], and he had a deep love of the church. I’ve never forgotten what he said to me the first time we visited the church together: “No space, so far as I’m concerned, so powerfully contains the past in its living present.”

From the moment I entered the memorial chapel at OSP, I wanted to make work to describe my feeling of overwhelming sadness. One wall is lined with the names of all those who died in the Great War from the parish — so many. I found it impossible to look at those names and not think of who they were and what their lives might have been, and a magnificent painting came into my mind: Saint Serapion, by Zurbarán. The painting was originally conceived for a monastery in Seville, for a room where monks were laid before burial.

The explicit details of St Serapion’s martyrdom aren’t shown. We see his body draped in white robes, each wrist bound with rope as his head falls to one side. He is beautiful. Each fold is paired down to the simple elements of light and shade, but Zurbarán elevates the humble fabric of the robe to a divine level. I was captivated by how the ordinary can be transformed and become extraordinary — the mysterious transformation of an object into an idea.

I’ve been humbled by the response I’ve had to Still, which I painted for the memorial chapel in Old St Paul’s, in Edinburgh. My work comes from within; so it never fails to amaze me that what I have made entirely for myself should have an impact on others. Looking back, it makes sense that I should have thought of a martyr in a space which was designed to honour those who died in the Great War.

My father’s studio was in the house I was brought up in. It was a place of adventure for me, and that adventurous creativity was always encouraged during my childhood. My studio now is a space I guard fiercely. I walk there every morning with a sense of purpose. It’s a place I can be completely myself — perhaps the only place. There, I lose myself in what I do.

As my father was an artist, I was exposed to great religious art from an early age. As children, my siblings and I often visited important places of worship both here and in Europe. Robert Mapplethorpe once said, “A church has a certain magic and mystery as a child. It still shows in how I arrange things.” For him, everything was an altar. I understand that: the influence of the powerful imagery of the church.

Injustice, cruelty, needless suffering in the world make me angry.

I’m happiest when I’m with the people I love, and when I’m walking on some remote beach somewhere in the Highlands. My father’s house is right on the beach on the Ayrshire — the Firth of Clyde — coast, looking over to Cumbrae, Bute, and Arran. I love the sounds of the water lapping on the shore.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Richard Holloway, my dear friend and the wisest man I know.

Alison Watt was talking to Terence Handley McMath.

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