Following in the footsteps of a doomed adventurer and a forgotten namesake, and the realisation of a life-long dream have taken the work of an acclaimed Scottish artist in an unexpected direction. Barbara Rae explains to Barry Didcock
WHEN Barbara Rae was a schoolgirl in Crieff in the 1950s she loved maps and geography. One map and one area held a particular fascination: the fabled Northwest Passage, which links the Atlantic with the Pacific through the perilous ice floes of the Arctic.
After centuries of searches and hopeful expeditions, it was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who finally navigated the Passage by ship in 1906. But the most disastrous and notorious failed attempt happened over half a century earlier, with the British expedition of 1845 led by Sir John Franklin. He and his crew perished and both his ships were
lost. For 150 years all that remained were three graves, whatever shreds of evidence the melting ice gave up and a host of rumours, most intriguingly that Franklin’s crew resorted to cannibalism at the last. For Rae, the story of Franklin and the Northwest Passage proved irresistible.
In the end she became not a cartographer or a geographer but a painter: a contemporary of John Bellany and Alexander Moffat at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1960s, and later a mainstay of the teaching staff at Glasgow School of Art where she nurtured the careers of Steven Campbell, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Alison Watt among many others. In her own art, often painted in southern Spain or in the deserts around Los Angeles where she lived for a long time with her screenwriter husband Gareth Wardell, she presents dramatic, semi-abstract landscapes that hum with colour. But for all her time spent in the arid south she never forgot the Northwest Passage.
“I really, really wanted to go north as well,” she tells me when we meet in her studio in Edinburgh’s New Town. “I wanted to go to Iceland and explore Iceland and explore this idea about going over the top of the world. I’d spent such a long time in Los Angeles over the last 14 or 15 years so every time I was flying there I was flying over Iceland and Greenland and looking down and saying to myself, ‘I really, really want to go here to these frozen wastes’.”
So in 2015, aged 72, she did. She joined the crew of a Russian ship and set sail for the Arctic. In 2016 and 2017 she made two further expeditions and three years on from that first trip the result is a vast new set of paintings which goes on display at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh next month in an exhibition titled – what else? – The Northwest Passage.
But there’s another aspect to the work. Blending with Rae’s long-term interest in the Arctic and the Northwest Passage is a more recent discovery – her namesake John Rae, an Orkney-born surgeon-turned-Arctic explorer and a contemporary of Franklin’s. It was Rae, following Franklin’s last known movements, who first heard (and, importantly, reported to the Admiralty) the claims by local Inuit that Franklin was dead and that the last of his crew had resorted to cannibalism. His own reputation suffered as a result though he’s commemorated with a memorial in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral and there were major exhibitions about him in Orkney and Edinburgh in 2013 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
On a painting visit to Orkney inspired by her long-standing interest in Neolithic cultures – her Arizona paintings incorporate cave art and rock sculptures – Rae came across the story of her namesake. “That started me off on the history side of it,” she says. “It’s always a story about the history [for me].”
It also meant an important final piece of the intellectual jigsaw fell into place because what makes landscapes interesting for
Rae is the human activities that have taken place within them. To paint those landscapes requires her to engage with those people and those activities, often over a long period of time. “I need a connection,” she says. “I don’t like to just go to a place and see a landscape and say, right, I’m doing that, then go.”
And so she set off not so much in the footsteps of John Rae – difficult when you have several thousand miles of water to cross – but in his wake, at least, and with a sense of the terror and wonder he felt when faced with the Arctic’s inhospitable environment always in her mind. That was the plan, at least, though it’s difficult to adopt the mindset of a 19th century explorer when your fellow passengers are sipping cocktails in an outdoor hot tub as the glaciers and ice sheets slip past. Rae’s travel mates did just that and she has a photo to prove it. It was, she says, “such an amazing contrast to the hardships that Franklin and everyone who came after
him encountered”. But the journey itself didn’t disappoint, nor did the eventual destination. Every day brought different images and experiences, some startling, many awe-inspiring. Going on deck at 4am one day she watched the ship glide silently through pack ice in the grey-white Arctic gloom as the First Officer peered intently over the side. Approaching the “misty and mysterious” Prince Leopold Island bird sanctuary she saw a “monstrous” black cliff face split by a waterfall that appeared to hang in the air. “It was just magical to witness that,” she says. And visiting the bleak, pebblestrewn foreshore at Beechey Island, she saw the place in which three members of Franklin’s crew were buried until the 1980s when the mummified remains were exhumed and examined.
“It’s such an amazing, desolate place and when you come onto the beach it’s covered in grey pebbles,” she says. “It looks like some landscape gardener has been at work. It’s a beautiful horseshoe bay with a sprinkling of snow on the hilltops. It’s very difficult to imagine the scale of it, and when you think about Franklin and his crew being in this desolate spot and being trapped there for a couple of years …” She trails off.
And how did she feel when she saw the graves of the sailors?
“The grave-markers have been replaced from the original ones, but it’s still a very haunting place. And of course in my memory are the photographs of the bodies they exhumed and tested to see if they could find out what they died from.”
The polar bears were a particular treat. They were also a threat. When going ashore to paint Rae had to be accompanied by an armed crew member to guard against attacks. But from the safety of the ship she once saw a bear and her cubs jumping from ice floe to ice floe in search of food. That was special. Another time she watched as a pack of bears gorged themselves on a whale carcass then all fell asleep one by one.
Drawing and painting on site where she could, or working from photographs in her cabin studio when she couldn’t, Rae filled her portfolio and stuffed reflections and experiences into the thing she refers to as her “memory bank”. Returning to Edinburgh, she set it all down on canvas and paper resulting in works such as Devon Island Beach, a study in blues and greys of Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, the largest uninhabited island in the world. Or Through The Ice Sea, a work on paper which shows the prow of her ship nosing through ice floes against an inky black horizon. Or the series of powerful diptychs she made, aerial views of the Arctic landscape inspired by a plane trip during her second visit in 2016.
Other works are more ghostly, such as Black Pyramid or the self-explanatory Dark Berg. In Dark Sea: Peel Sound she presents a threatening seascape slashed across with vivid yellow and a monotype of the Croker Glacier at dusk turns the ice into a jagged anvil shape jutting out of a grey-blue sea. And that all-important human presence is there too, in the many works featuring desolate trading huts and shelters, or showing shadowy figures in the Arctic gloom.
One story that’s harder to tell on canvas and paper is the degradation of the ice caps as global warming takes its toll. Over the course of three consecutive visits Rae didn’t see any massive change, but she did see proof enough of a less talked about downside of global warming – an increase in tourism and footfall, something which is having a detrimental effect on both the Arctic’s ecosystem and the lives of the people who live there, the Inuit.
“The big problem now is that because the Northwest Passage is accessible there are bigger cruise ships coming in,” she says. “The one I was on carried between 70 and 90 people and they were all professionals – geologists, photographers, wildlife experts, bird watchers – and they were mostly retired academics. It was very strict what we could do. But the first time we arrived in this Canadian Inuit settlement called Pond Inlet there was another ship there with 600 passengers, and there was a French boat back in Greenland with 400 passengers.”
And bigger ships have followed. In 2016 the largest to date to traverse the Passage – the 13-deck Crystal Serenity
– left Alaska for a 32-day cruise around the Arctic to New York. It can carry 1600 passengers. “I don’t think they can cope with that number of people coming in,” says Rae.
On that, as on matters closer to home, Barbara Rae isn’t short of opinions. Talk finally leaves the ice of the Arctic and turns to the fire that destroyed the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). Here again Rae has plenty to say.
Few Scots were unmoved by the disaster and it’s safe to say no Scottish artists were. But Rae’s connection the place runs deep: she was a lecturer there for over two decades, from 1975 until 1996. Even at the end of her time there she would see something new in the building every day, so she’s understandably upset at its destruction. More than that, she’s outraged.
“I think it’s tragic, the lack of care for the building from the first fire. [People say] ‘what an accident’. Wrong. What a lack of care.”
I ask her if she thinks the Mack should be pulled down and a new, modern building raised in its place. “You mean like the building opposite,” she snorts, referring to the unloved Reid Building. “Like that pile of sh*t?”. No, she says, the Mack has to be rebuilt. Exactly like it was.
“I think that’s the only solution. I’m very fearful of knocking it down and having an international architecture competition and ending up with a pile of crap.
“Of course the patina of the building, the wear and tear, can never be reproduced. But, reluctantly, I think it’s the option that’s the right one.”
Rae sits at the centre of modern Scottish painting thanks to her own artistic output and the reputation it has brought her, and her years of teaching at GSA and at schools in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. But her relationship with Scotland itself is more problematic. She said in 2013 that she didn’t consider herself a Scottish painter. Now resident in Edinburgh again after years in Los Angeles, does that still hold true?
“Being Scottish is very important to me because this is where my roots are and I guess my love of landscape came from growing up in Perthshire,” she replies. “I was constantly out in the hills. I was a grouse beater. I worked on farms. But I want to be an international artist. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed in any sort of way. It’s wrong to put people in categories. We don’t call someone ‘an English artist’ or ‘an American artist’.”
What she especially hates, however, is being called a woman artist. “That makes me mad,” she says.
“We don’t say someone is a male artist, do we? That has been my philosophy all my life. I’ve come across some serious issues with men in my work. Not in my painting but working at Glasgow School of Art and working in schools and so on. But I have steadfastly kept to the idea that I’m an artist and I don’t want to be defined by being a woman. I don’t like prizes for women and all that crap. That really, really annoys me … Equality? We can have equality. But I don’t want condescension.”
The corollary is that she doesn’t feel she has ever been undervalued as an artist because she’s a woman. True, the Scottish National Galleries still doesn’t own one of her works and that does seem to rankle, but she would never put that down to anything to do with her gender. “I’ve never moaned about being a woman and I’ve never asked for special privileges because I’m a woman,” she says. “As an artist I didn’t feel myself unequal in any way, and I’ve never been held back by that.”
Nothing much else would hold Barbara Rae back either, I sense. Now 74, she remains voluble, active, opinionated and intrepid – so much so that she’s returning to the Arctic in September to undertake a new series of works. She has to, she tells me, “because my memory banks have gone down”.
A lifetime on, the Northwest Passage is still calling to her.
Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage opens at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh on August 4 (until September 9, admission free) and will then transfer to the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney. Barbara Rae travelled to the Arctic with One Ocean Expeditions.
Back home in her studio, Rae used her Arctic trip as the basis for her latest exhibition
One trips ashore, Rae had to be accompanied by an armed guard in case she encountered polar bears