Keep your eye on Paisley show
THE THREADS which tied industry, art and culture together in the once mighty mill town of Paisley and its surrounding villages formed a rich and complex pattern. You only have to park beside Paisley Museum and Art Galleries and walk past the handsome cathedral-like Gothic red sandstone that is Coates Memorial Baptist Church to clock the fact that Paisley once was a place of Significance.
Last year the venerable Victorian dowager that is Paisley Art Institute (PAI) celebrated two centenaries; the first the gifting of four galleries at Paisley Museum and Art Galleries by thread manufacturing baron Sir Peter Coates and second, the start of the Paisley Art Institute Collection. PAI, founded in 1876, had its roots in the Paisley School of Art and Design, formed to encourage diversification in the textile industry.
Some of Paisley’s sons and daughters are weel kent names. Artist, writer and Buddie John Byrne started as a Slab Boy with AF Stoddard & Son in Elderslie. But Paisley has been in the wars in recent years. Its major industries packed up years ago and its centre suffered serious decline. Now as you drive through its one-way system, brightlycoloured hoardings catch the eye.
They are advertising Paisley’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021. But wait, you might exclaim, isn’t Paisley a town not a city? As Paisley 2021 project director Jean Cameron declares on her Twitter feed, “We know we’re Scotland’s largest town and not a city. That works for UK CoC [City of Culture] bid.”
The bid is an inspired piece of thinking by Renfrewshire Council, which has invested £22m, with money going into arts and heritage initiatives. The jewel is an ambitious £56.7m scheme to upgrade Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, the home of PAI’s annual exhibition.
Open to artist members of the Institute and all-comers, this year there is 464 paintings, original prints and sculpture. You’ll find work from established artists to complete unknowns. The standard varies, but if you’re looking to see some of the finest painters they are almost all represented and most of the work is for sale.
Among hundreds of paintings you’ll find a small self-portrait which offers a portal into Paisley’s rich past. The painting is by Denise Findlay, great-great granddaughter of famous director of the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), Fra Newbery and his artist wife Jessie Newbery, nee Rowat.
In this delicate side-on painting, Denise show herself wearing a Reform Dress (a Glasgow-born revelation in design which forced fashion’s hand away from restrictive corsetry) which is in PAI’s collection. The dress was made at the GSA by Frances Holme Anderson, daughter of PAI founder, James Anderson. There is work by Buddies at every turn, including the wonderfully understated Helen Wilson, who this year won one of PAI’s premier award, The Arnold Clark Award (£1000) for an assemblage called Primary Colours.
For this work, Wilson has turned an old watercolour paintbox into an installation. On the left-hand side there’s a young girl standing awkwardly in school uniform, presumably a selfportrait of Wilson in her school days. On the right hand side of the box, you see a pile of schoolbags. Beside the paints (the white block has a typeset-style ‘a’ drawn on in pencil), is a small collection of tiny tawses, possibly indicating the reason why the girl is looking so scunnered. Turner Prize winners eat your heart out.
As always PAI shows the work of two guest artists. This year’s guest painter is Kurt Jackson, an environmentalist who has been artist in residence aboard a Greenpeace ship, as well as at the Eden Project and Glastonbury Festival. All three paintings exhibited were painted in Scotland. His large painting Golden Eagle Above Me takes centre stage in the main gallery and mixes up landscape with a fizz of abstract textures and text.
This year’s guest sculptor is Sir John Steell (1804-1891). I have to confess I knew nothing of his work but he was one of the most eminent Scottish sculptors of the Victorian generation. Unusually for the period, as a Scottish sculptor, he maintained both an international and domestic career while based in Edinburgh. Many of his best known public monuments are in Edinburgh. He was the man who made Sir Walter Scott in the Scott Monument on Princes Street. Another well-known statue is his Duke of Wellington on a rearing horse outside Register House up the street.
The Steell bronze on show here is a maquette in the collection of Paisley Museum of eminent Victorian advocate and writer, Professor John Wilson, who wrote under the name of Christopher North. The real thing is to be found adjacent to the RSA building on The Mound in Edinburgh in East Princes Street Gardens.
There’s much to savour in this exhibition and in this town. As Benjamin Disraeli once opined: “Keep your eye on Paisley.”
Detail from Self-Portrait with Reform Dress by Denise Findlay, which is among the hundreds of paintings, original prints and sculpture at the 128th Annual Exhibition of Paisley Art Institute