Issue 206
Winter 2018/19

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Jan 21, 2019

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The "artists' town" remembered

Mary Gladstone reports on a project to create an aural and visual archive for Kirkcudbright

'Bill' W Miles Johnston outside his shop, 'The Crafts' in 1953. © Dumfries & Galloway Museums Service.

AS THE 'ST IVES of Scotland,' Kirkcudbright was famous for its artists' colony and, by the first half of the 20th century, had attracted well over 50 artists of repute. Although many were incomers, local individuals also joined the colony, like John Halliday. Encouraged by artists, Cecile Walton and E A Taylor, the young Halliday took up art seriously, studying at Glasgow School of Art. It was chiefly through his original efforts that Kirkcudbright's new gallery, which opened this summer, came into existence and the work of the colony, some 600 paintings and artworks, eventually found a permanent home.

With knowledge of a new venue for Kirkcudbright's art collection, an idea came to gather and preserve the memories of the town's residents, particularly their recollections of the artists living in Kirkcudbright during the 40s, 50s and 60s. A team of 16 volunteers from The Harbour Cottage Trust took up the challenge and interviewed some 38 individuals.

These recordings tell us much about the town's artists; many recall Jessie M King, who died in 1949, aged 74 and husband, E A Taylor.

Although King illustrated children's books and encouraged young artists by setting them up in studios, she was discouraged as a child from painting and hid her efforts in case her mother tore them up.

The long-lived Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961), is well-remembered. Born in Manchester, he settled in Kirkcudbright and was regarded as a Scottish painter of first rank. The antithesis of the Bohemian, he championed women's suffrage before WWI, supported ex-servicemen after the Great War and was an advocate for Kirkcudbright's architectural heritage.

Others, less well-known, are equally intriguing in the townspeople's memories, especially when it came to their anecdotes and stories:

At the potter's wheel: students on Tommy Lochhead's ceramic summer school in Kirkcudbright. Photograph © Galloway News

Tommy Lochhead, 'godfather of Scottish studio pottery', Tim Jeffs, an excellent craftsman, painters, Anne and Alistair Dallas, 'Bill' Miles Johnston and his wife, Dorothy Nesbitt.

The name, Lena Alexander (1899-1983) crops up a lot. As she was one of the last of the colony and living into her eighties, she is well remembered.

Attracted to the Kirkcudbright community, associated with Johnston and Nesbitt and known for her pastels of flowers and views of Paris and Venice, she built a name for herself locally with her portraits of children.

Many possess her work, several recorded voices revealing that they sat for the artist. These recordings show that artists like King and Alexander encouraged the children of the town to draw, paint, craft and visit their studios.

The plan was to archive these reminiscences for the Kirkcudbright community, but the project wanted to reach a wider audience and to demonstrate that art and craft were still part of Kirkcudbright life.

"We were keen to have another product besides the recordings emanating from the memories," writes Hilary Alcock, "that brought the Kirkcudbright story into the 21st century.

"Today, we have art classes and summer schools, art classes for dementia patients, art history weekends, high quality contemporary galleries, pop up galleries, Harbour Cottage Gallery which shows local arts and crafts, the new and stunningly beautiful Kirkcudbright Galleries and artists and makers from WASPS studios with international reputations like Lizzie Farey and Morag Macpherson.

"We hoped to get the story 'out there' and encourage people to visit our town, to understand its heritage and employ a modern concept as to why it is branded 'The Artists' Town'."

So, they commissioned a film. Using the recordings as source material, BAFTA award-winning film-maker James Alcock, with financial support from Dumfries & Galloway Council and the Galloway Association of Glasgow, created two six-minute movies: 'Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered' and 'John Halliday, Child of the Colony.'

Because of the crucial part this local artist has played in the Kirkcudbright story, Alcock was delighted to make the film. In it, Halliday explains how he met the town's artists and they encouraged him to paint. Both films are showing in Kirkcudbright Gallery during November and can be viewed online (YouTube).

The audio recordings form part of the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project and clips are online at

Full recordings will be uploaded as they are completed over the next year. They will also be held locally by Dumfries & Galloway Libraries and Archive Service.

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