As 2020 draws to a close, let’s take a look at some of its most memorable moments, from home schooling to working from home, via modern Scottish art.
Working from home
Who would have thought at the end of March, when we had to leave our offices and begin working from home, that many of us would still be doing so at the end of the year? The Quiet Room of about 1941 by David Alison (1882-1955) shows an idyllic home office in Queen Street, Edinburgh.
Alison was born in Dysart, Fife and trained at Glasgow School of Art. He taught at Edinburgh College of Art, where he became Head of the School of Drawing and Painting. He was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy and was a founder member of the Society of Eight exhibiting group, alongside artists including Patrick William Adam (1852-1929), F. C. B. Cadell (1883-1937) and John Lavery (1856-1941).
The Quiet Room
In The Quiet Room, it appears that the worker has just pushed their chair away from the modestly-sized desk and left for a moment. Evidence of their labours can be seen in the over-flowing wastepaper basket. The telephone on the mantelpiece provides a connection to colleagues working elsewhere. The window on the right provides not only plentiful natural light, but also a rooftop view over Edinburgh’s New Town. Many who have to make do with working at kitchen tables and on sitting-room sofas can only dream of such a lovely home office.
Scottish Modern Arts Association
The Quiet Room was presented by the Scottish Modern Arts Association to the Corporation of Edinburgh in 1964. The Association was founded in 1907 to collect ‘representative examples of contemporary Scottish art’ for the public. The painting is now in the collection of the City Art Centre, part of Edinburgh Museums.
For many, working from home had to be combined with home-schooling. Teachers, carers and children made huge efforts to adapt to ‘remote learning’. Moments like that captured in Boy Reading of 1957 by Alberto Morrocco (1917-98) may even have been achieved on occasion!
Morrocco was born in Aberdeen to Italian parents. He studied at Gray’s School of Art in the city, where he worked after World War Two. In 1950, he was appointed Head of Painting at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, a post he maintained until his retirement. In 1941 he married the artist Vera Mercer (1921-2011); they went on to have two sons and a daughter.
The sitter in Boy Reading is believed to be Morrocco’s younger son, Laurie. He was born in 1947 and so would be aged about ten years-old in this work. Morrocco delighted in painting his children and depicts Laurie in a moment of absorption whilst reading. He is seated at a table, on which the book is spread out. He crooks his right arm so that the elbow rests on the table and he can rest his head on his hand. The other arm is crooked across the book, with an extended finger on the reproduction which he studies intently. The flowers in a vase coming in from the right-hand side provide beautiful company and hint at the rest of the room in which Laurie sits peacefully.
The Fleming Collection
Boy Reading is in the Fleming Collection, a ‘museum without walls’. From its base in London it champions Scottish art, not least its own holdings of over 600 works from the seventeenth-century to the present day, through exhibitions, publications and education.
The Great Outdoors
During the original UK-wide lockdown, we were only permitted an hour’s daily exercise. As a result, many of us came to appreciate our local green spaces more than ever before. Valley Gardens with the Sun Pavilion in the Background of c.1935 by Anna Zinkeisen (1901-76) is a celebration of the activities which can be enjoyed in our public parks.
Zinkeisen was born in Kilcreggan in Argyll and Bute. She studied at Harrow School of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools in London. Whilst best known for her portraits and murals, Zinkeisen also worked as a designer and illustrator, including for Wedgwood and London Transport. She sometimes collaborated with her sister, Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991), including on a commission in 1935 from the Clyde shipbuilders John Brown & Co, to work on their liner Queen Mary.
Valley Gardens with the Sun Pavilion in the Background
The extensive Valley Gardens in Harrogate were laid out in the 1880s and were developed in the 1930s. Zinkeisen’s painting celebrates those developments, which centred on a Sun Pavilion and Sun Colonnade. Park visitors could benefit from the sunshine and fresh air available in their covered walkways, open pavilions and top-lit function rooms. They joined other features including a bandstand, boating pool and bowling green, to make the Gardens a place where people of all ages could indulge in healthy pursuits. This can be seen in Valley Gardens with the Sun Pavilion in the Background: dog-walkers, a nanny with her charges, tennis players and a Park Warden are amongst those depicted making the most of the outdoor facilities, like those appreciated by so many during 2020.
Mercer Art Gallery
The painting was transferred from the Harrogate Publicity Department, who presumably commissioned Zinkeisen to make it, to Harrogate Art Gallery in 1939. The gallery was renamed the Mercer Art Gallery on its opening in the Promenade Rooms in 1991. It is named after the local watercolourist Sidney Agnew Mercer (1904-71), whose sons supported its funding.
The NHS and other care providers
At 8pm on ten Thursdays between March and May 2020, there was a nationwide ‘clap for carers’ acknowledging the heroic efforts of NGS staff and other carers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pride in such workers can be seen in Wynne Walker, the Artist’s Wife of about 1924 by Eric Robertson (1887-1941), a portrait of his second wife in her nurse’s uniform.
Robertson was born in Dumfries and studied in Edinburgh at the Royal Institution and at Edinburgh College of Art. He and his first wife, Cecile Walton (1891-1956) were part of the Edinburgh Group of artists who exhibited together in the 1910s and 1920s. After the end of his relationship with Walton, Robertson moved to Liverpool. He shared a studio with Syndey Merrills and remarried, before his death from tuberculosis during World War Two.
Wynne Walker, the Artist’s Wife
In this painting, Walker is seen half-length, seated and in profile, within an anonymous setting. She turns her head to the viewer with an inscrutable expression on her face. Her hands are clasped on her lap and are mainly in shadow thanks to the light source entering from the left. The folds of her beautifully-laundered white head-dress and pinny are realised with painterly skill. The blue of her short-sleeved tunic adds colour to an otherwise sombre palette. Rather than a romantic image of a lover, this work is a respectful portrayal of Walker’s professional identity, unencumbered by a busy hospital setting.
Museum of Liverpool
Wynne Walker, the Artist’s Wife was purchased by the National Museums of Liverpool in 1992. It is housed in the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011 in a purpose-built landmark building on the city’s waterfront.
What a year 2020 has been! 2021 is beginning with another lockdown and other strict restrictions for many. However, the recent start of COVID-19 vaccinations gives us hope for the new year.
If you’d like to read more, you can find a ‘Working from Home’ blog here, one about ‘Home-schooling’ here and one about ‘Daily Exercise’ at this link. For more about David Alison, you might like ‘The Humble Jug‘, for Alberto Morrocco see ‘A Stay at Home Tour‘ and for Eric Robertson see ‘Beneath the Mask‘.