With the furlough leave scheme coming to an end, more people than ever are working from home. Let’s take a look at the ‘new normal’ of work away from the open plan office, via paintings by modern Scottish artists.
David Alison’s Quiet Room
In contrast to kitchen tables or laptops on knees whilst sitting on the sofa, The Quiet Room of c.1941 by David Alison (1882-1955) shows an ideal home working set-up. Alison was born in Dysart, Fife. He studied at Glasgow School of Art, taught at Edinburgh College of Art and was elected a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1922. In 1912, he was a co-founder of the Edinburgh-based Society of Eight exhibiting group, alongside Patrick W. Adam F. C. B. Cadell, James Cadenhead, James Lavery, Harrington Mann, James Paterson and A. G. Sinclair.
This painting shows a scene at 78 Queen Street in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, thought to be the artist’s home. A modest desk and companion chair are placed beside a north-facing window. Evidence of work already accomplished is visible in and around the wastepaper basket which stands beside a telephone-topped mantelpiece. The palette and lighting are gentle and the atmosphere is one of tranquil productivity.
The Quiet Room was presented by the Scottish Modern Arts Association to Museums & Galleries Edinburgh in 1964. The Association had been set up in 1906 to acquire ‘a representative collection of modern pictures’ for the nation.
Louise Annand’s Meeting
In complete contrast, New Art Club Meeting of 1944 by Louise Annand (1915-2012) captures the noise and energy of a busy meeting, albeit one now likely to be experienced on-screen thanks to video-conferencing services like Zoom. Annand was born in Uddingston, Lanarkshire. She studied English at the University of Glasgow, trained to be a teacher at the nearby Jordanhill Training College and attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art whilst teaching in local schools. She worked for Glasgow Museums Education Service for over thirty-years.
Annand was a founding member, alongside the Scottish Colourist J. D. Fergusson and his dance pioneer partner Margaret Morris, of the New Art Club in Glasgow in 1940; it evolved into the New Scottish Group two years later. Both were intended to provide affordable exhibiting opportunities and evenings of ‘free discussion’ for creative people and other members included Donald Bain and James Morrison McChlery. In her painting, Annand attempted to convey in visual form the sparks of ideas, battle of debate and meandering of conversations at a club get together. Her image can now be read as illustrating the ‘screen fatigue’ common amongst those attending multiple on-line meetings.
Pat Douthwaite’s Feline Colleague
A solace of working from home can be a new type of colleague, as Pat Douthwaite (1934-2002) includes in her Portrait of Myself with Malthy, which is difficult to date. Douthwaite was born in Glasgow in 1934 and grew up in Paisley, although throughout her life she gave her birth year as 1939. She attended dance classes taught by Margaret Morris and art classes taught by Morris’s partner, J. D. Fergusson. He encouraged her to become a visual artist and discouraged her from formal training. As a result, Douthwaite was essentially self-taught. She spent much of her life travelling, whilst always considering Scotland to be her home.
Brushes with poverty and mental health challenges added to Douthwaite’s outsider status and in this searingly-honest self-portrait, she pays unsentimental homage to her relationship with her cat. Both are somewhat bedraggled, apart but together, with spindly ‘tails’ and obscured eyes. However, the comfort which can be drawn from a feline colleague, in the absence of – or instead of – other humans is touchingly clear. Painted on a canvas measuring an impressive 143 x 113cm, Portrait of Myself with Malthy is in the collection of Paisley Museum & Art Galleries.
James McBey’s Writer
Woman at a Secretaire of 1932 by James McBey (1883-1959) is an image of idyllic home-working. McBey was born in Foveran, Aberdeenshire. He attended Evening Classes at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, but taught himself to etch and it was in that medium that he first made his name. In 1931, McBey married the American artist Marguerite Loeb and she is thought to be the sitter in this work.
Painted on the intimate scale of 31 x 25cm, the titular ‘woman’ is depicted in profile. She is seen in summer dress and hat, absorbed in writing. The carved splat of her chair is visible, as are her white shoe-clad feet. The two hearts carved into the side of the secretaire hint at romance. An expressive technique suggests pattern and textile whilst brightly lit areas contrast with those of dark shadow. The model’s head is framed within the distant doorway, bringing attention to the concentration on her face. May we all be as content working from home as she appears to be.
Woman at a Secretaire was bequeathed by Marguerite Loeb to Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums in 2000.