ISLAND ARTISTS

< Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007), George Mackay Brown and Gypsy
© Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

Why Orkney produces so many artists, writers, and musicians may have a complex of reasons. I will offer one of many: a unique mingling and concord of the elements. Earth and sea have given Orcadians their livelihood for five thousand years or so… It is as if what Bernard Shaw called ‘the Life-force’ had endowed Orkney with all the essentials for life… I am sure that good art springs from such a fruitful contact with the elements.

George Mackay Brown, ‘Orkney and the Artist’, The Pier Gallery: The first ten years, 1988, by permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown.




While island art, craft and literature have undoubtedly been inspired by their surroundings and history, paintings in the islands’ museums suggest that, until the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, island artists followed wider fashions in portraiture and landscape in order to satisfy commissions, rather than developing personal styles reflective of their island origins.

^ Charles Smith (c.1749-1824), Portrait of an unidentified member of the Smith family of Tormiston,
late eighteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1990.162
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Charles Smith (c.1749-1824), Barbara Smith of Tormiston in Stenness,
late eighteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1990.161
© Orkney Islands Council

In Orkney Museum’s collection there are paintings by local artists from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including portraits of Murdoch Mackenzie (1596-1688), Bishop of Orkney, and various members of the Cowan, Smith, Traill, Balfour and Baikie families, all connected to Tankerness House, the building which houses the Museum. There are two portraits by Charles Smith (1749-1824), who studied portrait painting under Joshua Reynolds in London.

< George Jamesone (1589/1590-1644), (after), Murdoch Mackenzie (1596-1688), Bishop of Orkney (1677-1688),
oil on canvas; loan no. L2002.1
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Unknown artist, Captain Thomas Cowan (b.1740), RN,
mid-eighteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1603
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Unknown artist, Isobel Cowan, née Laing, with Her Children,
late eighteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1602
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Unknown artist, Thomas Balfour of Huip,
early eighteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1608
© Orkney Islands Counci

1: Unknown artist, Margaret Menzies Traill of Holland, Papa Westray,
mid-nineteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1621
© Orkney Islands Council
2: Unknown artist, James Baikie (1786-1869), eighth Laird of Tankerness,
mid-nineteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1606
© Orkney Islands Council

3: Robert Gallon (1845-1925), Mary Anne Baikie (Milanne), née Traill,
1911, oil on canvas; acc.no.1989.117
© Orkney Islands Council
4: Unknown artist, George Traill (b.1773), sixth Laird of Holland, Papa Westray,
early nineteenth century, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1616
© Orkney Islands Council

^ John Irvine (1805-1888), Self Portrait, 1850s, oil on canvas; acc. no. ART 6783
© Shetland Museum & Archives

In Shetland, the Lerwick-born portraitist, John Irvine (1805-1888), left the islands to study at the Royal Academy in London, eventually emigrating to Australia and then moving to New Zealand.

^ John Irvine (1805-1888), Mrs Jessie Irvine, née Leisk (1805-1878),
oil on canvas; acc. no. ART 6784
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ John Irvine (1805-1888), Margaret Irvine (b. 1812),
oil on board; acc. no. ART 6793
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ John Irvine (1805-1888), Benjamin West (1738-1820), 1840s (?),
oil on canvas; acc. no. ART 67103
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Similarly, Malcolm Philip Macdonald (1879-1965) of Lewis trained in Glasgow and Paris and left Scotland for Canada in 1909. Donald Smith (1926-2014), also from Lewis, studied at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, from 1949 to 1954, and taught art in schools on the Scottish mainland and in Lewis, to which he returned in 1974.

^ Malcolm Philip Macdonald, The Open Sea, 1922, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1998.1.2
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

^ Malcolm Philip Macdonald, The Uig Coast, 1926, oil on canvas; acc. no. 1998.1.3
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

< David Toner (b. 1944), Winter Landscape No. 2, Lewis, oil on hardboard; ref. no. PCF2
© the copyright holder; photograph Comhairle nan Eilean Siar

While Orcadian twentieth-century artists received formal training in mainland Britain, many returned to Orkney and were inspired by the landscape and life of the islands to develop their own unique styles and visions. Two Orkney artists are showcased in this exhibition, Stanley Cursiter and Sylvia Wishart.