SYLVIA WISHART

Sylvia Wishart RSA (1936-2008)

^ Sylvia Wishart in her studio at The Strynd, Kirkwall, c. 1970
From the Ernest Marwick collection © Orkney Library & Archive

Born in Stromness, Sylvia Wishart studied at Gray’s School of Art between 1955 and 1959. She taught in Stornoway, Aberdeenshire and Orkney, before returning to Gray’s as a lecturer in fine art between 1969 and 1987. During the vacations, Wishart would come back to Orkney to paint. For a while she had a studio in Tankerness House and The Strynd, Kirkwall, but eventually returned to Stromness to live and work in the building that became the Pier Arts Centre, which she helped to found with her friend, Margaret Gardiner, in 1979.

For the last thirty years of her life, Wishart lived at Heatherybraes, outside Stromness, where she produced paintings and prints inspired by the ever-changing view of the fields sloping to the sea and Hoy Sound beyond.



Sylvia Wishart, art materials

Sylvia Wishart’s art materials; EN 2287
© the artist’s estate.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

Sylvia Wishart, Rackwick, Hoy, c. 1960s, oil on board

Sylvia Wishart, Rackwick, Hoy, c. 1960s, oil on board; acc. no. 2011.6
© the artist’s estate.
Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

George Mackay Brown, Sylvia Wishart’s Stromness neighbour and friend, recalled that she visited Rackwick in 1960 and was “touched with the enchantment” that drew artists and writers including Brown himself, Stanley Cursiter, Ian MacInnes, and composer, Peter Maxwell Davies.

Read Pier Arts Centre curator Andrew Parkinson’s short essay ‘Hoy In Mind’ here.

Wishart rented North-house, a ruined cottage which she restored, and painted views of Rackwick valley, its derelict houses and shore throughout the 1960s. In this painting she has used the textures of the board, paint and brushes to build layers and shapes, or leave areas bare, to evoke crops and landscape.

^Jack Peterson, Rackwick, Hoy, Orkney
© Orkney Library & Archive

^Jack Peterson, Rackwick, Hoy, Orkney
© Orkney Library & Archive

In For the Islands I Sing, published posthumously in 1997,
George Mackay Brown’s poem plays on the letters of Wishart’s name and their shared love of Rackwick:

To Sylvia Wishart

Salt in the wind, and corn.
Your green valley
Lies tilted to the shifting Atlantic gleam.

Vacant now,
It waits, an overturned grain jar,
Abandoned in the world’s flight from poverty, silence, sanctity.

When will people return again to Rackwick?
I see a thousand cities broken,
Science
Hounded like Cain through the marches of atom and planet,

And quiet people
Returning north with ox and net and plough.
They will offer it again to the light, a chalice.

By permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown

Sylvia Wishart photographed at North-house with friends George Mackay Brown, Suzi Gilbertson, Charles Senior and John Broom (both proprietors of Stromness Books & Prints)

© Bunty Wishart

Sylvia Wishart, Rackwick Valley, 1968, reproduction of pen, ink and wash drawing
published in J.&W. Tait calendar, 1969

Sylvia Wishart, Rackwick Valley, 1968, reproduction of pen, ink and wash drawing
published in J.&W. Tait calendar, 1969; acc. no. 1987.1
© the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

^ Sylvia Wishart, Eynhallow, 1976,
colour reproduction of crayon drawing published in J.&W. Tait calendar, 1977; acc. no. 1987.6
© the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

In 1968 Sylvia Wishart was commissioned by Kirkwall agricultural merchants, J. & W. Tait Ltd., to produce drawings of Orkney for their trade calendars. She knew William Tait well and drew his home at Orquil for the 1975 calendar. The farm also featured in the poem and short film, Orquil Burn, by William’s sister, Margaret Tait (1918-1999), whose work is also explored in this exhibition.

Over the next nine years, Wishart produced drawings of Orkney lighthouses, churches, mills, piers, farms and castles, as well as architectural and natural highlights, such as the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall and Rackwick on Hoy. Some of the early drawings were used as illustrations in George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry, published in 1969.

All of Wishart’s Orkney drawings were gathered together for a publication in 2020 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Pier Arts Centre in 2019 and the 150th anniversary of J. & W. Tait.


As well as creating her own art, Sylvia Wishart also collected the work of other artists. After her death in 2008, various works were bequeathed to Orkney Museum, including these two artworks.

John Cumming (b. 1947), Bundle No. 2, 2007-2008, ceramic

John Cumming, Bundle No. 2, 2007-2008, ceramic; acc. no. 2009.17
© John Cumming. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

John Cumming was born in Burra Isle, Shetland, and was at Gray’s School of Art from 1965 to 1969, studying sculpture and ceramics. He has exhibited work in Orkney and Shetland, and other locations in Scotland and Europe, and was Principal Teacher of Art at Stromness Academy. He also co-founded Hansel Cooperative Press in 2002. Read about Hansel Press in the Island Writers page.

HEAR JOHN CUMMING

Tom Mabon (b. 1956), Domino Cross: construction, February 1978

Tom Mabon, Domino Cross: construction, February 1978; acc. no. 2009.16
© Tom Mabon. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

Tom Mabon was born at Kirkcaldy in Fife and trained at Gray’s School of Art from 1974 to 1978 when Wishart was a lecturer in Fine Art. He recalls that she bought Domino Cross from him when he was still a student. On his first visit to Orkney in 1979, Mabon and his wife visited the recently-opened Pier Arts Centre. On another occasion, they enjoyed afternoon tea with Wishart at Heatherybraes.

Mabon is a rural landscape painter based on the Black Isle, but has produced work inspired by Lewis, Orkney and Shetland.

Sylvia Wishart, Yesnaby, 1980s, oil on board

Sylvia Wishart, Yesnaby, 1980s, oil on board; acc. no. 2011.9
© the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Orkney Islands Council

Wishart recalled that, growing up in Stromness, she often looked at Stanley Cursiter’s painting, Linklater and Greig, exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1931 and gifted by Cursiter to Stromness Museum, where it still hangs. It depicts two local fishermen off Yesnaby on the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. See Cursiter’s painting here. In the 1920s, Cursiter stayed in an old fisherman’s hut at Yesnaby during the summer, creating landscapes and seascapes of the area.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sylvia Wishart painted the same Yesnaby cliffs, but produced utterly different views of the sea and sky. On closer inspection, small boats are visible on the horizon, and the reverse of the board on which this view is painted shows that it had other uses before becoming part of this work.

Ernest Marwick, Yesnaby
© Orkney Library & Archive

The work of other Orkney artists, including Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), Ian Scott (b. 1940), Erlend Brown (b. 1947), and Calum Morrison (b. 1956 in Lewis, but now living in Orkney), is displayed in museums, public buildings and private homes in Orkney and shows the ongoing fascination with life on the edge of land and sea.