An Interview with Barbara Rae

Achill Beach, Barbara Rae CBE RA FRSE, HC2013.60, ©Barbara Rae

In 2020, Clare Fisher, research fellow at the University of St Andrews has been focusing on the Harry and Margery Boswell Collection. Some of this work has included conducting interviews with some of the well known Scottish contemporary artists who have works in the collection. A number of the works are by Barbara Rae CBE RA FRSE. Here’s what she had to say about her work!

A number of your works in the Boswell Collection reference places in Ireland. What is the personal significance of these places?

BR: The Celtic culture, the archaeology, pre-modern and contemporary history of the Ireland is fascinating. The people are the dividend, their sense of community, and their intimate knowledge of their heritage. I have travelled to the West of Ireland for twenty years now because there is always something new to discover.

In the past you’ve spoken about the importance of becoming familiar with a setting and gaining an insight into its history. How does this influence your practice?

An artist has to know what it is they are painting. Research is the key. They have to have an intimate knowledge of their matter. My inspiration is socio-political; I record the passage of time. I refine and refine. To do that, I visit a place for weeks sketching and taking notes, and only later – sometimes years – begin creating paintings or prints in my studio from the sketches.

When you look back on your works do they conjure memories of the particular place they relate to?

Sometimes I look at past work and think of revisiting the place, to see what changes there have been since last there. I visit a place many times, for example, I visited the Arctic four times, each time seeing something new. The time frame is important to me.

Are there any artworks or artists that have had a significant influence on your practice? Can you see this influence in any of the works in the Boswell Collection?

There are a few notable painters – mostly Spanish – who have relevance to what I do, but I have never absorbed their work to the point my output is influenced in any way. I evolved my own ‘style’ of expression and techniques from early art school days, developing them endlessly, which is probably why I have never seen any artist of distinction do what I do.

You have mentioned before that you are drawn to places ‘where people have intruded on the landscape’ (2007). Has the current climate crisis had an impact on how you approach subject matter?

Yes, of course. I am forced to cancel trips to far off places. There are a dozen places I want to visit but cannot because modes of transportation are extremely limited in the pandemic. For example, I cannot get back to Ireland unless I quarantine for two weeks.

Have you ever felt compelled to do some work on the landscape and seascapes of St Andrews?

I am not a landscape artist. Topography is not the attraction; people and the history of the location is the motivation. Also, I prefer the distinctive quality light of the west coast, its sharpness and drama, superior to the east coast.

How big a part does the viewer’s reaction to your art play in the making of it?

None at all. An artist would never lift a brush or open a tube of paint if worried about

what the public thought of the end result.

Strong horizons and horizontals are dominant in many of your works in the Boswell Collection (e.g. Moy Bank, Sea Gate, Dead Sunflowers). What is it about this axis that you find so appealing?

It all depends on the subject – if painting Leith Docks there would be no horizon, and in fact there is none in quite a few others.

Do you use colour for symbolic meaning in your work?


The majority of your works in the Boswell Collection are silkscreen prints, what is it about this method that you are drawn to?

I don’t like ‘screenprints’ because if not handled correctly the outcome can be flat, poster-like. The process is difficult to achieve the perfection I need because it’s a multilayered process. Often I layer anything from 30 to 60 different colours to achieve the print image I want. Other printmaking techniques, such as collagraph and etching, are much more forgiving for creating surface and texture. For all I try to create what is in my imagination, I welcome dissonance, that is, unpredictable results.

Dr Barbara Rae CBE RSA RE