The Recording Scotland collection is a set of watercolours, oils and prints collected during World War II to permanently capture the landscapes and buildings as well as the “feeling” of the nation. Each piece of artwork was chosen because it captured an essential view of Scotland; with emphasis on the places most likely threatened by war and industrialization. This is part six of a series of blogs about different aspects of the Recording Scotland collection.
Lockdown has led to all of us spending a lot of time contemplating the inside of our homes. Whether it is debating over new paint colours or curtains, or maybe rearranging furniture, we have spent months looking at our interior world. Little details, like dust or chipping paint, loom large when you are forced to look at them day in and day out. Sometimes you get up and dust, sometimes you keep watching Netflix. We have also longed to see new interiors, another home or building that is not quite so mundane. We dream of visiting shops, restaurants, churches, and museums, simply for something new and engaging.
However, staying inside has also kept us safe and allowed us the opportunity to reconnect with our families and to appreciate what we do have. Staying inside has been a singular and communal effort to protect everyone from Covid-19. British citizens did the same thing during the World Wars. From staying together, and turning out lights, they worked to protect each other by the simple act of seeking shelter. While not as common as the lovely landscapes that make up most of the Recording Scotland collection, a few pieces focus on the interior of a location, and how people live in relationship to that interior. The quick glimpses can give us insights into the parts of life that were already changing, and those that stood on the precipice of destruction.
The main images of interiors are from cathedrals and churches. The paintings show the sweep of high arches and vast empty buildings. The churches are shadowed. Colours are muted, and their stained-glass windows are dimmed, if shown at all. These are reflections on the impact of the war on these places of worship. Cathedrals were situated in cities, standing tall and imposing, and making clear targets for enemy bombs. They are shown empty as soldiers perished in distant fields, and families mourned at home. They can also reflect glimmers of hope.
Carmichael’s lithograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral Church in Dundee has those hallmarks of vast space and curved arches, but it also features a woman and child walking down the aisle. They are some of the largest human figures featured in the collection paintings. They are in the foreground, close to the artist. There is hope conveyed by their presence. They appear unhurried as they walk along. This early piece was drawn around 1913 and captures a view of Scotland before the impact of two wars. Its inclusion in the collection speaks more about the committee that chose it, that they wanted to preserve this view of a Dundee church with its vast hopefulness and light.
The watercolour of Iona Cathedral is also another study of a church interior. This work is soft with muted tones. The light streams into the building and you see just a hint of colour in the corner of a cloth cover. No people give movement to the interior. The empty chairs sit in silent vigil, waiting for people to arrive to listen and reflect. As J. B. Salmond put it, “perhaps in the revolutions of the world, Iona may be some time again the instructress of the Western regions.” The image of Iona reveals a location waiting to be populated, like so many church buildings today.
The third interior featured this week is very different from the first two images. “A Byre in Benderloch” by George Pirie is no cathedral. It is a simple barn, full of straw and fluffy chickens. It is haphazard and crooked in construction. It lacks sharp details but seems to reflect a refuge for the farm animals. There is light streaming into the dim space, illuminating the birds within. The barn would not be a target for enemy aircraft, but this byre could eventually make way for a new barn or fall into disuse as people moved away from their farms. This was a humble and admiring view of a farm, and the safety it provides through shelter and sustenance.
Three interiors only make up a small part of the collection, but their views give us pause as we reflect on both the majestic and the mundane. We do not know if the byre in Benderloch still exists, but luckily both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Iona Cathedral have survived the decades, and now their greatest threats are the ravages of weather and time. Hopefully this week you take another look at your own interior views, maybe take a picture or draw something that can remind you about right now, and then sit back and try to see what it reflects about you.