Art review: Frances Walker


STAGS on purple mountains wreathed in cloud: largely because of Walter Scott, this wild vision, reproduced endlessly on biscuit tins and calendars, became the clich of Scotland's landscape. Rebelling against such simplification, William Gillies was among those who pioneered a more nuanced view.

In the countryside around his home in the Midlothian village of Temple the scale is small. The scenery is often green and gentle, and the starkness of the surrounding hills is tempered by signs of cultivation. Stone dykes, field margins, shelter belts and the little trees that line the burns all become a kind of human drawing on the hills' bare canvas.

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Painting such scenes, Gillies left behind Victorian melodrama to celebrate, instead, the close relationship of nature and mankind in Scotland's marginal landscapes, much as Lewis Grassic Gibbon did in Sunset Song.

Just such a picture – though in fact of Wales, not Scotland – is among the earliest works in Frances Walker's major show in Aberdeen. Looking down into a sombre green valley, a winding burn is lined with little trees. The hillsides, populated with cattle and wandering hens, are crisscrossed with stone dykes. Gillies was very far from flamboyant, and as a teacher he was rarely more than monosyllabic. Nevertheless, more by example than by precept, he influenced a whole generation of artists. Frances Walker is among the most distinguished of that distinguished group. This exhibition is not a full retrospective. Nevertheless, spanning almost 60 years, all periods in her career are represented.

Walker says herself that she hopes it will give people an idea of who she is as an artist. One thing it does tell you is that she matches Gillies himself in her dedication to her art and, too, in its enduring fertility and strength. It also shows that, though she has always kept her interest in the margins, in the places where the human presence is only viable if nature is treated with respect, she developed a vision that is entirely her own.

After graduating from Edinburgh, Frances Walker travelled through Europe. One of the earliest pictures here is a winter landscape painted in Yugoslavia on that trip in 1954. It shows another formative influence, that of Pieter Brueghel. She then went on a pilgrimage to see his work in Vienna. Brueghel's cool surfaces, his way of recording people in a landscape – observing minutely their activities and even their tools, but nevertheless seeing them as part of a much greater whole – are things that have stayed with her.

In Spring Landscape, Harris, we see just those characteristics. The wooden support for a haystook is in the foreground. Beyond are dark patches of freshly dug soil among the varied greens of new grass and flag lilies. There is a scarecrow and in the distance little figures are working against the blue of the surrounding sea. In 1957, when she painted this already characteristic picture, she was working as visiting art teacher for Harris and North Uist. While there, she developed a love of the Scottish islands, and since then their landscapes have inspired some of her finest work.

Ten years ago, for instance, she made a journey around Scotland, visiting islands that had formerly been inhabited but are now abandoned. This resulted in a series of remarkable works full of a wistful poetry of significant absence. In the monoprint Low Tide at Vallay, for instance, the scene is empty, but human figures are there by implication. In the tumbled stones that were once houses or that marked the edges of their fields, the landscape itself remembers them.

The island of Tiree has a special place in her art, as for many years she has spent her summers in a little house on the island, one of the last traditional Tiree houses with a thatched roof. Surfers' Shore, a triptych almost five metres wide, is a celebration of the sun, the sea and the wind of that island. In another wide triptych, she paints an equally luminous vision of Staffa. The island's grass shines brilliant green in the sunshine. In the foreground, visitors from a cruise ship are returning down steps to the jetty. In the distance, the ship itself floats white on tranquil blue water. Here, she quietly takes on Turner. His painting of Staffa with a steamship in a storm is much the same view, but seen in the opposite direction. It is a classic of the wild Scottish landscape, but in her own painting, she proposes that that is not the only way it can be seen. Scotland also has gentler moods, even in its wildest places.

Nevertheless, she, too, can paint the country's wilder aspects and its changing light and weather. Approaching Squall over Fraserburgh is a grand picture of darkening sky above the town, while the pictures that she did of the Sound of Sleat from Sabhal mr Ostaig on Skye are among the most beautiful renderings of summer light over the western sea that I have seen.

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She is a brilliant and inventive printmaker. Her feeling for the bones of a landscape and her sense of the way that nature's own drawing articulates the structure of the land have found expression in etchings, screenprints, monotypes and also in collograph, a favourite medium that she uses in works here like Winter at Achnasoul Wood, or Low Tide at the Brough. The latter is one of several superb images of Orkney's rugged coastlines and prehistoric sites.

Collograph is a way of incorporating collage into the print-making process. What attracts her to it is the variety she can achieve between individual prints. Tiree Shore, Evening is a good example. Only one print is on view here, but it evidently exists in several versions that all convey very different moods.

There are pictures here painted in Greenland – the Whistler-like Leaving Disko Bay, for instance – and also in Iceland. Three years ago, she also spent three weeks in the Antarctic, going as far south as Elephant Island, where Shackleton's expedition was stranded a century ago. Frances Walker was born in 1930.

Not many people would venture on such a trip in their late seventies, but then, bearing witness to her amazing creative energy, over the next three years, using the material she had gathered there, she painted the wonderful suite of pictures of Antarctic scenery that fill the last room here.

The largest of these, Andvord Bay, Antarctica, is a triptych three and a half metres across. You can see there is ice on the sea, but also that there is a shallow layer of water over it. White mountains punctuated with black rock are reflected in the water, but it is also flecked with the white of ice broken when the ship cut through it, leaving as it did a curving passage of open water that reflects the deep blue of the sky.

This landscape is true wilderness, but even here, at this ultimate margin, she records a human presence. She points out that there is a tiny hut in the picture, just a minute black triangle at the distant water's edge.

This beautiful painting is at once reminiscent of Monet's waterlilies and of a classical Japanese screen. While she would no doubt acknowledge both great precedents, she is beholden to neither. The authority of this remarkable work is her own.

Sadly, Frances Walker is hardly represented in the country's national art collection. Could it really be held against her that she has made her career in Scotland and never sought recognition elsewhere? I do sincerely hope not. I hope, too, that the National Galleries' director general, John Leighton, will insist the entire curatorial staff of the SNGMA take a trip to Aberdeen forthwith to put this right.

• Until 10 April

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