Many years ago, when I first left a paid job to pursue art, I met with Sir William Gillies in the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. By 'met with' I mean met with one of his paintings for the very first time. Thereafter I engaged on a voyage of discovery; one which has vastly informed my approach to making art.
I used this painting 'Temple, Dusk' in a Critical Appreciation Essay as part of the Foundation Course at Leith School of Art. This is what I wrote:
The painting initially reads as a tranquil, sleepy village street. The light is failing, the doors are firmly shut to the world and the milky, creamy moon ascends over the rooftops to gently illuminate the scene. The deserted road leads you from the left hand side of the painting, sweeping past the rows of houses and bare trees to the end of the village and beyond. There is no movement in this picture, the trees are static and there is no chimney smoke. There are no people, indeed no evidence of people beyond the doors and windows so tightly closed. There is no indication that this is a special place at all, no name on the shop fronts, no road signs to give clues to the village’s identity or to its location. By far the biggest visual effect is that of space. The broad line of the road, narrowing off into the distance, the buildings compact, kept to the sidelines, the road is given central stage.
Compositionally it is not just the curve of the road that encourages you to leave the village but the constant, rhythmic, seamless line that is the buildings sitting cheek by cheek, the corbie-step approach to the chimneys and the simple white line of the guttering that delineates the compressed buildings on the right-hand side of the painting. The bare branches of the trees also point up and out away from the street. The white road markings on either side of the road are also tools by which Gillies draws you back to the direction of the road and out of the village.
Gillies employs a limited tonal range in this painting, muted browns and greys offset by blocks of bright red and yellow in window frames, post boxes and signs on the walls. The road is a smooth mid-grey, the pavements a lighter grey and the sky darker yet, the point at which it meets the road a uniform grey to give the impression that the road and sky are on the same journey, travelling indefinitely. The stones of the houses are singled out for more structure and depth, the palette knife marks evident on the canvas. The shop window alone is allocated greater detail, though remaining vague, just hints of form and colour. The roundness of the moon is mirrored by two further circles, one blue the other concentric yellow and orange in the deeper recesses of the shop. These the only soft images in a landscape dominated by line.
The moonlight serves to highlight the colours, no shadow is cast. The colours and texture of the painting are relatively flat and loose. Tonal blocks of colour serve to formalise the scene and impose another form of rhythm.
The windows, the ‘eyes’ of the buildings are blank. There is no hint of what lies within with the exception of the shop window. The white paint of the window surrounds and the white walls of some of the buildings reflect the moonlight but the small, square window panes remain dark, aloof and unassailable. Some windows are merely rough outlines on the fabric of the buildings. The doors, splashes of colour, yellow and green do not even reach the pavement as though suspended from contact with the outside world. These windows and doors do not face the artist, face the viewer but turn away or are tucked behind other walls. There is one exception, one small window peeking around an evergreen tree, peeking around the wall of a house, but sufficiently out of view to be an enigmatic possibility of engagement with the human element of this deserted village.
The painting is un-mounted yet there is the illusion of a painting within a painting by the inclusion of two vertical parallel white lines equidistant from each other. They are lines that have been roughly sketched yet convey a distance between the artist and the subject matter. These simple lines denote the very window from which Gillies has been painting.
By treating his subject matter in a very cold, analytical way, Gillies has distanced himself from any emotional attachment. He depicts this village, his home, as a forlorn place bereft of warmth and involvement, a route to somewhere else. The implication is that he too was to pass through, following the grey road out and beyond. The fact that he ended his days in this same village hints at unrealised ambitions and a life spent forever on the inside looking out."
On further research, I found a connection with Gillies, in that he was born and lived in the town I have called home for the past 19 years. The tobacconist shop his father, then sister used to run has in my time had a few changes of use and is now where you go to have pancakes.
On his death, Gillies left all of his works to the Royal Scottish Academy. I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art one afternoon and got to see a small section of his prolific work. This was enough to tell me that an artist need not be defined by one medium or style.
Last night I attended a talk on Gillies, given by Guy Peploe - grandson of THE Peploe and Director of the Scottish Gallery. The comments I made on the basis of seeing 'Dusk, Temple' on Gillies, though not all accurate at all did show some understanding of the type of man he was. Gillies, according to Guy Peploe was a private man who lived quietly in Temple with his mother and two sisters. When Gillies served in the First World War, he saw those two years as wasted years and never referred to them. He chose not to travel outside Scotland and once he was given the post at Edinburgh College of Art he did not seek any other. His view of the world though narrow geographically and culturally was rich and all embracing artistically and I continue to be inspired by his huge legacy as a Scottish artist.
Carol E Duff