How do you squeeze 5,000 years of Scottish art onto a TV show?

A crucifixion painting from the late 1400s in church at Fowlis Easter, near Dundee ' one of the few of this kind to survive the Reformation, when Christian art across Scotland was largely destroyed
A crucifixion painting from the late 1400s in church at Fowlis Easter, near Dundee ' one of the few of this kind to survive the Reformation, when Christian art across Scotland was largely destroyed
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LACHLAN Goudie reveals how he crammed 5,000 years of Scottish art into four hours of television

THE camera homes in on the tiny stone figure in Lachlan Goudie’s hand. The Westray Wife, found on the Orkney island of Westray in 2009, is about the size of a chess piece, or a Lego figure. She dates back to neolithic times, the oldest depiction of the human form found anywhere in the UK, and perhaps the first work of Scottish art. When Goudie read about the Westray Wife in a National Geographic magazine, it struck him as the ideal work with which to begin the television series on the history of Scottish art which he was making with BBC Scotland. “It was extraordinary, I didn’t know about it, and I thought that if we can start with the earliest sculpted representation of the human form ever found in the British Isles, that’s an intriguing springboard for the series,” he says.

Lachlan Goudie with Allan Ramsay's portrait of Anne Cockburn Lady Inglis at National Gallery of Scotland

Lachlan Goudie with Allan Ramsay's portrait of Anne Cockburn Lady Inglis at National Gallery of Scotland

The Story Of Scottish Art, which starts on Wednesday on BBC2, aims for a fresh look at the subject, not only because it starts 5,000 years ago, but because it places Scottish art on a world stage. Goudie says: “I live in London and it frustrates me that sometimes the Scottish contribution in visual arts to wider culture is pigeonholed. There’s maybe an assumption that this is just a minority interest – there were the Colourists, but it’s generally all a bit overrated – quite frankly, this is a nonsense. I’m not going to stomp 
and scream and exaggerate the significance of the contribution of Scottish art to western civilisation, but it’s been there, keeping up, at times it’s been at the head of the pack, and it’s always been curious to go beyond our borders.”

A further selling point for the series is that Goudie, 39, is an artist, the son of Scottish painter Alexander Goudie and a successful painter in his own right of still lifes, portraits and shipyard scenes. In the series, we see him sketching Celtic stone carvings on Iona, or a painting by Glasgow Boy James Guthrie, or testing the coloured pigments once used to decorate the standing stones in the Ring of Brodgar. “The aim is to try to talk about art history from the perspective of a practitioner, someone who’s very invested in materials and techniques, and perhaps offer some insights that haven’t been covered before,” he says.

The chief drawback in covering 5,000 years of art history in four hour-long programmes is that no period can get much air-time. The first programme goes from Kilmartin to Orkney to Iona, to the palaces at Stirling and Linlithgow where the Renaissance kings of Scotland sought to express their power through art, via the chapel at Fowlis Easter in Angus, home to a 15th-century depiction of the crucifixion, a rare survivor from pre-Reformation days.

Goudie likens the wholesale destruction of art and architecture in the Reformation to the work of Islamic extremists in Syria today. “Until very recently we wouldn’t have been able to understand the emotions that lie behind the destruction of iconography, and now we’re forced to understand that,” he says. “We use some footage from Syria, and the horrors of what the fanatics out there are doing to our common cultural legacy. It’s at those moments when you realise history is not another planet, we should consistently look at it as we look in a mirror.”

When Scottish art resurfaced after the Reformation, it did so principally in portrait painting, and the great painters of the Enlightenment, Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn, made what Goudie describes as “the first great step of Scottish art on to the world stage”. “It may be that fierce moment in our history which did end up destroying so many examples of creative expression was like the pruning which cuts back the rose. Eventually you can’t hold it back any more, and there have been little spurts of immense creativity in Scotland where we’ve been trying to run a bit faster to keep up with our neighbours.”

Whatever the reason, Scottish art forged ahead through the Victorian age with artists such as David Wilkie and Horatio McCulloch, then the Glasgow Boys (“gentle radicals”) and the Scottish Colourists. “There are two phenomenal turning points,” says Goudie, “John Duncan Fergusson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh – both of whom bring Scottish art to the very fore. When Fergusson is creating Les Eus and Mackintosh is creating his Art School and Hill House, these are innovations and experiments equal of anyone in Britain, and certainly, in Mackintosh’s case, in the world.”

The influence of the Colourists is clear in Goudie’s own work, and in his father’s, although both draw on broad art historical frames of reference. Goudie says he feels “grateful” to have grown up surrounded by art. “My own interests and my own abilities were nursed in an environment where it was possible to create a career out of painting with pigments on canvas. My dad never formally instructed me, but I was watching him, looking at how he’d gone about creating an image, painting alongside him for many years as a child and as an adolescent. That was my training ground, really.”

Goudie took a degree in English, but later trained as an artist at Camberwell College. His father’s 56-painting series based on Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter (now on display in Rozelle House in Ayrshire) was a presence throughout his childhood, and inspired his first programme with BBC, The Art Of Witchcraft, which was followed by a second, about the artist Stanley Spencer, an inspiration to him in his paintings of the Glasgow shipyards. He says he finds “making television programmes an exciting way of being creative, an alternative to being in my own studio”.

The most controversial element in The Story Of Scottish Art is likely to be the decision not to include the explosion in contemporary art in Glasgow in the past 30 years, the so-called “Glasgow miracle”, but to concentrate in the final episode on modern painters, including Alan Davie, John Bellany and Peter Doig. “For better or for worse, these programmes feature the instincts I have, the interests that I have in particular kinds of work,” Goudie says. “We follow a path through this extraordinary period of creative fragmentation by steering close to my own interests and passions, particularly painting. I don’t go into certain situations where I talk about art I don’t feel for. I don’t feel I have the right to judge the value of what’s going to be remembered in the last 30 or 40 years.”

He goes on to say that perhaps the world focuses too much on contemporary art. “We pay a huge amount of attention and a great deal of respect to what’s happening immediately around us, and sometimes I think we perhaps overstress its importance within the wider context. Perhaps we need to be a little more humble about what’s happening right now and spend a little time thinking about the periods in art history which we totally dismiss.”

How about a reappraisal for McCulloch, for example, creator of the iconic loch-and-mountain Scottish landscapes of the 19th century, which have fallen from grace both stylistically and politically? “For all their faults, for all the untruths involved in that imagery, they are a vital part of how the image of the Scottish nation was exploded across the planet in a way that few other creative cultures can claim.”

The figure of Doig – Scots-born, though he has not lived here since childhood and now resides in Trinidad – is an interesting choice to conclude the series. But for Goudie the artist, who was the subject of a major exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland two years ago, is the perfect example of how Scottish art today is an international phenomenon.

“He is proud of his connections to Scotland, and he acknowledges entirely that he is the last artist who should be viewed through the prism of nationality, but I think that’s where art is today. For me, he really encapsulates my sense that Scottish art is a powerful thing because of its willingness to subject its identity to the influence of other cultures and creative instincts.”

• The Story Of Scottish Art starts on BBC2, Wednesday, 9pm