Frank Walter: ‘Homecoming’ for tropical visionary
HE LIVED thousands of miles away in a secluded shack on a mountainside in Antigua, but little-known artist Frank Walter was obsessed with Scotland and believed he was descended from Scottish nobility.
Now, the first-ever exhibition of his work – which is to be staged at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh – will reveal the remarkable story of the intellectually brilliant but mentally troubled ex-sugar plantation manager turned reclusive painter, sculptor and writer, and his curious fascination with a faraway land which he is believed to have visited only once.
Walter’s landscape paintings – all drawn from memory – frequently depicted Scotland. He claimed to live not in the Caribbean but “the Grampian hills” and to be able to trace his genealogy back to Charles II and the Dukes of Buccleuch.
The exhibition, titled Songs Of Innocence And Experience, is the fulfilment of a near-lifelong wish by Walter, who died in 2009, to see his work one day displayed in Scotland.
“There’s a hope that not just his paintings but his whole story will emerge as a completely fascinating character,” said Florence Ingleby, co-owner of the Ingleby Gallery.
Born in Antigua in 1926, Francis Archibald Wentworth Walter proved himself intellectually gifted from a young age, becoming the first black child to attend an exclusive school for wealthy families and, by the age of just 22, the first black person to manage an Antiguan sugar plantation. He was incredibly successful, breaking production records five years in a row, but when offered the chance to run the entire Jamaican sugar syndicate Walter instead chose a different path.
In 1954, he moved to England – it’s believed partly in search of his entirely imagined aristocratic genealogical roots. In 1960, Walter toured Scotland, visiting Edinburgh, Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose among other places, in what became his life’s inspiration.
His art, which consumed the latter part of his life, ranged widely in subject from miniature landscapes to abstract explorations of nuclear energy and portraits, real and imagined, of everyone from Hitler playing cricket to Charles and Diana as Adam and Eve.
“But the subject he returned to again and again and again [in his art and writing] was the Scottish landscape, which clearly had a profound effect on him,” said Ingleby.
“I think it was when he went back that things began to unravel,” she continues. “The last 30 years of his life, he lived in a shack on the side of a mountain in Antigua. Surrounded just by nature and nothing else – painting and writing and carving figures out of wood and other things.
“He worked on anything he could find: he did lots of pictures on cardboard and on Polaroid boxes, or occasionally something like the back of a record, an LP. And he was painting landscapes that he remembered from his journey as well as the landscapes around him.”
Songs Of Innocence And Experience will place Walter’s work in the context of two other artists who also lived and worked outside of society: Englishman Alfred Wallis and American Forrest Bess.
But while Wallis and Bess have both gone on to become mainstream figures in 20th-century art history, Walter – who is believed to have suffered from acute schizophrenia – has until now remained almost completely obscure outside of Antigua.
It was an American landscape artist, Barbara Paca, who “discovered” Walter after seeing one of his paintings hanging in the bathroom of a rich family’s house when she was working in Antigua. She developed a close friendship with the artist, who believed her to be the long-lost love of his life, Eileen Galway.
Paca spent seven years interviewing Walter and collecting a 25,000-page archive of essays, poems and manifestos about politics, religion, philosophy and art. Many hundreds of pages deal with his experiences in Scotland, a place which she describes as “his true north”.
“He lived in a hurricane-struck hut,” said Paca. “But he believed he was in Scotland.”
Paca – who delivered Walter’s eulogy at his funeral in 2009 – was instrumental in bringing this first-ever exhibition of Walter’s work to Scotland and the Ingleby Gallery, after buying up much of his work while he was still alive. All profits from sales of Walter’s art will go to a charity that funds medical aid in Antigua.
Paca is in discussions with Cambridge University and the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford towards one day making Walter’s written archive publicly accessible.
But when it came to exhibiting his art, Paca said there was “no question” about where Walter would have wanted his story to begin. “It was in Scotland, and in Edinburgh in particular.”
“It’s a relief and a privilege to finally be able to share Walter’s art, and there will be no-one who looks at his work whose life isn’t changed,” she said.
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