Interview: Calum McClure on how winning the Jolomo Award has changed his life

Artist Calum McClure in his studio
Artist Calum McClure in his studio
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WHEN Calum McClure won Scotland’s largest painting prize, in June 2011, it was the start of a good year.

A few months after winning the £25,000 Jolomo Award, he had his first solo exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, and his work was selected for the RSA New Contemporaries show. And this summer two of his paintings were chosen by the artist Barbara Rae to be part of the prestigious Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.

Reflecting over a coffee in the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, McClure, 24, is typically understated. He entered the Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards – founded by the artist John Lowrie Morrison and aimed at emerging artists painting the Scottish landscape – with “no expectation at all” of winning. He had graduated from Edinburgh College of Art the previous year and was working up to 50 hours a week as a chef in an Edinburgh restaurant.

But at the Jolomo Awards Gala Dinner in Kelvingrove Museum, everything changed. He says: “The money has allowed me to stop working, that’s a lot of pressure off a young artist, or an artist of any age, to be able to down what they’re doing and just concentrate on what they want to do. There has also been a lot of publicity around the Awards. It’s a nice boost, a nice feeling, when people know who you are and have heard of your work.”

McClure has his own distinct take on Scottish landscape. He focuses not on mountains and lochs but on parks, formal gardens, country estates. His submission for the Jolomo Award was a series of paintings inspired by the estate at Cammo near Edinburgh where he had played as a child, where the great house is now a derelict shell, and the once manicured grounds wild and overgrown.

“A formal garden, which is a man-made thing, does actually become for me a more beautiful thing when it’s overgrown,” he says. “I’ve been to other similar landscapes, and that human element draws me back to paint something which has the slight influence of man about it.” The Cammo estate, like many in Scotland, declined after the First World War, and the last owner lived in a caravan while the mansion, with its paintings and antiques, was left to rot. “It’s haunting in a way,” McClure says. “I did find some photographs of it from the turn of the century where the trees are small, ornamental, and you can imagine a guy out with a pair of scissors doing the lawn.”

In the past year, he has had the opportunity to visit and paint on two more prosperous Scottish estates, Mellerstain House in the Borders – home of Lord and Lady Haddington – where his work fronted the summer exhibition, and Invermay in Perthshire, owned and managed by the Wemyss family. He says it gave him an insight into the challenges involved in the upkeep of large estates where work once done by an army of gardeners and groundskeepers falls to a handful of people, and owners must make choices about how to make their properties work commercially. “Being allowed into these places – because they really are just for the families – is another strand of exploring the idea of place, and who these places are for. The estates looks quite romantic, but it is quite a lot of work to keep these places.”

He had the chance to observe a shooting party at Invermay – “birds falling out of the sky everywhere” – and to try his hand at salmon fishing on the Tweed (“I didn’t catch anything”) but mostly he spent his time exploring the grounds, painting and drawing ponds, reflections, groves of mature trees, quirky architectural features. “Invermay used to produce its own electricity, it’s got two lochs and the water comes underground down to the river and a turbine. It doesn’t work any more but it’s still there, an interesting little building.”

However, he says “the biggest thing this year” was having two paintings selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition by Barbara Rae, who was curating two rooms of Scottish and Irish work. McClure’s paintings were hanging alongside the likes of Alison Watt, Callum Innes and John Bellany. The immense scale of the show – a marathon of nearly 1500 artworks hung ten deep in some spaces – clearly made an impression.

“You’ve got everything there, from Anselm Keifer to people who were in the open submission. I was kind of in between in the selected artists. It was quite a humbling experience to be involved in a room like that.” He also got to see the marketing arm of the RA in full swing, with a lengthy queue for sales and a chart with red dots showing which works had been sold. “Barbara said, ‘Just look at the leader board, Calum, see who’s sold and who hasn’t.’ I was something like number 854.” But, by the time the show closed both the McClures had red dots.

McClure is now bound for Berlin, where he hopes to spend a year exploring and painting. But he leaves his Scottish work in the hands of a trusty art dealer – his father. Robin McClure, who worked at the Scottish Gallery for 25 years, has now set up his own art dealership and consultancy, McClure Art, to represent a range of artists including his father – David McClure, an outstanding colourist, who was contemporary of Elizabeth Blackadder and John Houston – and his son. Art is something of a family business for the McClures: Robin’s sister, Paola McClure, is a sculptor, and Calum’s younger brother Scott, in his final year at ECA studying graphic design, has helped with the branding and the website.

McClure Art’s first Edinburgh shows will be unveiled in the next two weeks: Choice, which shows the work of 13 recent graduates (including Calum), opening tomorrow at the Whitespace Gallery, and a show of David McClure’s work at the Dundas Street Gallery opening on 4 December. The dealership will be web-based, with exhibitions throughout the UK. Robin McClure says: “Since I am looking after my father’s estate and paintings, the logical thing seemed to be to focus part of the business on his work and telling his story. He had a fascinating career, he was a protégé of Anne Redpath and a colleague of Alberto Morrocco. But it was also important to offer younger artists a place to show their work.”

He says he realised at an early stage that both his sons had artistic talent: “It’s fantastic that Calum has had such great success. He has known his grandfather’s work but he’s made his own path, painting in his own way, unrelated to what my father did but probably inspired by his example. It may be learned, from the circles you move in, but some of it must be genetic.”

•  Calum McClure’s recent work is on show as part of Choice, tomorrow until 28 November, at Whitespace Gallery, Edinburgh. For more information see The Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards 2013 are now open for entries, closing date 14 January, 2013, for more information see