Gleneagles Townhouse launches exhibition of swimming pool photographs from Edinburgh artist

This is the first of a planned series of exhibitions

As far as we know, a swimming pool is one of the few things that Edinburgh’s new hotel and members club, Gleneagles Townhouse, doesn’t have.

That’s a shame, as you might be in the mood for a splash after viewing the pieces in their first exhibition, which runs from now until August 29.

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Edinburgh based artist Soo Burnell’s Bodies of Water show is open to members, residents and those visiting their all day restaurant, The Spence, and is hung in a white and wood-panelled space to the left of the entrance. This show is just back from a run in New York, and the images also feature in her book, To The Water, which was released last year.

Soo Burnell Pic: Maria PortwaySoo Burnell Pic: Maria Portway
Soo Burnell Pic: Maria Portway

Gleneagles Townhouse approached Burnell directly, and say they chose her as her work challenges the building’s formerly conservative past, when it operated as a bank. We can’t imagine that many of the high-falutin men, who feature as busts in the former banking hall, now restaurant, ever donned a pair of Speedos.

“I am so honoured to be the first artist to exhibit in this incredible new space at the Gleneagles Townhouse. I am really touched that they have taken time to connect and support local artists,” says Burnell. “I hung the exhibition last week and have been chatting to visitors about the work, my linen printing styles and the stories behind the beautiful pools. I am looking forward to meeting many more people there over the next few weeks”.

Many of the shots that are on display were taken before lockdown, and celebrate Edinburgh’s collection of Victorian swimming baths. Burnell’s first swimming pool shoot took place at Glenogle in Stockbridge, back in 2018.

“It was the pool I learnt to swim in as a child and I’d go there during summer holidays. I really didn’t appreciate the architecture of the space then though; I only really noticed it once I went back as an adult to photograph it,” she says. “I spent years jumping in and out of that pool without paying any attention to the high ceilings, the rows of changing rooms flanking the pool, or the scale or grandeur of the space”.

Alone at Western Baths, Soo BurnellAlone at Western Baths, Soo Burnell
Alone at Western Baths, Soo Burnell

She’s also taken pictures of Drumsheugh Baths, Portobello, Warrender, Leith Victoria and Dalry.

“I began photographing other landmark pools in Edinburgh with the intention of capturing their striking architecture and, by contrast, the stillness housed within. I wanted to show the beauty of the architecture of these historic spaces, while minimising all of the modern elements,” says Burnell.

“I love their scale, the sense of space, the high ceilings and signage, the geometry of the tiles, the typography, the lines on the bottom of the pool, as well as the colour palette and the light, and then all of that reflected in the still water.”

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After the success of those earlier shots, Burnell travelled beyond her home town of Edinburgh, to shoot at the Western Baths Club in Glasgow, Manchester’s Victoria Baths, and the beautiful Piscine Molitor in Paris. For wild swimming fans, the series has also been extended to outdoor locations, with shoots at Tyninghame Beach and Tarlair Swimming Pool outside Macduff, Aberdeenshire, though not all of her collection will be part of the Gleneagles Townhouse show.

After Swimming Tyninghame, Soo BurnellAfter Swimming Tyninghame, Soo Burnell
After Swimming Tyninghame, Soo Burnell

Some of the shots have been described as Wes Anderson-esque. This director, who is responsible for films including The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch is a huge influence, along with some other names in cinema.

“Recently I have been looking to cinematic imagery from other directors such as Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. They all have such great attention to detail”, says Burnell, who is currently working on another project that involves pictures of the Capital. “I thought Bong Joon-ho’s imagery in Parasite was also incredible. I love the work of architecture photographer Julius Shulman. His book, A Constructed View, is beautiful. Californian architecture, along with Impressionistic painting and composition, have long been influences of mine too”.

The pieces in Bodies of Water are far removed from real-life scenes of kids bombing into the pool, lane hoggers, and goggles being rescued, and it’s strange to see, but not hear, a swimming pool, since they are usually accompanied by echoes and amplified shrieks of excitement.

Thus, they also evoke a meditative feeling, with that diffuse light that comes from Victorian cupulas, alongside the neat symmetry of these familiar 19th century buildings.

Swim Team Western Baths, Soo BurnellSwim Team Western Baths, Soo Burnell
Swim Team Western Baths, Soo Burnell

There are subjects in most of the pictures, all of whom wear vintage swim caps and swimming costumes in shades that echo or accentuate the colours of their environment. Most of these anonymous-looking models are out of the pool - sitting on the edge, standing on a diving board or disappearing into a changing cubicle. The water is mostly completely still, apart from the occasional ripple. That gives you the urge to break the surface.

Gleneagles Townhouse says; “It is a privilege to be sharing Soo’s much-admired works from within our new Edinburgh home – she is exactly who we had envisioned to help us celebrate the diverse arts and cultural scene which we are so lucky to have in this city. We think her beautiful collection will be extremely popular with members and guests and look forward to seeing it all come to life throughout the month of August.”

39 St Andrew Square, Edinburgh,