Victoria Crowe interview: Shepherd's delight

THEY WERE UNLIKELY FRIENDS, the elderly shepherdess who had left her Borders village only rarely and the young English artist. But the friendship of Jenny Armstrong and Victoria Crowe resulted in a remarkable series of paintings which garnered both critical and public acclaim.

A Shepherd's Life, which was first exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2000, will be shown at the Fleming Collection in London this spring, while a survey show at the nearby Fine Art Society displays a selection of Crowe's work from 1963 to the present day.

Putting the exhibitions together has provided a chance for one of Scotland's foremost painters to pause and look back. "It's great to see A Shepherd's Life together again," says Crowe, 63, talking at the kitchen table of her home in the Borders. "It's like a little vignette of that bit of time, which was a very important time in my life as an artist and in our lives as a family.

"But I felt it was very important that it should be seen as part of a context because I worked on it for 15 or 20 years of my life, but I've been painting professionally for over 40. People say, 'Goodness your work's changed'. After 40 years, I should jolly well hope it has!"

Nevertheless, Crowe recognises how much she learned painting A Shepherd's Life, which she worked on from 1970 until Jenny Armstrong's death in 1985. Not only did it shape her painting style, she devised ways of handling ideas and memories which helped her when she later faced a tragedy in her own life.

Crowe met Armstrong when she and her husband, Michael Walton, moved from Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey to take up teaching jobs at Edinburgh College of Art. They settled in 1970 in the hamlet of Kitleyknowe, 1,000ft up in the Pentland Hills near the village of Carlops.

Armstrong was their neighbour, a feisty 68-year-old, carrying bales of hay across fields, hefting sheep out of snowdrifts. Crowe, trying to understand her new environment, was drawn to her.

"It was quite a huge cultural shift, and one of the ways I always try to relate to things is by drawing. It started off as a series of landscape paintings. You could stand on the hill at the back and look 360 degrees, and it would have been like that 100 years ago, and yet we were half an hour from Edinburgh. It was a very magical place."

Before long, the figure of Armstrong appeared in Crowe's landscapes with her sheep and her dogs. In one of the most iconic images of the series, she is a small dark-clad figure against an expanse of snow-covered moorland, dwarfed by towering black trees.

As they became friends, Crowe accompanied Armstrong on her morning walks, drawing as she went. "Jenny sort of crept into the corners of them. She never liked being drawn, so it was always a case of drawing the sheep and the dog and then the figure of Jenny would appear almost by default. But later on, after she'd seen some of the paintings, she really enjoyed it hugely. She would come to the private views, and loved telling people about the dogs and the flock and the trees and the cottage."

Armstrong, she says, was an important role model at a time when she was struggling to continue painting while raising a young family. "It was that stage when I was thinking: 'Am I going to carry on? Can I do all this?' And there was this woman who had this very unconventional lifestyle, and she was perfectly together and worked with the seasons and with the light. It gave me as a young mother, a young artist, a sense of perspective, that life does have rhythms and patterns, it does unfold and your perspectives do broaden out. That was a valuable lesson to learn."

As the years passed, Armstrong's health began to fail. She became less mobile and spent more time inside her cottage – which was belatedly equipped with mains electricity and a telephone. As Crowe sat with her, the landscapes gave way to interiors, the outdoor world glimpsed through a window. The final images in the series are studies of Jenny's trinkets and ornaments, painted after her death.

It was only much later that Crowe realised what she'd made: a visual diary of a vanishing way of life. "I think we caught Kitleyknowe on the cusp of change. When the people of Jenny's generation died or moved away, architects and developers couldn't wait to get their hands on these buildings. The ruined farmstead became five luxury houses. To be fair, we probably started the rot, because we were the first ones to have a car, though it was only a Morris Minor."

One of the paintings in the series has recently been turned into a tapestry, a commission for the Duke of Buccleuch from Edinburgh's Dovecot Studios (see panel, opposite). Crowe was fascinated to see her image gradually recreated on warp and weft, the picture emerging sideways, the colours recreated by the blending of yarns. She describes it as "transforming".

At the same time as she was painting Armstrong, Crowe was winning recognition as a painter of landscapes, interiors and portraits. She has produced acclaimed portraits of RD Laing, Kathleen Raine, Tam Dalyell and, most recently, composer Thea Musgrave for the SNPG in 2006.

She was also developing a signature style which weaves together, as many Shepherd's Life paintings do, elements of landscape and interior. It is often contemplative in tone, representational but with an understanding of space and composition that is largely abstract.

Crowe speaks about the importance of symbolism, how objects take on significance beyond themselves, and how artists ranging from Russian icon painters to the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein use the juxtaposition of groups of objects to create new meanings. She has developed a lexicon of powerful objects: an angel on an old Christmas card; a tailor's model from a Florence museum; a flower; an artichoke.

Crowe has often been described as a poet-painter. "I think I've always been interested in music and poetry and philosophy and religion and ideologies and symbolism; all of these things seem equally weighted for me as a painter. This juxtaposition of objects is one of the legacies A Shepherd's Life gave me."

One of the most poignant works in the Fine Art Society show is a portrait of Crowe's son Ben at the age of 19. Two years after this was painted, he was diagnosed with a rare form of mouth cancer. He died less than a year later, in 1995. Her husband now runs the Ben Walton Trust, to raise awareness and funds to tackle oral cancers in young people.

Crowe says she poured her feelings into her paintings: first her hopes for his recovery, then the rawness of her grief when he died. "In a way, if I hadn't been a painter, I don't know how I would have dealt with that and made sense of it. Because of all the things that I was doing with Jenny, it had become part of my vocabulary to be able, in paintings, to talk about time passing, to contrast very transitory things like a figure in the landscape with the permanence of a rock.

"I was able to use that when Ben was really ill and after his death, to latch on to the process that I was going through. Paintings make sense for me of my life and where I am. We've just got a little granddaughter – my daughter's first child – she is bound to be in something one of these days."

Crowe's most recent work is imbued more richly than ever with the influence of Italy. She travelled there for the first time in 1992, and now maintains a studio in Venice where she spends time every spring and autumn. Her newest work is a series of paintings inspired by Venetian mirrors.

"Italy is the most blessed country in terms of its art and its landscape. And I also like the feisty modern Italy, these huge great contrasts between something incredibly austere and beautiful and something really vulgar and loud. They can work together – a plaster Madonna with electric lightbulbs flashing next to a beautiful 14th-century piece of painting."

&149 Victoria Crowe: A Shepherd's Life is at the Fleming Collection, London, until 21 March (www.theflemingcollection.co.uk); Overview: Paintings by Victoria Crowe, Fine Art Society, London, until 31 January (www.faslondon.com).

Weaving the magic

A TAPESTRY of a painting by Victoria Crowe has become the first new work to be added to the 17th-century tapestry collection at the "English Versailles" – Boughton House in Northamptonshire – in several centuries.

The tapestry of Two Views (above), part of Crowe's series A Shepherd's Life, was commissioned by the Duke of Buccleuch from the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. It is being shown at the Fleming Collection in London, alongside the paintings themselves.

"We have this wonderful house in Northamptonshire which is full of tapestries and this is the first new piece to be added to the collection for getting on for 300 years," says the Duke, who talks about the "wonderful parallels" between weaving and shepherding.

"They are timeless, they are very old crafts and skills, and they take a long time to gestate," he says. "There is something about the slow pace of the weaver and that of a shepherd. You are never quite sure what the outcome will be until that magic moment when lambs are born or the tapestry is taken entirely off the loom and you see it all."

Richard, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, who succeeded his father in 2007, is one of Britain's most important landlords, with 270,000 acres in English and Scottish estates.

His family's art collection includes works by Holbein and the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci.

About 100 tapestries in the Boughton collection feature works from the famous Mortlake tapestry factory, including four from Raphael cartoons. They have traditionally been loaned to government offices and embassies around the world.

Crowe initially favoured another painting from the series, December 25th , for a tapestry. But the painter, the Duke and Dovecot finally settled on Two Views.

The work features both the interior of shepherdess Jenny Armstrong's cottage, with a photograph of her father, and a winter landscape glimpsed through a window.

"There are several things in it that really lend themselves to tapestry," says master weaver Douglas Grierson. "Sometimes you don't know whether a picture is going to make a good tapestry until it's finished. It's difficult to predict – it can take on a life of its own."

Three weavers worked on the piece over about four months, incorporating wools that were dyed nearly 100 years ago.

In the past, tapestries often served as practical wallcoverings as much as art, so they are often overlooked. They also fade easily under sunlight and can be difficult to conserve. "It seemed important to us to try and bring alive, and bring attention to, a remarkable art form," says the Duke. "I think tapestry is a very powerful medium."