Crinan Canal Basin

This painting of the Crinan Canal Basin was one of the largest canvases that my father painted – and this is not the  complete painting reproduced here as the image is cropped at top and bottom for printing purposes.

I now live only 5 miles from here and it is rare to see so many yachts in the basin, although it does happen occasionally, most often – as here – during West Highland Yachting Week. In 2016, 89 yachts took part and a glance through the listings shows a good number of names that I find familiar from my dog-walking sorties along the canal bank.

Dad excelled at painting yachts and fishing boats of all sorts and here he included a plethora of vessels in a work packed with detail and capturing a lot of the excitement and flavour of Crinan at its busiest.


Machrihanish Bay from Port Bhan

This was one of my father’s larger paintings, and I loved the blue-green tones along with the gulls in the foreground giving a great sense of movement and depth.

From this point in Kintyre, the sea spreads in all its vastness beyond Antrim and Rathlin to the south and Islay and Gigha to the north, right out into the Atlantic with nothing to break the horizon until you reach Nova Scotia. There is always that sense of the untameable here.

Machrihanish Bay

Machrihanish Bay was a favourite of Kintyre’s William McTaggart, and the painting to the left was his view looking northwards passed Port Bhan.

The styles of both works are poles apart, but each has a particular appeal. Their connection is in the capturing of an essence of atmosphere and place, each interpretation seen through a unique personality. I recognise this special place with great affection, a yearning perhaps; an intangible mist of memory and belonging.

In the words of Valerie Dunbar’s popular song:

Always Argyll, always Argyll
Long will the memory linger
I’ll soon have to think of Australia as home
But the truth will be always Argyll

Of course, I am not leaving for Australia. My home is no more than 55 miles away in Kilmartin, so I need not feel overly sentimental or nostalgic. I shall probably see the place in a few days time when I head down the peninsula to visit my mother near Southend, but a little self-indulgent Romanticism is appropriate now and again.

Thanks for the vision, Dad. You would have been 90 years old now.

George John Stewart of Dalbuie, April 2016


Home for Christmas

I may have posted this image before (on Facebook), but if so, I believe it deserves re-viewing, even if Christmas 2015 has come and gone. I was reminded of it because of the flurries of snow in Argyll these last few days; and having just walked our terrorist, sorry, terrier puppy through the falling snow – you know, come to think of it; terrorist puppy is possibly nearer the mark.

Returning home out of the snow, coming into the warm welcoming surroundings and then gazing out at the fields steadily whitening, is a very satisfying and reassuring thing.

The painting was very popular in The Oystercatcher Gallery as a card and print, and Dad used it himself as a Chistmas card.  It was painted on one of those rare years when the snow would fall on South Kintyre and stay – if only for a day or two.

Dad loved painting ships of all kinds, and fishing boats in particular. His last work was “Mending The Trawl”; of boats in Tarbert Harbour. Here, Campbeltown Old Quay is the scene of the boats moored over the Christmas and New Year period, when the men were home from the sea to spend time with their families and friends; taking a well-earned rest from their labours.

Campbeltown at one time had a large fishing fleet, and it was said that one could walk across the loch stepping from boat to boat, so densely packed they were. These were the Loch Fyne skiffs. Tarbert subsequently pioneered the Ringnet fishing method with larger craft, but they days of the large fleets are gone. Even in my childhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were a great many boats working out of Campbeltown. Now, the herring have left the Clyde and fishing quotas have torn the heart out of the industry. The painting shows only a handful of boats, when once the inner harbour would have been filled. It is a memorial, in a sense, to a time now relegated to history; of a way of life where the season is now forever winter.

Jura from Port a’ Bhorrain

This is softer in colouring than many of my father’s works. I don’t have the date to hand, but it seems from the tones and technique to be placed among the earlier Kintyre paintings.

Personally, I love these ‘gentler’ paintings. Nowadays, the influence and success of John Lowrie Morrison has encouraged a lot of Scottish painting (including my own) towards the bright and intense colouring at which he (JoLoMo) excels; but quieter, more reflective pieces should still have their place. It is perhaps a symptom of our age that everything has to shout loudly to find a place above the clamour.

The style is straightforward – illustrative – but with a sensitivity born from a deep love of the landscape. Dad was very particular about his colour choices and would spend a lot of time ensuring he had just the right mix. For myself, I frequently use colours straight from the tube where possible, but I inherited a loose leaf book – a colour guide really – filled with catalogue colours in tints and shades so that he knew where to begin when mixing the perfect match for his eye.

After his stroke, Dad simplified his style and his colours became bolder; more direct, as he strove to recover his painting ability. He succeeded magnificently – and quickly too – but he never again attained the subtlety of his earlier watercolours. Acrylics became his first choice, and his clients did not always approve of the change to his style that resulted. He became a little frustrated at times; usually with his skies, when he aimed for soft watercolour but had to settle for harsher gouache.

Such things are part of the working artist’s life as I know to my cost; but in Dad’s case the finished result was always good, and sometimes exceptional.

I tried to work out the exact location that this painting was portraying. Unusually, I could not make out his writing about the subject – it must have been a late addition when his hand was a little shaky, (his writing was normally very clear). However, I have worked out that the place was ‘near Dalkeith’ – not far from Glenbarr village. On my next visit south to see my mother, I shall stop there and reflect on this tranquil painting.

Cattle In The Black Glen Water, Isle of Mull

‘Cattle In The Black Glen Water, Isle of Mull’ was one of Mackean Stewart’s later commissions. I have tried to pinpoint the location because the title does not appear on my map. However, from my knowledge of the island I thought this might be on the road to Iona, near the head of Loch Scridain.
Google maps seems to have confirmed this with an identical bridge, but no Highland Cattle. The mountain in the backdrop appears to be Corra-bheinn, with the edge of Ben More at the far left.
Dad never visited Mull, which I always thought strange as he had travelled widely in Scotland over his lifetime. He told me he had planned to see it on a number of occasions but somehow the trip never came together. However, my sister Ann and I both love the island having been introduced to it by my wife Gill. My daughter Emma married Craig Bellingham there, and Gill and I can see the twin peaks of Ben More from Crinan, near to our home in Kilmartin.
The picture was painted from an old photograph provided by the lady who commissioned the work, and a special little painting it is.

A Sunday Morning, Campbeltown Harbour

This is a fairly early watercolour of Dad’s, which used to hang in the hallway in the Dell Rd apartment in Campbeltown where he lived latterly. I think Dad had a special affection for it, and as the view was pretty much the one from our gallery, I recall that beautiful summer evening light in the harbour with similar appreciation.

The harbour at Campbeltown is an obvious subject for a painting; but in expert hands it reveals the heart of the place. Campbeltown’s history; its peaks and troughs, have the harbour as the focus of the community. The Wee Toon has had more than its share of poverty and difficulty and decline. Conversely, it has in its day had periods of tremendous success; even if the riches have been concentrated in the hands of only a few.

For the most part, Campbeltown’s successes have been found in other parts of the world. A familiar story for Scotsmen generally, but this one small town has produced a wealth of talent, even if that talent found its outlet elsewhere. Men like Sir William McKinnon, William Mactaggart, James Gulliver among them. Angus MacVicar, the author was one of the few who returned to Kintyre and Southend, finding there his best work.

But the harbour is the centre, and many are the happy hours spent on its quays.

Sound of Jura from Kintyre

“Sound of Jura from Kintyre” is one of the later seascapes and captures the depth of colour often seen on a breezy sunny day on the west coast.

This image does not really do the painting justice, as there is to my eye, a blue cast to the picture, not present in the original work. Even so, it portrays a fine bracing West Coast day.

Skipness Castle, East Kintyre + Summer Shore at Skipness

Dad was always interested in historical subjects, and his (yet to be published) book about Kintyre, ‘Almost an Island’, is written from a historical perspective, and illustrated with some of his paintings. When he was planning the illustrations, he realised that he had little or nothing to show Skipness and the castle in particular. The immediate result of this were these two pictures.
While not the most colourful or striking or Dad’s works, they have the gentle charm of some of his earlier watercolours, despite being rendered in oils. Indeed, the castle painting sold quickly to a lovely couple from Skipness.

Glen Sannox, Arran, from Bute

A lesser known Mackean Stewart view of Arran, entitled Glen Sannox, Arran, from Bute. It reminds me (in part) of all those old MacBraynes posters promoting their ferry services, even although they were aerial views.

I remember Dad being unsure of the composition with this picture as there was nothing in the foreground to give the sense of depth; just middle distance and mountain backdrop. Also the positioning of the animals in the fields were problematic. Despite his concerns, it makes for a very pleasing scene.

An Eaglais agus A’Chleit [A’Chleit, the Reef in Winter]

 An Eaglais agus A’Chleit, meaning The Church at The Reef in Gaelic, was a much admired painting in The Oystercatcher Gallery when first displayed. A’Chleit, on the west coast of Kintyre, looking over to the Isle of Gigha, is a popular beach and picnic spot. I used to stop here for our Jack Russell terrier ‘Paddy‘ on trips from Kilmartin to Campbeltown. He loved to dance about among the rocks and skip in and out of the surf. I liked it too, (A’Chleit that is; not the dancing and skipping bit. I don’t do that.)

For Dad, it was his most regular painting destination. He rarely worked en plein air, but preferred the studio with all his tools to hand, but the reef was a constant inspiration to him. This painting is more subdued in tone to most paintings Dad produced of this subject, but the silvery tones were much more common than blue skies and bright sunlight.

The temptation for the artist is to brighten the scene as on a Summer’s day to increase the likelihood of a sale, and while that is justifiable (there are undoubtedly many warm and pleasant days in the year), there is the desire to capture the more subtle, even dull day and make a painting with more veracity. If one is not an illustrative artist, the situation may be different, but I would argue that whatever the field of artistic endeavour, there is always the tug o’ war between earning a living and ‘following your star’. Unless you are David Hockney, or Damien Hirst, or any other artist with the initials D.H. Like Lawrence, maybe.

I cannot say if Dad had any thoughts like this, but I know he liked to push himself on to a new challenge. Sometimes, he failed, but these were rare. More often than not he succeeded, and for me, this painting is indeed a resounding success.