Part of the 2021 Edinburgh Art Festival, the joint exhibitions ‘Lost Boat Party’ at The Scottish Gallery and Dovecot Studios feature recent paintings by Jock McFadyen (b. 1950) and a tapestry based on one of the paintings. These recent works have been described as reflecting the ‘romance and grandeur of the Scottish landscape’ and ‘urban dystopia’. Beneath these stereotypes lie the terror of the sublime and humorous disquiet of fantasy-sci-fi.
McFadyen’s recent paintings are panoramic views of sea and sky sometimes coupled with landscapes marked by humanity’s absence or by its reduction to a minor role or single aspect. A recurring feature is the join between sea and sky, the point where Fata Morgana illusions that skew reality are not uncommon. McFadyen’s subjects create a sensation of unlimited vision similar to the view of shingle beach and sky filmmaker Derek Jarman witnessed from Prospect Cottage on Dungeness beach just south of McFadyen’s ‘manor’ of east London and the Thames Estuary.
McFadyen’s Mallaig Commission (2021) was gun-tufted in wool (150 x 225 cm) by Louise Trotter of Dovecot Studios. Based on his painting, it depicts the port of Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland from across the Sound of Sleat. Trotter translated McFadyen’s original colours with yarn selections that can be seen as a range of Jarmanesque blues influenced by Yves Klein blue. McFadyen describes the transformation from paint to fibres as one where colours ‘melded in the heat of the painting’s moment’ are exchanged for deliberate, intellectual fibre choice.
The tapestry features Mallaig’s glimmering lights layered between a night sky and a frothy shoreline. It’s a scene of oppositions: sea and shore, full moon and moonless, artificial and natural, nautical and astronomical twilight. McFadyen’s Lunatic series of paintings feature a full moon that diminishes architecture to diminutive proportions. No moon is visible in Mallaig Commission, but wave illumination suggests a full moon. The time is somewhere between nautical and astronomical twilights when planets and brighter stars become visible and land is an inky silhouette. Mallaig’s latitude and port illuminations prompt the scene as painted in autumn or winter when nautical and astronomical twilight last far longer than the few hours they do in summer.
Mallaig Commission and other works in the ‘Lost Boat Party’ exhibition slot into the original definition of the sublime. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) defined ‘the sublime’ as a work of art that conveyed greatness beyond words and produced heightened emotions, but only if the subject depicted ‘terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror’. ‘Terror’ meant the natural world—storms at sea like John Constable’s oil sketch Brighton Beach (1824) or natural disasters such as JMW Turner’s painting The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1808). McFadyen advances the notion of the sublime as unease with undercurrents of dark humour. The exhibition’s namesake painting Lost Boat Party depicts an unmoored end-of-the-pier seaside fairground drifting out to sea. The scene is ‘society being cast adrift’ McFadyen suggests, a quality that has resonance with the fantasy sci-fi themes in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film City of Lost Children.
McFadyen remarked to the author of his 2019 monograph—architecture critic Rowan Moore—he would keep working on a painting ‘if there’s a glimmer of hope’. The glimmering lights in Mallaig Commission are not incidental to McFadyen; they are there for his audience. Glimmers of hope tethered to a wee bit of humour protected by the umbrella of a dark Scottish sky.