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Issue 37 - Artistic outpost

Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Artistic outpost

Roddy Martine visits The Pier Arts Centre, an artistic gem on Orkney.

The south west tip of mainland Orkney is not where you would might expect to find a major collection of contemporary British art, but all becomes clear when you discover that the founder of this scenically entrancing gallery on the Stromness waterfront, a 30 minute drive from Kirkwall, was a close personal friend of many of the artists represented in the collection.

Margaret Gardiner, who died in 2005, was born in Berlin in 1904, where her father, the wealthy Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner, was working on his groundbreaking study of Egyptian language. The family returned to Britain when the First World War broke out.

However, from an early age, Margaret's enduring passion was art and, on inheriting a large fortune, she was able to indulge herself as she chose. During the 1930s and 1940s, she became friend, patron and confidant to many of the best emerging artists of the time.

Several of them were based in the Cornish village of St Ives, among them the painter and seaman Alfred Wallis, of whom Margaret became an early champion. When the Second World War ended, she was in a position to encourage an entirely new generation of artists which included Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Margaret Mellis, John Wells and Roger Hilton.

At the same time, her friendship with the sculptress Barbara Hepworth brought her into contact with many of the established figures of the post-war European art world, including Hepworth's second husband Ben Nicholson. Her warm relationships with such 20th century cultural icons as the sculptors Henry Moore and Naum Gabo, writers W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, the architect Berthold Lubetkin, and the scientist Solly Zuckerman are recorded in her entertaining memoir, A Scatter of Memories (1988).

That she was independently wealthy through inheritance, she never denied, despite her left wing activism which often led her into controversy. Margaret Gardiner's love of Orkney, however, came about during a visit in the 1950s and she bought a small croft on the small island of Rousay. This was the beginning of a happy period in her life and in 1987 she made the decision to gift her valuable art collection to the people of the island group. Making use of two stone harbour front buildings once occupied by the Hudson's Bay Company, the Pier Arts Centre at Stromness, overlooking Hamnavoe, the “Haven Bay,” was opened in 1979.

Orkney never fails to surprise and impress the visitor, and the fact that it has attracted writers, artists and musicians (Sir Stanley Cursitor, Edwin Muir, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Eric Linklater, to name but a few) to live on this scatter of north coast Scottish islands is understandable.

Writing in celebration of the gallery's 21st anniversary in 1998, the Orcadian poet and author George Mackay Brown observed: “The hills are stored with peat, the shores are strewn with wrack. It is as if what Bernard Shaw called ‘the life-force’ had endowed Orkney with all the essentials for life.

Fires turned continuously on the same hearthstone for centuries. I am sure that good art springs from such a fruitful contact with the elements.” Since opening its doors, the Pier Arts Centre's collection has grown steadily through gifts and bequests, and it now numbers more than 116 works. Recent acquisitions from internationally acclaimed artists such as Sean Scully and Olafur Eliasson, add a third millennium dimension, reflecting the themes of colour and light so evident in the paintings and sculpture of Margaret Gardiner's original gift.

In 2007, a £4.5million refurbishment and extension was completed, lovingly protecting the charm of the two historic buildings in which the gallery was housed, while a new extension by award winning architects Riach & Hall has been added to link them into a single complex.

Alongside the permanent collection, the programme of local, national and international exhibitions and events is constantly changing. From mid-February, the work of local artist Colin Johnstone will be on display; also, a show entitled Oil Work by Sue Jane Taylor.

No matter where you go in the world, the interest of children, young people and students is essential to the survival of the visual arts and, as part of an award from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund, with the support of the Robertson Trust, the Pier Arts Centre has an Education Development Officer with a wide-ranging brief.

Recent projects have included jointventures with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Historic Scotland, and Orkney Islands Council. Touring exhibitions to the Outer Isles, work placements, lectures and talks, practical art workshops and research partnerships with Scotland's art colleges are on-going, all of which goes to prove that city centres do not have the monopoly on art collections. Look no further than Orkney.