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Issue 85 - Artist In Residence: Fiona Grant Robertson

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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Artist In Residence: Fiona Grant Robertson

Roddy Martine meets the artist in residence at Newhailes House, Fiona Grant Robertson

The old mansion house of Newhailes is situated to the east of Edinburgh at Musselburgh and for over three hundred years it was the home of a branch of the Dalrymple family, eminent lawyers, politicians and academics. Today it is considered to be one of the outstanding gems in the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland.

Surrounded by a unique example of a designed landscape, the carefully preserved, elegant exterior and the interior rooms resonate with having been loved and cared for over the centuries. All of the rooms have a welcoming and “lived in” feel about them as they have been preserved just as they were when the last of the Dalrymple family, Lady Antonia, handed them over to the Trust in 1997. This made it a fascinating challenge for Fiona Grant Robertson when she was appointed Newhailes' official Artist in Residence in 2014.

“I was confronted by a bewildering array of rich imagery,” she recalls. “ I still feel that I've scarcely begun to tackle the wealth of inspiration that Newhailes provides in portraiture, landscape, architecture, interior decoration, textiles, ceramics and much, much more. In my paintings I've focused on the exteriors and landscape whilst my paper works take inspirations from the interiors, contents and history of the house.”

Having graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1975, Fiona was awarded an Andrew Grant Travelling Scholarship, which was conducted with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. The theatrical influences from that time are instantly apparent in her work, which is subtly dramatic, mystical and sensual. Thereafter, she taught art and design at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh and worked in community education art projects, before taking up a teaching post at Trinity Academy in Edinburgh until she retired in 2013.

“If my paintings tend towards the romantic, I confess I suffer from the predilection for the 'romantic ruin' that seems to be rooted in our national psyche,” she explains. “My father was a professional gardener and I grew up on private estates and gardens knowing full well the cold, hard, muddy realities of creating the beautiful illusion.”

Fiona's sensitive imagery combines an awareness of the passage of time with a contemporary approach. “At Newhailes, I found myself thinking of parallels between the preservation and conservation issues faced by the National Trust for Scotland and those of an artist,” she says. “I believe that the Newhailes mantra of 'as much work as necessary, but as little as possible' is also one that many a watercolourist would do well to pin to their studio wall.”

In her hand cast paper sculptural work at Newhailes, she has created a piece called
Library Works. Found in a library which opens out into the garden, it is based on the theme of Newhailes' missing books where they have been lost to the ravages of time and the natural elements; it is a physical collision between literature and nature. The Enlightenment period intent was that one should learn and benefit from both.

Her installations in the Old Kitchen and Scullery reflect the work of the household staff.
When the Baking Stopped is made from cast paper and stag moss and Skudgie Work from cast paper. In all of Fiona's paper work, colours, themes and details have been drawn directly from the house and surrounding landscape.

Her term at Newhailes having come to an end, Fiona is continuing to create images for future exhibitions and is on a mission to visit other gardens in and around Edinburgh. “Being an artist in residence is a two-way interaction, all about helping places to tell their own story. Newhailes fascinates and charms everyone who visits. It was a joy and a privilege just to be there,” she concludes.