Ian Stephen on Donald Smith, subject of an exhibition at An Lanntair this summer and a new book from Acair
by Ian Stephen
Coy doesn't give up easily. You see him out on the pier, all weathers, leading the netmenders. Yellow needles, loaded up with green twine, are going like the hammers as the hail is slicing across. The high bow of the Wave Crest, SY 3, is bobbing like bilio behind the squad. You used to hear Gaelic and English, all mixtie maxtie. You might get some Romanian or Bulgarian in there now. Ukranian too. Wouldn't be the first time a Baltic language was spoken by this tideway. Sometimes there's a big boulder, hoisted up on to the concrete. That would be the one that did the damage, lifted right from the sea-bed somewhere out the North Minch. Sometimes a trawler has to get a tow in, with its unwanted catch, to get sorted when they're tied up. It's a bit easier now, with power-blocks, to haul the trawl aboard. It used to be just a big steel block on the gantry, each side. The wires ran forward to the main winch.
This day, the needle was in Coy's hand and a section of green trawl in the other. He was in full yarning mode but we weren't standing on the hoil. We were in a sitting room up at Blaire Buithe – a care-home. Most of the people were pretty withdrawn but some were livelier than others. It had been quiet at first. For the first couple of minutes I wondered if the visit would be worthwhile. It wasn't my idea, not Coy's either. The artist Pat Law had noticed the way the rhythms of netmending and the associated yarning went together. She set up a whole project, with an exhibition of her own mixed-media responses, her daughter Mhairi's medium-format photographs and a performance in the fish-market. It was packed. That was the most life I'd seen in that mortuary for nehrops since the old days when the auctions marched, box to box. It's all sold on the phone now, before it gets here. We were at the care-home as part of the exhibition outreach, a link to the art centre's project to engage with sufferers of dementia and their families.
Coy stopped in front of one guy and performed his netmending action, talking all the time, joking away. I knew from Coy's tone that here was a man he still looked up to even though the old cove was stooped in a chair. Then I recognised him too. This was Jackie, skipper of some of the top earners in the town's dwindling fleet of trawlers. Countless tons of pink shells had come over his gunnels. Fish too, when there was enough of a bycatch to justify a fleet of artics making the trip to Aberdeen, dripping the bree of monks and haddies. Jackie brought my mate Sam Maynard out on the Annandale to take his classy black and white photos of trawling in the bouncy North Minch. One time Jackie joined the crew of an Sulaire, a recreation of our open, north Lewis open craft, powered by a single dipping lugsail. Her build was the subject of a film, an Sgoth, proposed by Sam and directed by him. Jackie helped us navigate the sgoth from Port of Ness to the town. I remember him commenting on the excessive weather-helm. We'd have to do something about her trim. Seamanship counts, whether you're used to working under sail or not.
Now Coy was placing that section of net in the man's limp hand. Fingers tightened. Next he put the needle into the older man's other hand. It was a bit like putting a wire to a battery with a not very good connection. There was a flicker. That was enough for Coy. Still speaking away all the time, he took over the net, made a few stitches, then passed it and the needle back again. Jackie made the netmending movement, the knot that would form part of the repair to the mesh. Coy explained to everyone how a bigger hole might need a new section of net, as an insert. If the fishing was there and the market was there and the weather with it, you just had to get out again. There were plenty of days when you had no choice but to stay tied up.
My own part was to lead from Coy's easygoing blethers to the family stories I'd grown up with. I gave my pedigree first because the nicknames would mean something to most of the folk in this room. More than one nod registered across the gap. A neat woman put her hand on my arm. 'Your uncle was Donald, the artist. He sat next to me in school, at the Nicolson. A lovely boy.' She sat beside me and went along with the tales of Dohmnall Caimbeul, the cove in the long coat who could get out of trouble with the speed of his wit. My mother passed many of those to me but her brother, Donald Smith and other brothers and sisters chipped in parts and variations.
Donald took me to task once when I showed him my first attempts to write them down. The main issue was the move from Gaelic to English but it was more complex than that. There was also the shift from spoken to written and the need to be equally scrupulous, whatever the medium. Even if it was a laughing matter. Only a matter of months back, I could have tried to tell my last surviving uncle that his former classmate had recognised me from the family resemblance and the name 'Safety.' That had been coined for one football-playing brother then applied to all the family. It would have been hard work. Donald was very withdrawn himself for the last few years of his life. He was cared for by his wife, Jewel, an accomplished artist and designer in her own right.
Still at Blaire Buidhe, with the room warmed up and carers, relations, residents and visitors united in a proper ceilidh now, I was thinking back to one of my last visits with Donald. Jewel was showing her fellow-artist, my wife Christine, a few of her own works, after persuasion, as well as some of the vast collection of Donald's sketches, studies and finished paintings, amassed over a lifetime of compulsive work. We were left together. Donald looked me in the eye, then said 'Are you still writing?' He was picking up on a conversation from many years before. This was a secular version of the parable of the talents. Donald was not a believer in any religious faith. He did not flaunt that but he made no secret of it either. When it came to political beliefs, I think he was too firm a socialist to be a member of any available political party.
If Donald had a faith, it was healthy scepticism and he wouldn't have been the only one from Lewis in that camp, even though we were always known as the 'last bastion' of Presbyterianism. Our too few conversations were under the colourist shadows of large scale paintings from a man whose palette seemed to me to be getting more and more bold as he got older. It seemed to me that the netmenders became more and more of a feature, but a realistic observation rather than an idealised motif or a symbol.
He'd always haunted harbours and shores, as well as doing his share of work on the land, taking part in collective sheep-gatherings (fanks) and peat-cutting with extended family. His own father had been a fisherman before herring markets tumbled and he became a road labourer. This is confirmed on my own stamped personal documents as well as in yarns. After National Service and studies at Gray's School of Art, leading on to becoming head of art at Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen, Donald returned with his family to Lewis to work as an itinerant art teacher. Even before that, when the family lived in the tall and fine Orrok House, up the hill from Balmedie beach, he seemed drawn to the tidal stake-nets, harvested from wide, blunt-sterned cobles. He told me the fishermen would put aside some flounders for him, their own bycatch amongst the running salmon they'd intercepted. One painting from that period reveals the whiteish seaboots, as part of a composition of workers, shifting gear by tractor. For a man who was an admirer of Rembrandt and best known in his own early career for portraiture, the figures are faceless. The composition has a convincing harmony but the whole work does not veer into socialist realism or caricature.
By chance, right now, just a few year's after this, my last uncle's death, I've been catching up on some missed books which have cast my mind back to a few remembered conversations. I veered off-course, as a student to read USA by John Dos Passos, after a mature student celebrated it, at a seminar. This summer (2017) I brought Manhattan Transfer to sea with me, to use the hours spent waiting for tide or weather. First published in 1925, the 1986 Penguin edition has a reproduction of Silver Dollar Bar by Edward Burra on its cover. This is a more cartoon-like painting than Donald's work but there are strong similarities. A large group of individual figures are all caught, fixed in a moment, as if an aperture had opened for the correct exposure. There is no blur but posters, shelves, bottles, cutlery and foreground ashtray are all there too and simplified like the figures caught in line and colour. Despite countless sketches showing the most detailed depictions of faces, crofts and harboursides, Donald's paintings often eschew that detail and arrange, even distort, individual elements, especially in the boat and netmending arrangements.
I'm looking now at a painting given to me by my uncle, in memory of his late younger son, Finlay. To me, there are recognisable elements of Stornoway harbour environs. A gable-end could be that of lobht nan seol – the old sail loft or netmending loft. A section of this building, when renovated, was to become my own home for about ten years, but neither of us knew that when the present was made. A mizzen sail, more orange than tan, curves across that weathered wall. It is supported by a spar. The lashings, like the chimney pots above them, seem accurate but when you look closely both are done in the swiftest of squiggles. A curved board is suggested by one line. It seems decorative but I can recognise it as the 'crutch' which would support the boom, when not in use for swinging baskets or boxes ashore. The block or hauler is more of a blur as are the faint buoys which would raise the top edge of the trawl. The painter has more freedom than the photographer when it comes to deciding which parts of the whole will be detailed and which can be thrown out of focus.
Archive film footage of Donald at work reveals an astonishing fluency. This is the confidence gained by a lifetime of driven sketching. This is a ballad of a painting. The drama is gained by omission as well as by including these most telling details. It is signed but there is no title and none on the back though the dedication is there and the studio address is Orrok House first and a later addition of the number of the house, built in Bragar, Isle of Lewis.
It only occurs to me now that the painting could as easily be set in Aberdeenshire though Donald would visit Lewis, with his family, for parts of the summer holidays and no doubt would be sketching. If you are accurate in your depiction of the significant detail, then the work is both specific to place and somewhere beyond any place. Amongst the countless, coloured sketches are several harbourside sketches where the background architecture is unmistakably that of lobht nan seol. Perhaps the intention is different from that of the more free paintings. Maybe it's similar to the way a jazz drummer is steeped in the rhythms that he will not be afraid to disrupt.
Donald's elder son Jonathan proposed the title 'a lost modernist' for a gathering of selected works by his father. This seems to me, a valuable way of looking at the huge legacy. I don't think I leaned as far in the modernist direction as my uncle but how could the period not be an influence on both generations? I was hit hard by Eliot's The Wasteland but it's The Four Quartets, I return to. I was so under the spell of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist... and Dubliners that I failed to venture further into Ulyssus. I often saw the thick paperback version by his armchair. But when I tried to open the conversation, looking for a way in, Donald would grunt that he was spending far too much bloody time reading instead of getting into the studio. He was still teaching then but probably spent more time in the studio than most full-time artists and would stop his car, on the way to and fro his work, to sketch. This was probably his socialist work ethic. I do remember though saying how I enjoyed wordplay in small doses, as poetry but the extended stuff like Finnegan's Wake was not my cup of tea and Donald saying he had it out of the library for the third time.
My own approach to his art is coloured by our shared fascination with the changing maritime culture of Scotland. In the early 1980s, not long after the family's return to Lewis, Donald showed several larger and more bold canvases in the annual 'Open' Grinneas nan Eilean exhibition. I sensed that here was an artist on the cusp of letting go to the more expressive part of his urge to draw and paint. That was not a new departure. Gannet Over Ness (1968) went even further in presenting a re-composition of buildings, jetty, road, sea, land and sky as bodies of colour, bleeding into each other. The central part is a gannet beak and eye but the whole painting could be a gannet's eye view. If there is a development, from there, it could be that the body of work produced, since returning to live and work on Lewis, seems more peopled.
I've seldom met anyone with such heartfelt respect for the earning of a living in difficult environments. The kindred spirit who comes to mind is Murchadh MacPhàrlain (Murdo MacFarlane), the internationalist Melbost Bard who was a great friend of Donald's father, Murchadh Iain Fionnlagh. The bard and the artist both spoke out and marched in public against the planned expansion of Stornoway airport into a Nato base, in the early 1980s. Both men saw the issue in a world-wide context and both also portrayed the intimacy of the village in their respective art. People with first hand memories of the effects of both World Wars walked with supporters of Sith, a youth peace group. Protesters had to counter the argument, 'But we need every job we can get.'
Visitors to the Outer Hebrides often ask, 'What do you live on?' Bare moor has only the narrowest strips of more fertile machair, in coastal strands. The shores of Bragar, Shawbost, Arnol, Barvas, Ballantrushal and Borve, on our west side, a main subject of Donald's later drawings and gouache works, must be amongst the most difficult for launch and recovery of a fishing craft. My mother told me that one strand of the family had been cleared from the more fertile Valtos peninsula to this more harsh territory to the north of Loch Roag. Their father Murchadh Iain, home from World War 1, unlike another family member lost on the Iolaire, had no claim to his own land, to build a permanent home.
Small wonder that everyone in this family seemed outspoken on matters of social justice. I'd guess that the tension between tradition and change was part of the driving force, across the various elements in the work of Donald Smith.
He celebrated the changes in the hull-colours used by Scottish fishing vessels. At first, standard black or flag-blue would be broken by a line of daffodil yellow, ending in an etched arrow. Then there would be reds, some more maroon, but others bold, with more orange in them, as if required for International Rescue. Nothing heritage about it. He celebrated purple when it dared to appear in in the Stornoway fleet. He reported on the shades now available on the Teamac or International colour charts.
The vast majority of his exhibited paintings were essentially scenes of work, crofting and fishing, then the two visible strands which supported existence in the Western Isles. Beaches are broken by piers and beached boats. Landscape is crossed by fences and telegraph poles. It seems that landscape or seascape with no visible human intervention or trace is rare. Maybe Donald Smith could be called a humanist though I doubt he'd have put up with a label of any kind. When he seemed to be letting go to his art, without too much thought of his likely audience, I would agree with Jonathan that this man was mainly a modernist. Maybe one with a leaning to show working people with the respect he always felt and maybe sometimes one with a fearsome boldness ready to emerge.↑