Poignant overview of prolific artist’s work

I KNEW very little of Adam Robson before I visited the current retrospective exhibition of his
work at Da Gadderie in Shetland Museum. Robson, who died last year, was a teacher, a rugby player of international distinction and also a prolific and skilful artist. He had close links with the island of Yell, his mother’s birthplace and latterly a place where he owned a house. For many this will be a personal and rather poignant exhibition full of memories of the man and his work.

What this show does is to place Adam Robson’s work chronologically from a variety of loaned sources alongside unseen work. In a way most of the work is unseen as it adorns the walls of many Shetland homes. It is only through an exhibition of this scale that the public ever gets a chance of seeing an overview of such work.

From the outset Robson was not, like many artists, a full-time professional. After leaving Edinburgh College of Art in 1952 he taught in Kirkcaldy and later in Dollar and was a professional member of the Society of Scottish Artists. The earliest painting here dates from 1949 with a view of Yell in watercolour. Entitled “Cullivoe”, it is a classic watercolour, by the book. Overlaid washes occasionally muddy but always full of detail. At the very start of his career we see a concern for capturing the effects of light. That dark bulk of the backbone of Unst is tempered by the light cliffs in the middle distance creating a real sense of depth.

In drawings and paintings from 10 years later we see boats and boat shapes appearing as they would continue to do throughout his life. I very much liked the rapid ink drawing of fishing boats in harbour contrasted with a neat pencil drawing of the “Earl of Zetland”. A similar composition is worked up in watercolour (“The bows of the Reliance” ). Against the steeply raked horizon a figure dominates the skyline making this a particularly strong image.

Paintings of Yell feature heavily as you would expect. A watercolour of Midfield specifies “an evening light” and that’s definitely what you get. These atmospheric light effects in both watercolour and oils are, I feel, some of his strongest works, however small they may be.

“The beginning of Ultima Thule” from 1970 features an amazing black sky throwing Sumburgh Head into sharp focus; there’s nothing gentle or soft here. It’s saying you are now in an elemental place, be warned. “The postboat in the sound’ has a tiny boat lost in unrelenting swell with little to cheer.

One of my favourites is a winter scene at Scalloway with its flat brown sky hinting at more snow to come. There’s a delicate tonal interplay between the different earth colours, the grey sea and the hint of pink in the houses to the left contrasting with the angular blue roof. It’s perfectly evocative of cold wintry afternoons in any northern seaport.

Boats clearly held a fascination for Robson and time and again you see the challenge of their shapes repeated in many variations. Best of them in my opinion is the “Blue Boat” from 1978 with the textural comparison between natural rock and those foreground concrete steps. In a similar vein “Pale sunlight after rain” from a year later depicts two rowing boats on a wet shore with rising hills behind. Here the oil is laid thinly, the white board emerging through the paint layers.

Rarely does the palette lighten in the oil paintings. “House on Out Skerries” is one exception. This is a spontaneous colourful sketch in bright sunlight, the crofthouse with its washing line. A dash of white in one corner suggests sea.

From 1988 and 1989 we have a number of small landscapes from different Shetland locations. “Evening sun, dark sky” is a wonderfully evocative rendering of a particular time of day with strong shapes and subtle colouring. Its neighbouring “A windless morning” is a perfect contrast, creating an image where we peer into the sun. Never has a washing line and its contents made so vivid an impression.

The curve of a peat bank in one painting demonstrates how lines and shapes in the landscape appealed to the design element in Robson’s work. Of the lesser well known work I very much enjoyed a group of scraperboards with their tight monochromatic hatching and cross-hatching. These illustrations displayed the qualities which this under-rated medium is perfect for and they become a compendium of available effects.

His later oils of seascapes and cliffs work well in the grand tradition of Scottish painting in work by artists such as Stanley Cursiter.

Thanks must go to the Shetland Museum for staging this large show. Thanks also to the many people who loaned work to make it possible. There are dozens of pieces here that demand time and concentration and amongst them some real treasures. I still know very little about the man but through this show I know a lot more about his work and, particularly, his Shetland.

Peter Davis


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