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Duncan & Una Shanks | Studio Insights

19 September 2023

Opening in October 2023, Painters in Parallel is the first time Duncan and Una Shanks have exhibited together. The couple met at Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1950s and married in 1966. They moved to Davingill House at Crossford in the Clyde Valley in 1967 and have remained there ever since.  The countryside of the Clyde Valley, and the colourful riverside garden of Davingill House, is the inspiration behind each of these artists’ visions. While both share the subject matter of their immediate surroundings, their approaches and techniques vary considerably. Visit Crossford in our illustrated blog below.

A double portrait of Una and Duncan Shanks with their dog Stubbs, Crossford, c.1970 by Duncan Shanks

‘Following Duncan and Una’s move to Davingill House in 1967, its garden became a central part of their lives and a source of inspiration for both. They embraced with enthusiasm the challenge of turning the broken-down orchard into a domestic garden. The ancient plum, apple and pear trees, whose twisted, skeletal branches inspired so many drawings and series of paintings, have remained at its heart, and are deeply missed when they die and must be cut down. Paths have been laid which run around its contours and create a number of smaller spaces, each with its own features, be it a seat, a pond, or a cluster of pots. at its centre sits the greenhouse and patio area which overlook the Clyde. There are no formal vistas or contrived colour schemes, and plants seem to grow with abandon in just the right place, reflecting the couple’s view of nature: busy, full of life yet intimately connected to death and decay, and always alive with the possibility of change. The importance of the garden is reflected in the number of works it has inspired. Flowers are the principal raw material of development in Una Shanks’s complex watercolours.’ – Dr Anne Dulau, Curator, Hunterian Art Gallery

Una and Duncan Shanks with their dog Guthrie, Crossford, 2023

I have chosen, over the years, to work from the familiar landscape of the river and valley around my home. Knowing a landscape and its geography intimately through walking and drawing has let me concentrate immediately on that special moment which is different from anything I have seen before. - Duncan Shanks

The garden at Crossford, 2020

Like the garden, which needs both planning and experimentation, order and chance, my painting methods have developed using both direct, factual drawing from nature and automatism of abstract improvisation. - Duncan Shanks

Duncan’s practice is informed by his deep personal connection to the natural world and his knowledge and appreciation of poetry and music. His work will begin in nature; be that on a hill track or in the garden, his sketchbook recording observations and visual notes to be used and reimagined once back at the easel. He is driven by an overwhelming need to make permanent the moments and happenings he has witnessed in nature. Previous exhibitions of Duncan’s work have focused on the drama of the landscape and the balance between structure and chaos. His exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery in 1988 featured the Falls of Clyde as a primary subject. Those works captured water cascading down the high craggy rock face, crashing like a wall of pure energy against the surface of the painting. The deep wooded glen above Crossford and moving storms on Tinto Hill have also been a rich source of inspiration, in works that crackle with lightning and billowing clouds. The paintings in this exhibition have been carefully selected by The Gallery, and feature many of Duncan’s celebrated subjects from over the course of his career.

Like Duncan, Una’s work has evolved and grown over time, mimicking the life of the garden – cultivated, yet left to grow free and wild. Una picks flowers outside her front door, brings them into the studio, and sets to work directly onto the paper, without preparatory sketches. She captures their form in beautiful, intricate detail, before allowing her imagination to take over. The empty spaces and voids between flowers and stems fill up with decorative motifs and symbols which, over many years, have developed into wild, densely patterned compositions that are rich in colour. Her working method is meticulous and time-consuming. Una is reticent to share any artistic inspirations, however similarities can be drawn with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald, whose work celebrated pattern and design in the natural world. Having sold almost every painting she has ever exhibited, Una’s work is highly sought after. In recent years she has chosen to withdraw from exhibiting, so for many her work in Painters in Parallel will be a revelation.

To complement Duncan Shanks’ 2022 Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition The Riverbank – A Landscape of Sorrow and Hope, The Scottish Gallery released two new films produced by the Edinburgh Film Company. In the first film, captured at his home and garden in the Clyde Valley, Duncan Shanks offers personal insights into his artistic practice with an audience for the first time.

Painters in Parallel is the first time both Una and Duncan Shanks have exhibited together. We are deeply grateful to both artists for allowing us access to their studios and for the chance to tell the story of a shared artistic journey that has – up to this point – been left untold.

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