David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?

02 Feb 2022
David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
Contemporary postcard showing main square of Casteldaccia with the old town house tower on the left.
David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
Detail of the postcard below showing Joyce (with headscarf) and baby Robin outside their local café.

The year that David and Joyce McClure spent in Florence and Sicily during 1956/7 was an exciting period in their personal lives, and a highly productive and formative one for the artist.
And for me personally, although I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I actually remember anything of it. My early years were filled with a great many intriguing stories and we have many photographs from their time there, the places and things they saw, the interesting people they met and the friendships they made.

David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
Postcard view towards the Mediterranean taken from the old tower during the time the McClures were living in it.

How did they end up in Sicily?

Well, in 1955 my father was awarded an Andrew Grant Fellowship from Edinburgh College of Art, following his graduation and a two-year period of part-time teaching there. The Fellowship was for...

…£500 per annum, for two years, to enable a former student of the College of exceptional talent who might otherwise be prevented from fully exploiting their talent during the early stages of his (sic!) professional career to undertake a special study under the supervision of the College Authorities, in Studio or Workshop, and to travel extensively abroad.

The 'Proposed Study' section of his application form reads….
a. Figure composition; and to develop techniques for painting on a large scale
b. Landscape painting, particularly 'pure' landscape, i.e. involving no human habitation or architectural features
c. To revisit Italy for further study.

I think it’s fair to say that ample evidence of a) and c) is found in this exhibition, and indeed his work in general. Examples of 'pure landscape' in his oeuvre over the years are, however, very rare.

The winter of 1955/6 saw the artist’s family leave Edinburgh to work in Millport, on the picturesque Isle of Cumbrae on the Clyde, producing landscape and townscape gouaches and charcoals and wonderful pen and ink still life drawings.

David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
The artist in his studio in Casteldaccia. Top right is his Bamboo Fence, Sicily, included in the current exhibition

Then, in May 1956, the McClure family took the bold step of moving to Florence where they spent an exhilarating six months, enthusiastically embracing the everyday life and culture of the city, with the artist studying in its churches and galleries. His finest work from that period lyrically combines elements of Florence’s magnificent architecture with images of the surrounding countryside.

In October 1956, friends from Scotland visited them in Florence en route to Sicily. Regular visitors to the island, they persuaded my parents to follow as they had a contact who would provide accommodation. As a result, the next month found us in the town of Casteldaccia, near Palermo in the north of Sicily. Our lodging on the main square was the old town house tower of the Duca di Salaparuta. We occupied the top floors, while the ground level and cellars were still used as wine stores for the Corvo wine which the Duke’s family had been producing since 1826.

David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
Wine label from the family photograph album showing the tower.

If Florence had been a culture change, Sicily proved even more so. My mother wrote of arriving in the dark and being woken early the first morning by the sound of goat bells in the square below.

And here it’s only fair to say that my knowledge of their time in Sicily (and Florence) is hugely bolstered by my paternal Grandmother assiduously filing and keeping all the postcards and letters that my parents sent home. Even omitting the lengthy updates on the bambino, they contain fascinating insights into their lives there. As do some pages I have of information-rich, but often infuriatingly distilled, jotted notes written years later by my mother, which sadly she had only started to flesh out before she died.

I really can’t do justice here to the wealth of new and exciting experiences these reveal about their lives there, but it comes across as still being a strongly feudal, male-dominated society, with many ‘peasant’ farmers and fishermen for whom The Church was obviously a very powerful influence on their lives. And of course there was that other power, rarely talked of but always tacitly acknowledged in some indefinable way, the Mafia. My mother’s notes mention one visit of capo di mafia in cafe - sinister and sadly I have failed to unearth a wonderful photograph of me being held outside the cafe by him, immaculately dressed as he was in regulation homburg hat, long dark coat and sunglasses.

David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
David, Robin and Joyce on the tower’s battlement
David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?

In January 1957 the artist held a one-person exhibition organised by the Circolo di Cultura in Palermo. The show consisted of works from Florence and Sicily, and several sales were made.

David McClure | Part Two | Why Sicily?
Invite card to the David McClure exhibition by Circolo di Cultura.

In April 1957 the family returned to Scotland. This was an adventure in itself, spending 18 days on the cargo steamship ‘Alpera’, leaving Palermo and dropping off/picking up various cargoes at ports including Bône (now Annaba) in Algeria (no going ashore as there was an on-going independence struggle and curfew), Cartagena in Spain, Dublin, Belfast and finally Glasgow.

Later that year the family moved to Dundee when my father took up a teaching post at the Art College. In November he held his first exhibition with The Scottish Gallery featuring work from Millport, Florence and Sicily.

Please feel free to contact the Gallery if you have any information and they will pass it on or put us in touch.

Robin McClure

You can view David McClure's A Sicilian Story here.

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