David McClure | Part One | The Three Kings Mystery26 Jan 2022
The Search for a “Lost” Painting
by Robin McClure
In October 2021, whilst researching for A Sicilian Story, I was surprised to receive, so coincidentally, an e-mail from the University of Edinburgh asking permission to reproduce an image of a 1966 Christmas card from their own collection.
The card features an illustration by my father alongside the poem The Three Kings by the great Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown. The image and poem were featured in the University’s online exhibition A Dream of Snow celebrating the poet’s centenary.
The reverse of the card makes it clear it was printed at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where my father taught, but with the colour separations carried out by apprentices at the postcard firm Valentine’s. Other than all this there we have no documentary evidence as to how this collaboration came about or who put it together. The poem itself seems only known from the card and, as undated, from the posthumously published The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (2005).
I’ve no knowledge of my father knowing George Mackay Brown personally although there is a six month period in 1957 when they were both in Edinburgh while the poet was studying English Literature as a mature student and before the artist moved to take up his post at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. It was during this period the Brown would have begun socialising (particularly in some of the pubs in Rose Street) with many of the Scottish poets of the day including Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman McCaig and Hugh MacDairmid. The artist certainly knew Goodsir Smith and two years earlier had provided an illustration used on the cover and inside a publication of his Orpheus and Eurydice.
The image on the Christmas card has strong thematic links with other works of the same period. In the early 1960s McClure produced a series of rather enigmatic works which featured Kings, Infanta/Madonna figures, Bishops and Religious Icons, some of which feature in this exhibition.
Later these religious themed works take on a different, more visceral character with bleeding stigmatised priests or bishops juxtaposed with Mafia figures and their victims. All were prominently exhibited in major Society or solo exhibitions in the first half of the 1960s. Two of them are in the February 2022 show, one, like The Three Kings using an altarpiece/ panel format. My theory about the change in mood and content is that the artist’s experiences of having worked in Sicily for six months in 1956/7 were later stimulated by the widespread media coverage of what has become known as the First Mafia War, a bloody inter-factional conflict that began in late 1962 that soon spilled over, causing many 'civilian', military and police casualties.
This linking of religious imagery and iconography to contemporary war and bloodshed is exactly what we find in the poem. There, it is the story of The Magi and wars in Vietnam, Rhodesia and Kashmir. The placing of Biblical narratives in contemporary and indeed often Orcadian settings was a thread running through much of Brown’s work.
Through further research it seems that a painting of the same title was exhibited at the Scottish Society of Artists’ Annual Exhibition in 1967. Two other works were shown, one large still life which sold to a private Scottish collector, another oil which was unsold but was soon bought by Stirling University. My father was the President of the SSA at the time of the exhibition and reviewed favorably by Nicholas Fairbarn of Radio 4’s Scottish Home Service:
The President, David McClure gives us a glowing dramatic tableau in his 'Three Kings' which together with his exciting 'Picture on a Yellow Ground' and his humming 'Red Studio' make a noble President’s lead.“Nicholas Fairbarn, BBC correspondent, 1967
The Three Kings oil remained unsold at the end of the exhibition and what became of it is not known. It is not recorded as having been exhibited subsequently nor sold privately. Neither do we have an image of it in the McClure Archives. I’d love to find this fascinating work or at the very least an image or any further information about the interesting collaboration out of which came the Christmas card.
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, December 2021
You can view David McClure's A Sicilian Story here.