Showing posts with label Tam O' Shanter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tam O' Shanter. Show all posts

My Other Half's Art 4: More Painting

One of the good things about having a husband who is an artist, is that you can sometimes use the images he paints as book covers. Village in Winter made a lovely cover picture for my novel Ice Dancing, which was as much about the joys and peculiarities of village life, as it was about the very grown up love story of the two main characters. 

Village in Winter

Village Gala Day

I think some of Alan's most engaging images are those that involve 'busy' scenes with lots of figures, pictures that tell a story without being just an illustration of something static. They're full of life, colour and movement and I love them. Certainly these are the ones that almost always find a buyer. Lots of people seem to like Outsider Art except the galleries who turn their exclusive noses up at it. 

I think my favourite of all, though, is the one called Ae Spring, in which Tam o' Shanter, is only just managing to escape from the clutches of Cutty Sark, showing her bum in her short shift, with Meg the Mare as well as Tam himself, looking around in horror. And the eyes under the bridge.And the small devil sitting in the tree. It's a wonderful picture and although the original has long been sold, we still have prints. 

Ae Spring


 Do have a look at our Etsy Store, the 200 Year Old House, and at Alan's website

Meanwhile, remember this post from September?  Artwork Free to a Good Home? Well, time is marching on. It takes up so much space. And he means it. If somebody doesn't come along and take it away very soon, he really will chop it up and put it in the chimenea. But if you do want it, you're going to have to come and pick it up. Preferably for a church or some other religious foundation. 

Ellisland: the long road to a new novel.

Ellisland Farm
Last week, we headed south to Ellisland, near Dumfries, the farm where Robert Burns and Jean Armour spent some three years of their early married life and where he composed - among other memorable poems - Tam O' Shanter. 

The last time I visited this place, I was very young. Even then, I was so 'into' Burns, a fascination that has never really left me, that I was always persuading my mum and dad to drive about the countryside, visiting places with connections to the poet. It helped that we lived within walking distance of Burns Cottage in Alloway and I would wend my way there on fine spring and summer Saturdays, always hoping to see a ghost or two. Rab remained obdurately unwilling to manifest himself, even for such a fan as me. 

Later, much later, I wrote a couple of plays about Burns: one for BBC R4 about the writing of Tam o' Shanter, notable mainly for a stunning performance of the poem from Liam Brennan as Burns, with Gerda Stevenson as Jean and an early appearance by Billy Boyd (of later hobbit fame) who was an absolute joy to work with and made everyone laugh. 

Later, I wrote a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, about the last few weeks of the poet's life down on the Solway coast. But in both of these plays, Jean Armour, the poet's long-suffering wife, figured largely, her voice more or less demanding to be heard. (Much as William's voice would not be denied in The Physic Garden!) 

Ever since then, I've wanted to write a novel about Jean. Not a piece of non-fiction, although like all my historical fiction it'll be well researched. But I've had this longing to crawl inside Jean's head and try to write her story. You've only to read a few accounts of the poet's life to see how easy it seems to have been for academics to dismiss Jean as 'not quite worthy of the bard.' Creative Scotland, it seems, agrees with me, because they have just awarded me a very welcome sum of money to research the novel and here I am, at the start of a longish road to a new book. 

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean

Anyway, I loved Ellisland. And I loved it not least because it hasn't been overly interpreted. It remains one of those atmospheric places where nobody has got their hands on the displays, nobody has introduced sound and light effects with a hundred buttons for kids to press, and nobody has tried to tell you what you ought to think and feel. 

I don't know how long the Trust in charge of Ellisland will resist the temptation to revamp it, so I'm very glad I saw it as it is. It was a very fine day, there were house martins flying and calling about the old buildings and the walk along the Nith, where Rab is said to have composed Tam, was a green, shady pathway, fringed with wild flowers, dappled with sunshine. The curator, who lives in the cottage, was knowledgeable and helpful, and the exhibits - oh the exhibits were to treasure: Burns's sword, Jean Armour's much mended 'mutch' and the poet's wooden box, hewn from a single log, with his initials on the top. 

This is how these small museums used to be and sometimes I find myself wondering what it is about them that I enjoy so much and what it is about the new museums that - splendid and well thought out as they are - so irritates me sometimes. I can only conclude that where there is too much explanation and interpretation, there is no room at all for imagination. You are always being told what to feel and what to think. 

One of the tricks to writing historical fiction is to do just enough research. But then, you give yourself permission to make things up. And only then do you find out what you don't know, what you actually need to know. So you go back and find some answers. But if you do too much research to begin with, if you dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's there's a good chance that you won't want to make anything up at all. 

Ellisland is open to the public and it's magic. If you're a Burns enthusiast, go and see it while it's still in it's wonderfully welcoming state. If you're not a Burns enthusiast, you may well have changed your mind by the time you come away! 

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns

Ever since we moved to Ayrshire, when I was twelve, I have been a fan of our local poet, Robert Burns. When I was in my teens, we lived within easy walking distance of Burns' Cottage at Alloway, and I used to take myself off there on a Saturday morning. It was a nice atmospheric place then - hardly interpreted at all - and you could easily imagine yourself back in time. Or I could, anyway. I would lurk there for hours, conjuring ghosts which - sad to say - never appeared. But later, when I found that I wanted to write about Burns and his wife and his milieu, perhaps all that early daydreaming helped me.

The image above is - of course - the romantic portrait painted by Alexander Nasmyth. But this week, STV and David Heyman unveiled a more believable reconstruction of what the poet may have looked like. You can watch it  here - well worth a look. Scientists in Dundee had taken the existing cast of the poet's skull and - using up to date and fascinating methods - built up a more believable image. Well, I think it's more believable anyway. The picture has met with a mixed response. In fact the response has been rather like the response to a portrait, with people claiming to like it, not like it, or generally disputing whether it is in fact 'like him.' But nobody has seen him. Not in the flesh. Not even me, loitering in Burns Cottage, hoping for ghosts, all those years ago. Idealized 'poetic' portraits, like the one above - nice as it is - can't have told the whole story.

There's a silhouette which seems to have a rather heavier jaw than the neat little chin in the Naismith portrait. There's an old photo postcard of Jean Armour Burns Brown, the great grand-daughter of the poet, (above) who was said to resemble him. I have a copy of this in my own collection, and the eyes are very striking indeed. Contemporary descriptions often refer to his eyes as a noteworthy feature but these descriptions also stress that he was a countryman, the very image of a country farmer, albeit one who was singularly attractive to women. But we all know - don't we? - men who are deeply attractive but far from conventionally handsome. Often it's a question of energy, the ability to make you laugh, the ability to focus on you to the exclusion of all else, a talent for flirtation in a non threatening way.

And then comes the most recent image. At the point where it was unveiled, you can tell that - for some of those seeing it for the first time - the image was unexpected. It is one of those delightful 'sharp intake of breath' moments. And  even these reconstructions using sophisticated technology, are not the last word. But we've no reason to think that this might not be the closest we can come to seeing the real, true face of the poet. I'd love to know if Heyman interviewed the wonderful Ayrshire farmer and Burns devotee before or after the unveiling of the image, because the resemblance was pretty striking. Watch the programme and judge for yourself.

Looking at this image, people have remarked that the eyes are too close set (I don't know how much the structure of the skull would dictate this - but one assumes it would!) that the chin is too heavy (but then there's the silhouette to consider) and that it looks like a waxwork. To me, it also looks pretty much exactly like one of any number of the Ayrshire farmers who are my neighbours, here in this village some ten miles down the road from Alloway. There is an Ayrshire 'type' if it's permissible to say this: strong, stocky, very, very dark, thoughtful, energetic, intelligent, handsome rather than fine featured. You can spot them everywhere in Carrick. Although we know that Burns's father came from Kincardineshire, his mother, Agnes Broun, was a local woman. I've often wondered if Agnes conformed to that type as well - because if Rab loved his Jean (and I'm pretty sure he did!) she too was very dark, handsome rather than pretty, a fairly typical Ayrshire lass.

I've maintained a constant low key obsession with Burns and the women in his life for years. You can tell, can't you? Some time ago, I wrote a radio play about the writing of Tam O' Shanter - it was produced with the brilliant Liam Brennan as Burns and the equally wonderful Gerda Stevenson as Jean. For once, we got the right accent for Rab - Liam comes from Kilmarnock. You might be able to download it free, here although this seems to be a pirated version. But nobody else is doing anything with it, so if you want to listen, you might as well give it a try. Later this year, I will probably publish the script as an eBook to Kindle. I have about 100 plus hours of radio drama sitting about in script form, and some of the original plays, like this one, are worth publishing.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Robert and Jean
Meanwhile, I also wrote a short stage play called Burns on the Solway, for Glasgow's Oran Mor, A Play, A Pie and a Pint. It was directed by Michael Emans with Donald Pirie as an astonishingly believable - and ultimately heartbreaking - Burns, Clare Waugh as an equally heartbreaking and beautifully played Jean and Celine Donoghue providing music to die for: one of the most rewarding productions I have ever worked on. I loved what they did with it. You can download and read it on Kindle here in the UK and here in the USA. But meanwhile, you might like to read a review of it on today's Indie eBook Review, by my fellow playwright, Cally Phillips.

Robert Burns has become something of a constant in this family. My artist husband Alan Lees made a life size carving of Tam O' Shanter and his grey mare Meg. And then, when arthritis put paid to the carving, he painted a whole series of images of Tam, including this one above. (I particularly like the eyes under the bridge.) My new historical novel, The Physic Garden, due for publication in February, isn't about Burns, but it is set in Glasgow only a few years after his death, and the poet certainly gets a mention  I'm gearing up to tackling a much longer piece of fiction about the poet. But perhaps not this year!

Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about me, you could do worse than have a look at the interview I did recently for Tara Moore's lovely blog. It was a great pleasure to answer such an interesting set of questions.