"Crinan Canal" by Richard Demarco
(Permanent Exhibiton from 2nd August 2019 - The Egg Shed, Ardrishaig)
For the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, the Demarco European Art Foundation presented an exhibition entitled 'Canalscapes of Scotland'. I regarded the 2004 Edinburgh Festival as marking the first stage in a long-term plan to bring the spirit of the Venice Biennale to Edinburgh.
Of course, as soon as you mention Venice, you think of canalscapes because Venice is a city built on water, unique in the world and an inspiration to artists over many centuries. Obviously, if Edinburgh is to be identified with Venice and its famous Art Biennale, it should consider the fact that, like Venice, its cityscape is enhanced by the physical presence of canals. Sadly, Edinburgh's canalscape suffered from neglect over many decades in the twentieth century but a successful £60 million-pound Millennium Lottery bid led to the restoration of the canal system throughout Scotland.
My favourite canal in Scotland has to be Scotland's smallest, the one which provides a short cut between the Waters of the Clyde and those of the Hebridean slands. I have long regarded it as a perfect example of nineteenth century Scottish engineering. It is located in my favourite part of Scotland, the Celtic world of Dalriada where the kings of both Scotland and Ireland were crowned. The sea-girt world of Dalriada has provided me with inspiration since the days of my childhood during the Second World War when I was fortunate enough to be evacuated to Largs where I discovered the magical world of islands and coastlines blessed with sunsets of a Western world.
My subject matter as a watercolourist and printmaker is much inspired by the world of sailors and those concerned with the gear and tackle of farmers and fishermen as well as those associated with the world of harbours and canals. Canalscapes were inspiring to Constable, Van Gogh and Canaletto, and to innumerable artists through the history of art and to Leonardo da Vinci who, in his notebook drawings, focused on the engineering which made canals work so that they could divert and control the energy flow in rivers. Certainly, it is impossible to consider the significance of Dutch painting in its Golden Age without taking into account Dutch canalscapes, and, for that matter, it is impossible to imagine the glories of the Renaissance expressed by the School of Venice without the all-pervading influence of canals. Scotland is well endowed with canalscapes, thanks to the genius of its Victorian canal builders, who were undaunted by the mountainous landscape which challenged them in the building of the Caledonian Canal and the lie of the land between Ardrishaig and Crinan and between Edinburgh and Glasgow. In their heyday, these canals were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution which made Glasgow the second city of the British Empire. I have been inspired by canals throughout my career as an artist and I was delighted that I was given the opportunity in 2002 to exhibit my watercolours and drawings of all four Scottish canals in the temporary gallery beside the Falkirk Wheel canal basin when the Falkirk Wheel became one of the most successful tourist attractions in Scotland. That exhibition inevitably led to the idea that Scotland's artists should be given the opportunity to respond to the challenges offered to them by Scotland's revitalised canal system. This led to an historic exhibition entitled 'Canalscapes of Scotland' during the 2004 Edinburgh Festival involving the contribution of many living Scottish artists including Dame Elizabeth Blackadder and her husband John Houston, as well as Arthur Watson, past President of the Royal Scottish Academy, Bill Scott, late President of the Royal Scottish Academy, Patricia Leighton, Margot Sandeman, Maggie Williams, Ainslie Yule, Archie Sutter Watt, Merilyn Smith, Rose Strang, Valerie Sadler, Cordelia Oliver, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Lawrie and Meg Harris and George Wyllie, past President of the Society of Scottish Artists.
Crinan and its canal was a nodal point on the circumnavigation of the British Isles I felt obliged to make a reality on board the replica of Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle in 1980. This circumnavigation linked the Edinburgh Festival with Scotland's West Coast and enabled world-renowned artists to take inspiration from this most beautiful world where land and sea are intertwined under the midsummer light, where sunset and sunrise are conjoined, and time is no longer linear. This is the world known to Celtic poets and bards as 'Tir Na nOg'. It is also the world of Para Handy and his 'Puffer' boat, the source of inspiration for Neil Munro. The 'Puffer' and the Crinan Canal was gloriously defined in the 1954 Ealing Comedy 'The Maggie' directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It should be noted that George Wylie was inspired to make many drawings, paintings and sculptures on the theme of the 'Puffer', acknowledging the role of these little boats as water-lorries sustaining the life of Hebridean island communities. George Wylie, through his art, celebrated the romance of the 'Puffer's hardy trade. Like George Wylie, I found inspiration, not only in the shape of the 'Puffer', but in the shape of the canal lock-gates. For me, a canal lock-gate is a kinetic wooden sculpture inseparable from the shape of the lock-keeper's cottage and the metal machinery controlling the level of the canal water.