ILKA Wednesday, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, whaur ah’m currently ensconced as Scots Scriever, hus ah efternuin talk. These talks are wide an varied in their subjeck maitter but aye-an-oan they hae an oblique or direct connection tae Robert Burns. Lest week wis a bit different; an outin wis arranged fir the fowk tae gang oan a guided tour o Alexander Goudie’s Tam O’Shanter cycle o pentins at Rozelle House and the Maclaurin Art Galleryin Ayr.
Goudie (1933-2004) is faur kent as ane o Scotland’s foremaist portrait penters. He hus pentit figures as diverse as the Queen an Billy Connolly. Goudie wis brocht up in Paisley. His family hud a plumbin business, an his auld man wid evri year roll in frae Burns Suppers an regale the young Sandy wi the poems he’d heard that nicht. This must hae plantit an idea in Sandy’s heid!
Ower the decades this idea grew intil an obsession. Whan Goudie wisnae makkin stunnin likenesses o society’s great an guid, he’d be explorin the heichweys an byweys o Ayrshire tae get inspiration fir whit is aiblins ane o the greatest cycles o pentins in art. These past couple o months syne, the rerrly seen complete cycle o these pentins hae bin oan show tae the public fir free at Rozelle House. The exhibeetion wis opened bi Sandy Goudie’s son Lachlan, himsel a renowned artist an art commentator.
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These unique pentins wir aamaist loast tae the nation. Jist as they wir aboot tae be split up an sell’t, a group o patriotic Scots, the Fraser Foundation, the TB Hunter Charitable Trust, an the Souter Foundation, stepped in tae coff the full collection fir the nation. This wis wi an ettle tae hae the pentins oan permanent display.
A group o abune 20 o us gaithert in the main loabby o Rozelle House an listent eidently tae wir tour guide, the estimable Pamela McIntyre, as she explained the significance o these amazin pentins. The group then follaed Pamela roond as we walked in the chronological fuitsteps o Tam’s fateful journey.
Goudie brocht the full force, skill, virr an vigour o his maturity tae bear in these pentins. As Whistler said in reply tae Ruskin’s question in the famous coort case: “The labour of two days, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?”
Whistler replied: “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”
Whit we hae here at Rozelle is that knowledge o a lifetime!
The pentins are maistly michty big canvases, reminiscent o the Auld Maisters, the feck o thaim breengin wi colour an life: ae meenit portrayin the thrangness o a fairmer’s mercat day, else the twa luvers, crouned bi a rainbow, in the hairst field.
At ither times they becam aamaist monochrome, depictin the daurk wuids or the flash o a lichtnin bolt as Tam hies pelly-mell frae Allowa’s witches an Cutty Sark hersel! Ane o the maist strikin pentins is the muckle scene whaur Tam is doomed tae roast in hell “lik a kipper”!
As a boy, Lachlan Goudie helped his faither as they brunt the big wuiden batons that went tae mak the frame fir this pentin in their back gairden. The frame is still bleck an charred tae this verra day!
Appairently thair a few kenspeckle faces frae Scottish public life in this pentin o thaim wha hae bin damned tae the evirlestin flames – ane o thaim is Goudie hissel! He evidently hud bit o devilment in his ain sense o humour!
Forby oor Tam, the tither hero o these magneeficent warks is athoot dout the grey mare Meg, Tam’s constant an faithfu companion! It’s as tho Meg, wha is vyceless in the poem, throu the medium o airt ackwally speiks tae us. Ye can see the bond atween horse an maister – an ye feel fir Meg as ye see the absolute terror in her een: the desperation o her terrified flicht and an the physical pain aince as she recuivers frae her ordeal. Goudie’s portrayal o Meg is fir me up there wi ony o George Stubbs’ equine studies.
As oor group daundert throu Rozelle ilk ane o us wid stoap tae admire a pentin that claucht oor ain perteecular fancy, or aiblins some wee detail – the randie dugs outside the pub, the deid craw hingin frae a pole, Tam’s lang sufferin wife Kate, as she plucked a chicken an thrawed its neck! (nae dout wi the hapless Tam in her mind!).
Mair as 10,000 fowk hae passed throu the doors o Rozelle these past hauntle o weeks tae view this true wunner o the modren warld.
The exhibition hus nou rin its coorse, but 24 o the 54 pentins wull remain in situ, chuisen tae represent the tale in a slichtly pared doun format. We thocht that sic an important pairt o warld airt shuid hae a permanent display space in Alloway/Ayr, sae that this unique cycle o pentins cuid be seen in their entirety aa the time. Shairly thair is a suitable building or space in Ayr that cuid accommodate this?
Thair nae dout Tam O’Shanter is ane o the (if no the) greatest narrative poems in warld leeterature. Are there ither sic pentin cycles celebratin ither great warks o leeterature? Aiblins fir the Finnish Kalevala, or India’s Mahabharata? Rubens wis kent fir his releegious cycles an The Decius Mus Cycle. There is alsae Alphonse Mucha’s The Slav Epic. Sic muckle warks are rerr tho – an e’en mair rerrly realised bi artists theirsels.
“Life is but a day at most”, Burns wrote. Goudie packed mair intae his three score an 10 then the feck o us manage. He hus bequeathed a legacy unique tae Scotland that we shuid aa be prood o. Tak aff a dram tae Sandy the Limner!