Exhibition | Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on January 5, 2022

Alison Watt, Centifolia, detail, 2019, oil on canvas, 76 × 62cm
(Collection of the Artist, © Alison Watt)

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Closing this month at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery:

Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 17 July 2021 — 9 January 2022

Curated by Julie Lawson

Alison Watt (born 1965) is widely regarded as one of the leading painters working in the UK today. This significant body of new work consists of sixteen paintings made in response to the practice of the celebrated eighteenth-century portrait artist Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) and are on show for the first time.

Left: Allan Ramsay, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, 1758–60, 74 × 62 cm (National Galleries of Scotland). Right: Allan Ramsay, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Anne Bayne, ca.1739, 68 × 55 cm (National Galleries of Scotland).

Alison Watt | A Portrait Without Likeness explores the artist’s continuing fascination with Ramsay’s portraits. Watt, most known for her beautiful and intricate large-scale paintings of drapery and folds, has long been an admirer of Ramsay’s portraits of women, in particular the intensely personal images of his first and second wives, Anne Bayne (died 1743) and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick (1726–1782). Both portraits reside in the Gallery’s collection and will be shown alongside Watt’s new work.

The exhibition is the fruit of a long period of study of Ramsay paintings, in addition to the drawings and sketchbooks from his extensive archive held by National Galleries of Scotland. Watt has said, “Looking into an artist’s archive is to view the struggle that takes place to make a work of art. A painting is a visual record of the inside of the artist’s mind. A painting is something that takes place over time; it is not static. To look at a work of art is to engage with an idea, and that is not a one sided activity. It’s more of a conversation.”

Alison Watt, Fortrose, 2019, oil on canvas, 61 × 46 cm (Collection of the Artist © Alison Watt).

A Portrait Without Likeness is accompanied by a publication featuring conversations between the artist and Julie Lawson, the Chief Curator of European, Scottish Art, and Portraiture at National Galleries of Scotland, who has curated the exhibition, as well as an essay from art historian Dr Tom Normand and a new work of short fiction by Booker Prize-nominated novelist Andrew O’Hagan.

Normand writes: “The fascination with flowers is uncommon within Watt’s oeuvre, but she has recently been engaged with the works of Allan Ramsay held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Most particularly she has reflected upon his painting The Artist’s Wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, painted between 1758 and 1760. This is an exquisite and mysterious portrait. At one level a tender study of his second wife, some thirteen years younger than the artist, at another a poignant essay on the enigma of human passion.”

Alison Watt, Julie Lawson, Tom Normand, and Andrew O’Hagan, Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2021), 96 pages, ISBN: 978-1911054450, £20.


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