Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Decorating the Central Belt 4: Dalreoch (Dumbarton) and Donaldson

Dalreoch Primary School stands above Dumbarton (now in West Dunbartonshire) at the top of the Castlehill area of the town. It is a sublime piece of school architecture by Ninian Johnston, and dates from 1953-55. Johnston's practice designed numerous schools in the Glasgow area in the 1950s. What really makes Dalreoch exceptional is its murals by David Donaldson (1916-96). And the murals, when one looks at the monograph on Donaldson by W. Gordon Smith (1996) and notes their absence, are what make Donaldson stand out. Here, perhaps more than in the other Central Belt Decorations so far viewed, are works that appear both personal and historical, plus universal, national and local. Here are works about nurturing youth and nature for the sake of the future. Here are works that are in two distinct media and which adorn internal and external walls.

The first Dalreoch mural is the painted depiction of Queen Mary of Scots departing for France from Dumbarton Castle (1957). At the time of its creation the Coatbridge-born Donaldson was a young lecturer in painting at the Glasgow School of Art. He was yet to be head of painting and drawing there (from 1967), a member of the Royal Scottish Academy (1962) or 'Her Majesty's Painter and Limner in Scotland (1977). He was, however married and a father to three young children, the youngest two of whom had been girls born to his second wife, Maria, in 1950 and 1956 respectively. I do not know the history of the commission of the mural but what can be said is that Donaldson's celebration of young girlhood, of 'Mary/Maria', together with the escape to France to seek an alternative life and way forward, rings bells with his biography. Who knows who modelled for the five little Marys in the centre of the picture?

The Queen Mary mural is very large and very flat. It runs through two storeys of the school foyer and can be viewed from both ground and first floor. It is well lit. It depicts the royal galley harboured in Dumbarton and the Scottish royal party about to embark. They are accompanied by female minstrels and knights in armour. Banners and furled sails cross the composition dividing and fragmenting its scenes vertically and diagonally.

The soft blue tones and play of bold, undetailed forms and play of spaces/viewpoints creates an assemblage of parts that is gentle to perceive yet actually quite complex. The combinations of historic architecture and costume, animal and bird life, performance and pageantry, a sense of communal/cultural tradition (circle dance and church) and the joining of earth, sea and sky - almost on top of one another - make this an ingenious, eyecatching and stimulating work of postwar modern art. It looks back and it looks forward, with balance and grace. Perhaps it is possible to identify characters and places. That's probably not for me. But surely here, around the central full frontal little Mary, are: her mother, Mary of Guise; her chosen girl companions, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone; Monsieur de Brézé, the emissary of the French king sent to take Mary safely to France; Mary's half-brothers James, John and Robert, and her guardians Lords Livingstone and Erskine (at least one of them). The action takes place in July 1548 when five year old Mary, already Queen of Scots, was spirited away to France to avoid marriage with Henry VIII's son and thereby Scottish union with Tudor England. It would be interesting to know what sources (historical portraits or other) Donaldson drew upon for his characters... and whether, given the national flavour of this work, he considered his subsequent appointment as painter to Queen Elizabeth II with any sense of irony. It would also be worth trying to see how his mural sits in relation to his other works (not very closely on first glance) and their mid-twentieth century art context. My colleague Tom Normand has indicated some similarities with, for example, Wyndham Lewis's medievalist yet contemporary 'Surrender to Barcelona' (1934-7), which had been in the Tate since 1947.

The second Dalreoch mural is ceramic. It covers an entire south-facing wall that, windowless, overlooks the old school playground with its largescale game of snakes and ladders. The subject here is the story of Noah's Ark, though the ark is rather diminutive and peripheral. This appears easier to relate to Donaldson's other work, being comparable to some of the Nativity scenes he had drawn in the mid-forties. Perhaps, as Tom N has also suggested, it could be related to John Maxwell's mid-century work. The mural is signed 'David A Donaldson, For Ninian Johnston, Fired by James Crawford, 1957'. Again avoiding conformative scale, proportion and perspective here the composition is focused on the old bearded Noah who is surrounded by animals and flowers. The flood appears tranquil.

There is a childlike simplicity in the frontal and profiled figures of horse, lion, alligator, sheep, camel, cow, hen, monkeys, giraffes, goat and birds, as well as the wispishness of the lines and the sense of 'unfinish' in the white ground. There is also a small, playful, full frontal mermaid with arms and tail raised in the water to the far right. The variety of flora and fauna could be taken as a natural history lesson, while the Biblical subject occurs in numerous religious traditions, is open to a wide variety of interpretations with regard its meanings, and has been the subject for artistic recreation for centuries. Rarely, however, has been so monumentally produced, especially in modern times. It is somehow nice that the alligator's head enters a 'graffiti' goal. Just as at Wardie School, Edinburgh (see post of 16 September) where Alice in Wonderland is joined to a basketball hoop, the mural both watches over and joins in children's games...

It is remarkable that the Dalreoch murals have survived and are in such reasonable condition. Conservation is clearly an issue, with signs of deterioration becoming visible. They are testament to the vigour, creativity, optimism and investment in postwar education that was sadly not to last. Our appreciation of them has been made possible courtesy of headteacher Sat Bance. Many thanks to him.

In this whirlwind tour of the 'Decoration of the Central Belt' (Posts 1-4) an attempt has been made to select a variety of schools from different periods featuring different forms of art and created for children of different ages and abilities. Much can be learned, and by many (not just the children for whom they were made) from these attempts, whether modest or masterpieces.... To be continued...

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