Whisky & Culture

Contemporary whisky art

Ian Buxton explores the whisky industy's shift from patron to sponsor of visual art.
By Ian Buxton
Fancying himself an artist, whisky baron Tommy Dewar once painted a cow in a meadow and asked a friend for his opinion. ‘The ship seems alright,’ he was told, ‘but I think you have made the sea too green.’This little story is, perhaps, a metaphor for whisky’s place in art history. Despite its status as Scotland’s national drink and distilling’s undoubted impact on the Scottish landscape, the industry and its product have made little impact until recently on the artistic consciousness.From the nineteenth century we have Sir David Wilkie’s ‘The Scottish Whisky Still’ and Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘The Illicit Still’, now in the Wellington Museum in Apsley House in London. However, these are genre works depicting Scottish life rather than showing any specific interest in distilling. The Landseer is the more striking piece with the carefully structured group of the bootlegger and his family, surrounded by his dogs and casually sitting on a dead stag, echoing the still and mash tun. Landseer packs this picture with dramatic tension setting the whole in a wonderfully lit and romantic glen. Understandably, since it encapsulates a number of comfortable clichés about whisky and the Highlands, reproductions of this picture can be seen in several books on whisky and in a number of visitor centres. However, the work itself transcends the familiar and is well worth seeing in the original.In the early part of this century whisky’s relationship with art was dominated by marketing departments. The leading commercial artists were engaged by Black & White, Dewar’s, Walkers, Haigs and others to produce a series of images celebrating either Scottish tradition (with lavish tartan trappings) or the lifestyles of the rich and famous (with lavish servings of the product, naturally). A stereotype was quickly established that some would claim Scotch marketing has never totally shaken off, glens, castles, lochs, Harry Lauder and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The tartan-clad clichés rolled out of the studios in a glorious Brigadoon-style stream.If this was art in the service of commerce there are, thankfully, some signs of change in the air. With whisky’s global market demanding greater sophistication in promotional techniques, so a new subtlety has entered the distiller’s marketing armoury. The relationship with the artist has moved from patron to sponsor, with a consequential element of apparent altruism appearing on the scene. As well as the distillers, other clients such as off-licence chains and even museums have begun to commission more challenging work. Connoisseurs of fine whisky and art now live in interesting times!While looking for an unusual item to stock in their Dallas Dhu distillery gift shop, Historic Scotland chose to
commission Glasgow based print maker Willie Rodger. Noted for his quirky illustrative style and strong graphic line, Rodger spent two weeks sketching and working up preliminary drawings - a time he describes as a treasured insight into “a magical process of life and death.”His work eventually appeared as illustrations to the distillery guidebook, a mural, limited edition prints and a set of postcards. A few of the large reproductions (though, sadly, not the limited edition pieces) remain for sale at Dallas Dhu and the original work can still be seen in this fascinating visitor centre.More dramatically, artist Ralph Steadman (see Whisky Magazine, Issue 6) embarked on his Scotch magnum opus
‘Still Life with Bottle’ to emphasise, as he puts it, “the dark forces in this amazing drink.” Having now sworn off whisky in favour of wine, Steadman has locked away his original drawings and plans to leave them to Asylum, a West Wales charitable foundation which aims to help children in care work in the arts.Steadman began illustrating Scotland’s distilleries on behalf of Oddbins, the UK off-licence chain. Looking for a style to complement their iconoclastic image they turned to the Gonzo master, whose irreverent eye reveals both a love of the cratur and a keen sense of its creators’ follies and pomposities. It’s unlikely, for example, that The Keepers of the Quaich will have enjoyed his satirical view of their Blair Castle
gathering and Steadman’s is far from the Tourist Board approved view of Scotland. But his work has passion and depth and, on occasions, surprising lyricism as, for example, in his gentle watercolour washes of distilleries such as Speyburn or Bunnahabhain or simple Islay crofts.When not striving for effect, Steadman reveals a softer, gentler character that belies his ‘fear and loathing’ image and shows an artist half in love with a spirit he describes as “too dangerous and too lovely”. Today he respects whisky, laying aside his pen to smell it occasionally and dispense drams to visitors, whilst maintaining an active membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.The old-established firm of John Dewar & Sons were, in Tommy Dewar’s day, great art patrons. ‘Whisky Tom’ bought Raeburn, Landseer and the rest for the company’s collection and that tradition has recently been revived. Looking to commemorate the opening of their flagship World of Whisky visitor centre at Aberfeldy (see Whisky Magazine, Issue 10), Dewar’s commissioned wood engraver Jonathan Gibbs to make a limited edition print entitled ‘The Spirit of Aberfeldy’.“We wanted to work with a leading wood engraver to link the role of wood in whisky and the artistic process, and to
celebrate the craftsmanship in both”, explained Dewar’s Neil Boyd. After that the distillers gave Gibbs a free hand, even leaving him to wander round the distillery on his own so as not to impose a company view. The result is a handsome limited edition print in the artist’s distinctive multi-tonal style that has attracted much interest.An even more generous commission was enjoyed by Irish artist Catharine Davison who was sponsored to complete an MA in Illustration and subsequently worked at the Laphroaig Distillery as Resident Artist. The project involved three trips to Islay, a process described by the artist as “a game of hide and seek, looking for clues that lead you closer to the full picture.”The culmination of this has been an exhibition at the distillery of 35 of Davison’s paintings and a limited edition 15 year old Laphroaig with two specially commissioned labels in aid of the Erskine Hospital. Catharine Davison herself credits the residency with stretching her art; allowing her to develop along different lines and bringing a depth and breadth
previously absent from her work.As images of men at work, in an unashamedly mechanised and sometimes dramatically lit setting, Davison’s work has echoes of Stanley Spencer but she also captured the drama of Islay’s rugged landscape. Perhaps her background helped. Brought up in Kilkeel, Co Down, she has a sympathy withthe rural landscape that found an instant bond with Islay and its people.Finally, an opportunity! An increasingly confident industry - or perhaps even an enthusiastic private collector - could do a lot worse than snap up ‘Whisky Country’ a dramatically stylised dreamscape by rising Glasgow artist, Simon Laurie. This stunning evocation of a contemporary, yet timeless, landscape is currently on offer in Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery. Enjoyment of even the finest of drams would be enhanced by the contemplation of this alternative view of the art of whisky.