Sylvia Wishart (1936 – 2008)

Wishart Tree No. 036

Born: 11 February 1936 – Stromness, Orkney
Died: 4 December 2008 – Kirkwall, Orkney

At Stromness Academy, Sylvia’s artistic talents were noticed by her art master who persuaded her to leave her job in the Post Office and enrol at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. This she did in 1955, graduating with a Diploma in Art in 1959. She was acknowledged as an outstanding student, known for her seriousness and intensity of purpose. She won a Royal Scottish Academy Landscape award and a travelling scholarship, having had established herself as an artist of originality and great promise with remarkable speed.

She then combined teaching, lecturing at Gray’s and painting for several years until 1987 when she returned to Orkney to live and paint full time. With her friend Margaret Gardiner they establish the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, next to her home. In 1993 she was elected Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy and in 2005, the supreme accolade of being elected an Academician of the same. She was also a great music lover and could be persuaded to do ‘her mean impersonation of Ella Fitzgerald, although in an elusive key’. She was also a keen golfer, and equally keen on shepherding at lambing time.

An often-quoted aspect of Sylvia’s life is her relationship with George MacKay Brown, one of the greatest Scottish Poets of the twentieth century. He was a fellow Orcadian – a near neighbour – and although George was fifteen years older than Sylvia they had a close and long-lasting friendship. George had a profound impact on Sylvia, about how and what she thought; perhaps she portrayed his poetic thoughts in oils. She illustrated his book ‘An Orkney Tapestry’ with her exquisite drawings of the landscape of Orkney, giving the harsh land a romance that only a true lover of Orkney can see. Sylvia never married and she died in Kirkwall on 4 Dec 2008.

Her work is exhibited in the Royal Scottish Academy in Princes St in Edinburgh.

The Independent published the following obituary on 5 January 2009:

Sylvia Wishart

The artist Sylvia Wishart was born in Orkney and spent most of her life there, and the landscape of the islands was her inspiration and her subject matter. Her paintings were rooted in the love of her home ground, but as an artist she was world class and her works are held by, among others, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Contemporary Arts Society, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Aberdeen Art Gallery.

Wishart was born in Stromness, in 1936, the daughter of James Wishart, a seaman, and his wife Elsie. At school she showed obvious artistic talent despite having limited sight in one eye (she just made the other one work a bit harder). A painting she exhibited at the age of 12 was recently printed in The Orcadian, and it reveals a mature grasp of spatial relationships but, more interestingly, the subject matter was the same part of Hoy that she was still exploring in paintings at the end of her life.

On leaving school, Wishart worked in the Post Office prior to going to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. She then did teacher training and embarked on a short career in teaching. Luckily, a Scottish Arts Council grant gave her the opportunity to return to Orkney to concentrate on painting, and she worked from a cottage in the valley of Rackwick in Hoy. She continued to spend part of her time in Aberdeen, however, lecturing at her former art school. She was a fine communicator, having the very rare gift of being able to speak with a pleasing, unmistakably Orcadian voice that non-Orcadians could understand, in addition to the skill of sharing and passing on what she had learnt in a generous and encouraging way.

From the beginning, Orkney was central to her work. In the 1960s a discerning local businessman commissioned her to produce art for a series of calendars and she made a collection of beautifully detailed drawings of parts of the islands.

In her work, she played around with scale and proportion in a lyrical way and, by choosing an unexpected view-point, she combined elements with elegance and panache. For example, in one of her accompanying illustrations for George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry (1969), she managed to draw a coherent landscape that fits the scale of an oat-seed head. We can see what she did and we are reminded of her drawing each time we see a field of corn – sadly seldom oats any more – but how she achieved it is a bit of magic. Her work for this volume captures the haunting emptiness of a deserted valley strewn with the relics of former farms.

Later, when she became a part-time lecturer, she had a home in Orkney as well as Aberdeenshire and this was her most prolific and innovative period. She painted the greylag geese in Tarty, Aberdeenshire, and the views from her house on the pier in Stromness, juxtaposing fishing boats and the plants on her windowsill.

The greylag series of big oils on canvas is startling. They are tantalising because they are impossible to remember and impossible to reproduce – the geese can only be seen when the oils are viewed full-size. Wishart somehow managed to paint seemingly thousands of geese individually in a field. The balance between the expanse of the land and the detail of the almost camouflaged geese is masterly. She used close tones and a limited palette to create a vibrancy of scale, colour and texture. She made tiny marks and drew into the oil paint, using meticulous drawing to make a field of crackling energy that was romantic and harmonious.

Wishart eventually moved from the pier to a little farmhouse high up on the hillside overlooking the neighbouring island of Hoy and the ever-changing Atlantic. She “retired” there – although she never stopped working – and painted her late work, which mainly recorded the changing seasons outside her wide horizontal window, combined with reflections of the interior. Her work is a record of the pleasure she took in her surroundings.

Wishart’s old house on the pier became the Pier Arts Centre in 1979, home to her friend Margaret Gardiner’s unique collection of St Ives school paintings and sculptures. Wishart contributed greatly to the cultural resources of Stromness by playing an influential part in the centre’s development, from the first spark of an idea, to becoming a trustee. Her calendar drawings were considered by many people the highlight of the 2007 opening exhibition of the centre’s spectacular new extension.

Sylvia Wishart, artist: born Stromness, Orkney 11 February 1936; died Kirkwall, Orkney 4 December 2008.