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Phoebe Traquair: Murals

Thursday, 8 September, 2011

Art in St Mary’s

St Mary’s Cathedral stands as a shining example of the culture on offer at the Edinburgh Fringe, an alternative to the onslaught of sketch shows, stand up comedy and theatre. It may require a slightly longer walk away from The Royal Mile than most of the Fringe’s other venues but this beautiful building has been highlighted as one of the world’s recognised neo-gothic buildings and has been offering a consistent rota of concerts including Bach by Candlelight.  St Mary’s Cathedral is opening the Song School’s doors to the public free of charge so that they might see the murals that Phoebe Traquair was commissioned to paint in 1888 and completed 1892. It is arguably this piece of work that initiated her into the sphere of artists that she had idolised before she began her work.

The south wall of this impressive artistic feat, crammed full with images of people rarely allowing for nature to give way, is testament to her influences at the time. Lord Alfred Tennyson can be found leading a group of choir boys towards the door, and there is a bearded Dante Gabriel Rossetti too, said to be one of Traquair’s greatest inspirations. William Blake is depicted upon the North wall, after our gaze has moved on from the West Wall, where scenes lay in wait that are strongly reminiscent of Blake’s own bright, spiritually vibrant work. This creates the impression of a humble Phoebe Traquair paying respect to those that inspired her and not afraid to show her working out. This is quite touchingly exemplified again on the East Wall which depicts the overall theme of the mural taken from the canticle Benedicite, Omnia Opera (‘O all Ye Works of the Lord, Bless Ye the Lord’) along with images of choirboys and angels painted in exact likeness of contemporary parishioners. The Leaderfoor Viaduct can be seen behind The Empty Tomb, as the artist shows her spiritual allegiance to The Scottish Borders.

The master of ceremonies notes the change in her style after a subsequent trip to Italy mid-way through the painting of the mural. Careful not to bemuse the artistically challenged amongst his tour group, he notes the use of colours and brush strokes that does not leave his audience behind. He notes the poor lighting and encourages the group to lift a sheet of paper to the window of the east facing wall. This way of viewing art was at odds with the poor lighting and made for a touching experience as the colours became brighter, the figures more recognisable with the light being shadowed. It created a moment when murals such as this seem to flourish in; having a group turn to focus on one particular scene from this impressive woman’s. As the group were working against the light provided by the space, Phoebe Traquair’s character became illuminated. The speaker talks of her almost stumbling on her illustrious career; had she not been employed by her future husband Ramsay Heatley Traquair as an illustrator for his paleontological journals, she may never have been commissioned in this way and remembered so fondly. Although this piece put her in the hearts and minds of those in the artistic community, she was still not recognised officially, being nominated and then refused membership to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1900 on the grounds that her work at the Song School was unpaid and therefore she was not an artist by profession. Sixteen years before her death in 1920, she was elected the first honorary woman member, and her extraordinary work as a female artist in 19th Century Scotland still remains.  As a final note the guide draws o attention to a tiny figure in an alcove on the North Wall. Phoebe Traquair herself is curled in a circular foetal position taking a well-deserved rest upon completing the mural, a touching self-portrait from an artist who showed great emotional value into her work .

(c) Alexandra Kavanagh 2011

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