Study of Sorley Maclean, cropped to highlight furloughed brow with highland landscape, colour, Banner for Nicky Brooks Blog

Alexander Moffat RSA studies for MacLean, Morgan & Gray

Posted on 24 July 2020

Having unearthed his sketchbooks for a recent article in the Sunday Post, Alexander (Sandy) Moffat OBE RSA has kindly shared his studies of Sorley MacLean (1911-1996), Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) and Alasdair Gray (1934 – 2019) with The Royal Scottish Academy and they are published here, providing thought-provoking insight into his artistic process. Moffat considers his preparatory works akin to “making a rough note of the things that are there”.  What do Moffat’s ‘notes’ of MacLean, Morgan and Gray reveal about his process?  In this blog we take a look at the sketches and the finished paintings, and hear from the artist in his own words on his lithograph of Sorley MacLean, which can be found in the RSA collections. 


Colour pastel sketch of Alasdair Gray reclining with hands clasped behind head, detail fades to feet.


Alexander Moffat RSA, Alasdair Gray.  Pastel study from the artist’s sketchbook.


To date, Alexander Moffat OBE RSA (born 1943) has carved out an esteemed, influential and creative career path.  It is his work as a Portrait Artist that dominates his career, yet he has also excelled in other areas, having chaired a contemporary art gallery, headed the Painting and Printmaking department at Glasgow School of Art, curated important exhibitions of Scottish Art and latterly collaborated to publish multiple books connecting poetry, art and Scotland.

Moffat graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1964 as a portrait painter, which stood against the (then dominant) traditions of Impressionism and Decorative art.  As recent graduates, he and his friend John Bellany OBE HRSA, hung their artwork on the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland as a statement of their “outsider” status.  In this early action, we find Moffat’s rebellious, creative nature as well as a strength of direction, reminiscent of the drive and vision MacLean wished to incite during his time as Makar: ‘to achieve something in the world, and to really be taken seriously, then they need to show the world what they stand for’.  Moffat’s ambition, energy and multifaceted approach to his own career is often reflected in his sitter’s careers.


Alexander Moffat RSA.  Poets Pub (1980).  National Galleries of Scotland Collection.


As a portrait painter, Moffat has a longstanding interest in capturing literary, cultural and famous faces.  His series of Scottish Poets features many of Scotland’s twentieth century voices in their early days, before their influence was fully felt.  It is exactly 40 years since Moffat completed work on his era defining “Poets’ Pub” which captures Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch; with Alan Bold in the front and art critic John Tonge to the back. Moffat has revisited these subjects more than once, including Sorley MacLean.

Born on the Isle of Raasay, MacLean was known for his passion for politics, Highland culture and literature.  He worked as an English teacher in various Scottish schools, before being promoted to headmaster of Plockton High School where he ensured Gaelic was maintained as the teaching language, successfully campaigning for more schools to follow suit.  A firm believer in quality over quantity, MacLean simultaneously published acclaimed Gaelic poetry, often with European phrases woven through.  MacLean retired from Education in 1972 and moved to Skye where he continued his work as a poet, going on to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1990.


Monochrome, full length portrait of Sorley MacLean in the Scottish Highland landscape.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Sorley MacLean, monochrome study from the artists collection.


MacLean’s poem “Dain do Eimhir agus Dain Eile” (Poems to Eimhir and other poems) was originally a collection of 60 poems, later reduced to 48, with 36 forming MacLean’s ideal collection.  The poems explore themes and connections between romantic love, landscape and history.  Eimhir is a representation of every-woman, and in “An Roshainn” (The Choice) the narrator chooses between his love at home and his political conscience pulling him to fight in the Spanish Civil War.  The paradox of a likely death for following his conscience is underlined by his feeling undeserving of love if he stays.


Colour Study of Sorley Maclean in the Scottish landscape, cropped to three quarter length.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Sorley MacLean, colour study from the artists collection.


Moffat says of his process in capturing MacLean:

“When I began to consider how I might portray Sorley MacLean my initial thoughts centred upon Dain do Eimhir, his great sequence of love poetry and more, first published in 1943. Although difficult to track down I had acquired the poems in the early 1970’s in translations by Iain Crichton Smith who said of them…. 

‘Time and again, in these poems is found the idea that in some way or other the author’s attitude to Spain is a test of what he really is, and that his love for this particular woman is also a political event, not to be disassociated from the movement of history.’ 

These were poems rich in imagery that fused political and personal passion and the Highland love of place and in my first sketches I attempted to incorporate and explore all of these themes.”

Alexander Moffat, email to Sandy Wood, RSA Collections Curator, 4 May 2020


Monochrome lithograph of Sorley Maclean, cropped to head and shoulders, within Scottish Landscape.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Sorley MacLean (1984), Lithograph, Edtn of 45.  RSA Collections.


Across the range of Moffat’s studies and paintings, there is a wide variety of compositions, all working through the themes he outlined.  MacLean’s strong stance seen in Moffat’s early studies is cropped in the finished monochrome lithograph found in the RSA Collections.  This compositional decision focusses attention on MacLean’s delicately drawn, thoughtfully furrowed brow.  Maclean’s head and shoulders are merged into the landscape through a simple frame and mirrored shapes.  It is hard to be sure where the landscape starts as MacLean is visually intertwined with his beloved Scottish Highlands.

“After visiting Sorley at his home in Braes, however, I changed tack when I saw the large window installed in the end wall of his house looked directly from his living room onto the mighty Cuillin. I immediately realised this was the essential context I had been seeking. The matter was settled there and then.”

Alexander Moffat, email to Sandy Wood, RSA Collections Curator, 4 May 2020

Between 1939 and 1940, Maclean was working on a poem titled “An Culithionn” (The Cuillins) which perhaps contributed to Moffat’s revelation.  As a keen Genealogist, MacLean referred knowledgably to Skye’s people and their traumatic past of clearances, devastation and poverty.  In Moffat’s painting, the mountains are dominant and through “An Culithionn” they speak to represent Skye’s heritage and juxtapose the trauma with beauty and impressive resilience.  By including “the mighty Cuillin”, Moffat visually references MacLean’s literary microcosm of Skye where, in the universality of the poetic (and so the visual), we find the political.


Sorley Maclean seated infant of dominant Cullins.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Sorley MacLean.  The Museum of the Isles Collection.


In the painting “Sorley MacLean”, held in the collection of The Museum of the Isles in Skye, Moffat has placed books, a berry and the striking view of The Cuillins.  The books and berry portray MacLean’s literary passions and Socialist leanings.   As one who also chose Scotland, literature and education, over fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the dilema presented in MacLean’s “An Roshainn” (The Choice) has also been said to apply to MacLean.  This paradox represents a divergence of instincts; perhaps a Modernist representation of the fragmented self.  In Moffat’s multi-faceted representation of MacLean, we find a great tradition of portrait painting and an extension of MacLean’s “self” personified in objects and landscape.  The boundary between MacLean’s home, body and the Scottish Landscape is again blurred, visually emphasising MacLean’s voice as a part of Scotland’s identity.


Loose color study of Edwin Morgan at his desk with books, stapler and checked jacket

Alexander Moffat RSA, Edwin Morgan, colour study from the artists collection.


A recent article by Paul English in the Sunday Post, includes an interview with Moffat and describes his artistic process, interests and his recent rediscovery of studies of Edwin Morgan from the 1970’s.  These studies were published in line with the Edwin Morgan Trust launching a year of celebrations to mark 100 years since the Makar’s birth.  This includes a “Second Life Fund” intended to support new responses to Morgan’s works.

Edwin Morgan was a multi-lingual Scottish poet who published twenty-five of his own poetic collections and devoted years to translating international poetry from seven Languages, increasing its accessibility.   He also worked as a critic, playwright, journalist and wrote Opera Libretti.  Morgan, the son of Presbyterian Iron and Steel Merchants was studying English at Glasgow University, when he was called up to serve in the Second World War.  Morgan registered as a Conscientious Objector, to the shock of his family, eventually serving one year with the [Royal Army] Medical Corps in Egypt, Lebanon & Palestine.  He returned to Glasgow in 1946 where he finished his studies and went on to become a Titular Professor and renowned poet.  In 2004, Morgan became Scotland’s first National Poet, a suitable role for one so capable of giving voice to many diverse cultures, including and importantly representing his gay community (initially discreetly and gradually more directly as the legal restrictions and general oppression lessoned through his life).  During this period, Morgan strived to communicate to artists and writers his belief that ‘if they want to achieve something in the world, and to really be taken seriously, then they need to show the world what they stand for’.


Loose study of Edwin Morgan sitting at desk with chair, window and papers  Loose study of Edwin Morgan sitting at desk with chair, desk corner and further foot study

Alexander Moffat RSA, Edwin Morgan, colour studies from the artists collection.


Moffat’s detailed portrait studies show consideration of various poses, compositions and analysis of Morgan’s characteristic posture and surroundings, part of the artist’s search to portray what Morgan stands for.  When viewed alongside Moffat’s painting “Edwin Morgan 1920-2010, Poet” of 1980 (National Galleries of Scotland’s Collection), we are given further understanding of Moffat’s decision making process.


Fully realised painted portrait of Edwin Morgan, seated with elaborately patterned background and prominent books, stapler and papers

Alexander Moffat RSA, Edwin Morgan (1920-2010). National Galleries of Scotland Collection.


Moffat’s sketches reveal the stylistic changes and interpretation of Morgan’s actual office, again we see the metaphorical and representational worlds collide in Moffat’s nod to Morgan’s poetic tendency towards scientific metaphors and practice as a Surrealist.  Paolozzi’s Pop Art painting hung in Morgan’s home and the graphic, looping line extends into Moffat’s linear rendering of the Hunterian Gallery at Glasgow University, which in turn, sits seamlessly on the shoulders of Morgan’s Jacket, the checks continuing the linear journey.  The chair, desk, pose and outfit are all found in the original sketches, as too are the books.

Morgan’s chair is a metal and leather construction, a beacon of The Bahaus, the artistic movement that sought to equalise craft and construction as art.   Through Morgan’s poem “Sealwear”, publishing of a book is reduced to its basic construction of paper, pen and stapler.  Bauhaus also favoured repetition, modules and minimalism.  The qualities of Bauhaus are found throughout Pop-Art and Morgan’s poems, including “The Computer’s First Christmas Card”, “Sealwear” and “S is for Snake”, and this is echoed in the rhythm and object choice of Moffat’s surreal yet representational painting, where the form follows Morgan’s function.


Alasdair Gray in charcoal outline, head and shoulders with wing backed chair

Alexander Moffat RSA, Alasdair Gray, charcoal sketchbook study from the artists collection.


Moffat’s preparatory sketches, studying renowned and influential polymath Alasdair Gray, are in charcoal and blue and green pastel.  Gray’s intricately illustrated, highly imaginative novel “Lanark: A Life in Four Books” (1981) marked a turning point in Scottish Literature.  Irvine Welsh has said it “is probably the closest thing Scotland’s ever produced to Ulysses”.  Gray’s playful take on Urban Realism reframed Scotland, including Scots language and syntax now prevalent in contemporary Scottish literature.  Gray considered his creative practice a way of promoting his political beliefs.

As Moffat explores Gray’s features, posture and expressions across this series of studies, a true sense of personality and movement is evident.  Gray’s full figure was included in the 2009 portrait commissioned by the Democratic Left Scotland that these studies were taken for.  Here we see Gray reclining, surrounded by a saltire, bookshelves and a floating table-top, showcasing a particular book.


Alasdair Gray, head and shoulders in color pastel with winged back chair and sideways glance.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Alasdair Gray, pastel sketchbook study from the artists collection.


Moffat writes first-hand about his experience and process in sketching Gray in an article for “Perspectives – The Magazine of Scotland’s Democratic Left – Radical, Feminist, Green”.  Moffat describes that his conversations with Gray included the book and film “The Horse’s Mouth”, a novel written by Joyce Cary.  A passage in this book describes the protagonist, an artist painting flowers in the grass:

“I began the flowers but they felt wrong.  And all at once I made a thing like a white Indian club.  I like it, I said, but it’s not a flower, is it?  What the h*ll could it be?  A fish.  And I felt a kick inside as if I was having a foal. Fish.  Fish.  Silver-white, green-white.  And shapes that you could stroke with your eyebrows… those fish were catching my fancy.  In a shape like a map of Ireland laid sideways.  Cold green.  Under the moon.”


Alasdair Gray, reclining in a green chair with a lamp illuminating his head, a saltire and a magical floating table

Alexander Moffat RSA, Alasdair Gray (2009). The Democratic Left Scotland, Oran Mor, Glasgow.


Gray and Moffat deliberately selected the chair with its lush green body and extendable footrest and pose in a wry nod to Gray’s views on Scottish politics.  What else could that armchair be?  Moffat also discusses Gray’s own art work as containing “no modernist fracturing – his complex designs are contained within a specific framework. He liked to put a line round everything.”  When seen alongside Moffats other portraits discussed here, Moffat clearly reinterprets Gray’s style into this portrait.

“On coming to the end of the session Alasdair made me a gift of the Penguin paperback of Cary’s novel and added a bottle of Inverarity blended whisky with one of his own designs on the box for good measure.”

 In ‘The Horse’s Mouth’, Cary’s artist protagonist had also rewarded himself with a bottle of whisky for the above, good day’s work.


Alasdair Gray head and shoulders portrait with saltier behind him, gaze to the left.

Alexander Moffat RSA, Alasdair Gray (2020).  On show at the RSA Annual Exhibition.


Moffat’s recent, painted portrait of Gray is on show in this year’s RSA Annual Exhibition, and it demonstrates Gray’s whimsical humour, creative energy and passion.  The marked difference with this painting, is that Moffat’s detailed background is replaced by one that is expressively abstract, decidedly green, and dominated by the clearly stated Scottish Saltire.  Gray, who died in December 2019, will be remembered here for his unique, creative imagination, his dynamic artistic and literary legacy, and his passion for Scotland’s future.

Moffat’s preparatory sketches provide documentation and insight into his editing process: removal; addition and interpretation of his notes “of the things that are there”.   Though Socio-Politically aware, each of Moffat’s portraits tell their sitter’s stories and views, many of whom he considers his contemporaries and friends.  In Moffat’s realised Portraits, we find a portrait painter telling the world what the sitter stands for.

Read Alexander (Sandy) Moffat’s biography here.


RSA Collections Team (volunteer)

With thanks to Robin Rodger and Sandy Wood of the Collections Team