Frances Walker: “Baltic Progress in Helsinki” 1978
Posted on 14 November 2020
Twenty two years ago today – with the aid of the William Gillies RSA Members’ Award – Frances Walker CBE RSA was in the midst of an expedition to Finland that would become part of her love affair with the frozen northern reaches of our planet. During her near two months there, Walker recorded the places and landscapes she experienced in drawings that she would later work up into a series of etchings, screenprints and lithographs titled The Finnish Suite. In 1980, Walker would exhibit the series at Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen, and in 1981 she gifted editions of the full set to the collections of the Royal Scottish Academy as part of the Gillies Award.
For this blog, in ongoing celebration of Frances Walker’s 90th birthday in August this year, and her recent award of a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, we are pleased to present the transcribed report of her journey along with images from The Finnish Suite it inspired.
REPORT ON VISIT TO FINLAND ON GILLIES AWARD
I chose to travel to and from Finland by cargo boat from Hull – from the point of view of both economy and interest – and these sea voyages proved an excellent, absorbing and pleasant way of journeying to and from Finland.
I left Hull aboard the Baltic Enterprise on 9th October 1978 and we sailed over the North Sea and through the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark in unexpected warm sunshine and over calm seas. This delightful and unseasonal warm sunny weather continued for my first few days in Helsinki and after visiting the island fortress of Suomenlinna and Sauräsaari the outdoor folk museum I suffered from mosquito bites – an infliction I had not come prepared for in a Finnish October.
Breakfast Table, lithograph, 57.5 x 75.0cm, 1980
Finnish Interior, screenprint, 56.0 x 75.6cm, 1980
My contacts in Finland, on this my first time visit/ were sparse and all second hand, however I had written a letter of introduction to Outi Sievänen, who has plenty of English and works in the Conservation Department of the Finnish National Collection and is married to the painter Jaakko Sievänen, who is Head of the School of Fine Art in Helsinki. The Sievänens were very friendly and helpful to me during the time I was in Finland. After a few days in Helsinki which included a tour round the Art School studios and getting to know my way about the city it was arranged through the Sievänens that I travelled to the island of Hailuoto in the North of the Gulf of Bothnia to an old wooden schoolhouse where 5 Finnish artists had studios and living accommodation and where 2 of them, Jaakko Sievänen’s ex students were living and working – so I spent 12 days there, which was an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of my whole Finnish visit and the best opportunity I had for getting some work done. I had the chance to visit several homes on Hailuoto where I made some of my drawings.
In a Hailuoto House, lithograph, 56.8 x 67.3cm, 1980
Hailuoto being and island and thus in a position of some isolation – older houses and a more traditional way of life had survived. Throughout my time in Finland the wooden buildings were a constant source of interest and inspiration to me. From Hailuoto I paid a brief visit to Kemijarvi in Lapland where I stayed with a forester’s family. The artists in that community were very hospitable to me. The ‘area’ artist (a state appointment) gave me a guided tour of Kemijarvi, including his studio and home and another group of local young artists and their friends provided a very pleasant evening meal of reindeer stew. Snow and ice had come to Lapland by the time I was there but winter had just started and I was fortunate to have bright sunny clear days with magnificent displays of the Northern Lights at night – one is very aware of the sky in Lapland.
Window in Kemijavi, lithograph, 76.2 x 56.4cm, 1980
I returned from Lapland to Helsinki in time for the Opening at the Amos Anderson Gallery of an exhibition of work by some Scottish artists and along with the group of artists visiting Finland from Scotland for this event I found it had been arranged that I was included in the various excursions and social occasions laid on for the visiting Scottish artists. The couple of days bus tour to Hvitträsk, Tampere and Turku which included visiting galleries, artists studios and meeting Finnish artists – and seeing the Finnish landscape at the same time was indeed a fine opportunity – this concentrated tour in all my particular interests was much appreciated and enjoyed.
Finnish Landscape, etching, 56.2 x 76.1cm, 1980
The Deserted House, lithograph, 58.2 x 66.5cm, 1980
After a few days continuing getting to know the Helsinki artistic and general scene and a couple of days’ very interesting visit to another island in the Gulf of Finland this time to stay with a family in a dacha type old wooden house – I returned to Turku – the old capital of Finland – for a more leisurely visit to stay a week with a Finnish girl lecturer in the English Department of the Finnish University of Turku. Here I met a lot more Finnish people and was entertained in their homes. I also paid visits again to the galleries and to the Craft Village, which consists of streets of conserved – and preserved as centres of craft making – little wooden houses of old Turku – and I also visited the Castle at Turku where the curator gave me an extensive and informative tour including a fine collection of paintings of local interest back to the 17th century. I also visited the Art School in Turku which with that in Helsinki is the only other training for Fine Artists in Finland. The other sources of training for art teachers and for various design subjects are in other colleges. The similarities and the differences between the courses in Painting and Sculpture in the Finnish Art Schools and the Scottish Art Schools proved very interesting comparison for me. There was a strong interest declared by the Heads at both Helsinki and Turku – and some of the students I talked to in both art schools – in the possibility of student exchange or of one or two Finnish students coming to study at Scottish Art Schools. The language difficulty would be less extreme for the Finnish student than for the student from a Scottish Art School coming to Finland. The question of funding such an exchange or visit from a Finnish student is the all important one to be resolved.
Baltic Progress at Helsinki, etching, 56.8 x 76.1cm, 1980
The weather had continued surprisingly mild for early winter but as I made my way to the Baltic Progress (sister ship of the Baltic Enterprise) at the docks at Helsinki there was a very hard rimey [sic] frost transforming the scene into winter. The ship sailed on to Kotka a port at the far end of the Gulf of Finland, near Russia – a bonus voyage for me – a magic sail over calm seas through snowy islands which with the changing colour of sea and sky in the short winter day made a memorable experience. In this state of rapt fascination I spent most of the voyage up in the bridge (I was the only passenger – hence possibly this freedom) enjoying the slow passage through the Keil Canal past a Breughal like winter landscape and next day over the green North Sea – and so to Hull – it was the last day of November.
I would hope I may sometime make another visit to Finland as this first time visit has given me a background knowledge and contacts that could be helpful for a further visit – there is much that I still want to see in Finland.
Pirjo’s Room, lithograph, 58.3 x 67.6cm, 1980
I am currently working on a series of prints – lithographs and etchings – from some of the drawings I made in Finland – and also in conjunction with Ian McKenzie Smith, Director of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Arthur Watson, Director of the Peacock Printmakers – and the Graphic Artists Association of Finland I am organising an exchange exhibition of prints to be held in Aberdeen and in Tampere, Finland.
It can be seen I hope that the opportunity provided for me by the Gillies Award has been a most stimulating and rewarding one for which I should like to thank the Royal Scottish Academy.