John Kinross Scholar in 1986
How did the experience affect you as an individual?
The period in Florence (October – December 1986) was incredibly formative for me. It was by far the longest time I had been out of my home country, living in a relatively isolated and independent way. The sculpture I submitted as part of my application to visit Florence was partly inspired by my newly-discovered Italian family and their craft of mosaics and terrazza work. This was the occupation of my grandfather who came from the village of Sequals in Friuli to Edinburgh in the 1920s. The John Kinross Scholarship allowed me to revisit the Italian family and my cousin’s mosaic workshop.
I should also add that I would not have even considered putting myself forward for the scholarship without the encouragement of Prof Bill Scott, then my tutor in the Sculpture Department at ECA. He saw my work a few days before the deadline and was impressed enough to think the family link to Italy expressed through the work could be a strong part of my application. His support in this, as in many other important moments in my professional life, was transformative.
My time in Florence was mainly spent drawing in the museums and reading widely (Cellini’s Autobiography being one memorable book). I also drew a large series of the loggias that populate the skyline in Florence, one of which was given to the RSA on my return. (I recall that work featured in the Learning and Teaching Scotland and RSA resource ‘Images from the Royal Scottish Academy, Scottish Art 1780 – Present’).
What was the impact on your practice?
It killed it! Whilst I was in the middle of my time in Florence I heard of my successful application to be the first William Gillies Fellowship – another gift from the RSA, offered jointly with the University of Edinburgh – to undertake a PhD on Scottish art. I completed that in 1993. So I knew that on my return I would be moving to more art historical research rather than art making.
I had a journalist’s letter of introduction issued by Peter Hill, editor of Alba, which got me into a number of exhibition openings – Florence was the second ever European Capital of Culture that year (1986) and I saw some of the major shows taking place in the city.
I also visited the British School at Rome during my Scholarship. Despite only being there for two weeks, I made lifelong friends such as David Watt (now Chief Executive of Arts & Business Scotland) and Patrick Brill (aka, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith) among a number of other artists, archaeologists, architectural and art historians. I remember trying to make a print, for Christmas cards, in the workshops of the British School at Rome among the many Rome scholars doing the same. I was rather shown up by my new friends. So I took early retirement from art practice as soon as I returned from Florence in 1986 (and Scottish art has been better as a result.)
What would you say the long term impact has been on yourself and you work?
I think the hermetic life I lived for three months in Florence has stayed with me in the sense that the move towards writing as a sole practice (rather than art) started in Florence all those years ago. I realised I was comfortable with that kind of concentrated isolation. Despite not being an expert on Italian or Renaissance art, the extended amount of time I spent looking at iconic works in situ, alongside more contemporary examples through the Capital of Culture exhibitions, became a touchstone for my interests beyond the contemporary alone.
As I wrote above, I keep in touch with a few people I met whilst on the scholarship and others who share my love of historical and contemporary mosaics, such as Jo Kessel, an Edinburgh-based artist who has visited my Italian mosaic relatives on my invitation.