Looking for Mrs Cumming

Looking for Mrs Cumming is a search for origins, for a name and a life and the history of a particular place: the City of Edinburgh in the first decades of the 19th century. A moment when new knowledge and old faith exercised a feverish hold over the nation. ‘Mrs. Cumming’ was the only attribution given to three paintings, Hawthornden, Dunkeld and St. Bernard’s Well, which were bequeathed to the RSA in 1886 by Mary Ann Cumming, the daughter of the artist. The silence that accompanied her place in the record was familiar to me. She had no name beyond marriage, no dates and no history. Her work, held in the RSA Collections for almost 150 years, was the object of frustrated enquiry by the Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Documentation Officer Robin Rodger. In the autumn of 2019 the genealogist Caroline Gerard, who I had met one day in high summer inside St. Bernard’s Well, responded to my enquiry: ‘who is she and where is she buried?’ An extraordinary search ensued from Montrose to Riga, Edinburgh to Cheltenham. Trained by Alexander Nasmyth in his Edinburgh Studio, Elizabeth Maria Ouchterlony [1776-1854] led an adventurous life. Hawthornden is a confident painting of a geological landscape anchored in place by a forested river gorge. In 2019 the inventory was changed and Elizabeth Maria Ouchterlony was written into the record.

Provenance, my residency in the RSA Collections, was concerned with origins: with the beginnings of art, art education, the idea of the Scottish landscape and the land itself, its geomorphology. Looking for Mrs Cumming was one line of enquiry. It is in the nature of a teaching collection to distract you from a singular idea and to make new connections. With the Collections Curator and Documentation Officer I got lost and in the process I moved through landscapes, ideas, theories and ways of making that were new to me. The early 19th century, with James Hutton behind you and Charles Darwin ahead, was an exceptional moment of intellectual flux in Scotland: deep time, outer space and free will all making their presence felt in the new town.

Looking for Mrs Cumming is a quarry film that traverses the landscape of a country house in search of an artist and her work. A Portrait of the Artist in a Meteor Shower embodies the artist, allowing her to take up the space beside her work. Lunarity is an orrery, a model of the planets as they were known in the lifetime of Elizabeth Maria Ouchterlony.

I work in the landscape and I have for many years collected the anecdotal histories of places, drawing lines and following them. Provenance gave me permission to think differently, get distracted, to draw and make films, cast and construct; to lose myself in the Collections, the landscape and the lives of other people.


Acknowledgements: Sandy Wood and Robin Rodger [RSA Collections], Caroline Gerard [Genealogist], Malcolm Cruickshank, Paul Charlton and Catriona Gilbert [Workshops of Edinburgh College of Art], Dr. Rachel Walcott, Principal Curator of Earth Systems [National Museum of Scotland].