John Kinross Scholar in 1985
How did the experience affect you as an individual?
I went to Tuscany on the Kinross Scholarship for five months in 1986, from February to the end of June. It was a critical transition time for me. I had recently graduated from Edinburgh College of Art and was figuring out next steps. It was also a period of few family and work obligations which meant an excellent time to go and immerse myself in Italian culture. I lived in an apartment in Florence with art history students, took Italian language classes, travelled through Tuscany by bicycle, and spent day after day just looking at art and architecture, and drawing and painting outdoors.
It was almost shocking to experience how alive the arts of the Renaissance were in the urban settings of Tuscany. Not confined to museums but everywhere one turned: here a Donatello statue in an exterior niche, there the Ghiberti Baptistery doors to be studied up close, Della Robbia terracotta’s above doorways and adorning walls. The facades and domes of churches and municipal buildings, paintings, frescoes, mosaics and sculptures I had known only from books and slides came brilliantly to life for me.
A very memorable part of my time was the month I spent traveling by bicycle through the Tuscan countryside as Spring came on. Everywhere trees were flowering against hillsides patterned in brilliant green and the still-bare umber and sienna of the tilled soil. I internalized the topography from Florence to San Gimignano, onward to Montepulciano and across the Val D’Arno to Arezzo and Cortona. I stopped to paint at any vista I pleased. Along the way, I discovered so many artworks as if for the first time. In particular, I recall sketching Piero Della Francesca’s Madonna Del Parto in the chapel in Monterchi, and the Fra Angelica Annunciation in San Giovanni Valdarno. In both places I was the only visitor.
These were precious months and a time of important personal and artistic growth. I appreciated this in the moment and was deeply grateful to have received the scholarship.
What was the impact on your practice?
For years after my return to Scotland, I worked directly with the imagery I generated in Tuscany – landscapes and cityscapes. The colors permeated my artwork. I had quite a number of solo exhibitions of Italian-themed artwork. One was a series of narrative paintings based on Boccaccio’s Decameron, set in landscapes and architecture recorded in my sketchbooks. This period culminated in the 1990s with five murals and an interior paint-work scheme inspired by Giotto that I designed and executed for St. Mary’s Episcopal cathedral in Glasgow, still extant in 2020.
After I moved back to the United States in 1999, another project drew directly from my Italian experience. In 2005 I was commissioned to paint 14 Stations of the Cross for a church in Connecticut. I used Italian Renaissance paintings in the collections of the Metropolitan museum and Frick in New York City as the compositional framework. Over these I laid corresponding newspaper imagery from the Iraq war to create an updated narrative. These paintings are extant at the Saint Paul’s on the Green in East Norwalk. Photos of these two commissions are on my website at www.gwynethleech.com/other-paintings/commissions-2005-and-1990s
Further travels and life experiences in the1990s and 2000s generally took my artwork in directions less directly influenced by my time in Tuscany. However, over the last five years, I have returned to an intense focus on architecture and cityscapes, making paintings of high rise buildings under construction in New York City. The fluidity I gained from drawing architecture daily long ago in Florence, and the internalization of the rules of Renaissance perspective still serve me well.
What would you say the long term impact has been on yourself and you work?
Long term impacts have been a lasting love of Italian Renaissance art from the Duecento to the Cinquecento and the many direct and indirect ways I have translated that into my own artwork over the years; an abiding affection for Florence, to which I have made repeat visits; and an enduring feel for the particular colours of the Tuscan landscape experienced one unforgettable Spring when the umbers, ochres, siennas and terra vertes were on vivid display under a cobalt sky and, day after day, I had all the time in the world to take it in.
The RSA Kinross scholarship has had a significant effect on my life and my art-making. I am honoured to have been a recipient.