Two Sculptors on the Margins

Mary Spencer Watson and Dorothy Dick

From southern margin to northern, to Scourie, not far from Cape Wrath, the north west tip of Scotland, where Dorothy Dick is based. She is a sculptor with a very different career to Spencer Watson, but sharing a primary interest in the human figure and in carving, though with wood predominating over stone, and with clay modelling forming a more important part of her work.

This part of Scotland is, like the Isle of Purbeck, an area of great geological interest and one moreover where the extreme rockiness of the terrain makes the geology very apparent. The geology again seems to have played a key part in arousing a sculptural sensibility. In her childhood Dick was a frequent visitor to this area, where her mother originated, and spent much time on the shore line strewn with boulders, which she still draws. She was born in Glasgow in 1932, and though she was attracted to sculpture as a schoolgirl her family was not connected with the arts and it was not considered a viable career. So she entered Glasgow University to study Mathematics and Physics. This led after graduation to work for English Electric at Luton in the early days of computers simulating the performance of missiles on an analogue computer - and the opportunity to begin her formal art training in the evenings at St Alban's School of Art. A return to Scotland in 1960 to be with her parents led to enrolment in evening classes at Glasgow School of Art where study of sculpture could begin in earnest, and to work at SSEB (The South of Scotland Electricity Board) including modelling on a computer the operation of Hunterston B. nuclear power station , and work on risk assessment , now as a full member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Increasingly sculpture became her prime interest, but still held out no prospect of providing a living. The commissioning of sculpture for schools which had sustained Spencer Watson in the 1950s and Dick's own teacher in Glasgow, Paul Zunterstein, in the same years, had dried up. In 1973 she moved again, first to Babcock and Wilcox - now working part time, on computer programming, - and then to BNOC (later Britoil), on the conceptual design of oil production platforms. From the mid 1980s she devoted herself full-time to sculpture. The stone house which she had inherited at Scourie became in due course her full time home, and she set up a gallery in an adjoining property alongside her studio to show and sell her work (and some work of other artists) mainly to the summer holiday visitors in the area, whilst continuing as she had from 1960 to exhibit in mixed and solo exhibitions in Glasgow (notably at the Hughson Gallery) and in Edinburgh. Rocky though it is, this area is not an artistic desert: round the 'turning point' (which is the meaning in Norse of the name Cape Wrath, originally 'Hurath',) on the north coast at Balnakiel is a small colony of artists and craftsmen in a former defence establishment, where some work of really high quality is produced.

An engineering and mathematical background might have been expected to lead to sculptural work of an abstract or geometrical character, or Caro-like, made from steel. But far from it. The remarkable quality of Dick's work is its almost primitive strength of character, and its 'organic' exuberance. Not much of it is carved from stone, though some is from local Serpentine , (the predominant Lewisian Gneiss is too hard ) , but something of the 'knobbliness' and rawness of the surrounding landscape infuses it. It is not easy - it is a challenge. The catalogue of her work has yet to be published so a chronology cannot easily be identified, but the work to be seen can be described. Henry Moore is an admitted and evident inspiration, and so also is African tribal sculpture, and a struggle can be felt between the knowing sophisticated rhythms of the one and the more instinctive elemental force of the other. The elmwood Reclining Figure (1993) for example is, at 27', about half the length of Moore's wood reclining figures of the 1950s which it recalls, but the thickness of the legs bent double at the knees, the protuberance of the thorax, the retracted head, suggest a powerful condensed energy, a readiness to spring up at any time and flex its muscles. It is without the echo of classical rhythms that are traceable in Moore and is in a sense more akin to the Mayan Chacmool that inspired him in the 1920s than his own first Relining Figure because the legs are parallel, not in contraposto. Dick's figures bulge. Distinct from Spencer Watson's emphasis on planes, their forms are rounded and very much three-dimensional, to be seen from all angles. There is also no sense of narrative in Dick, but at the same time her work stays closer to the figure than Moore's: there is no tendency to treat it as a bone or a coastal headland.

The role of drawing reflects another telling difference from the practice of Spencer Watson, whose inspiration often comes from the shape of the piece of stone to be carved itself, and so she draws little. Dick, on the other hand, whose work is more often modelled, usually first makes a maquette then tends to draw out a sculpture from different angles before she begins to make it. Powerful brush and pencil drawings of the figure, of landscape and of rock formations, are an important part of her work.

Reflecting the greater 'erectness' or compactness of her sensibility, the standing figure is more often to be seen in her work than in Moore's, and another distinctive feature, reflecting her interest in tribal art, is the mask. The human head, both as a mask and as a full three-dimensional realisation, is pushed and pulled, exploiting to the full its natural asymmetry to achieve maximum sculptural expression. By nature of the process and material, more sense of 'angle' remains in the carve timber pieces than in the modelled work - which is usually cast in ciment fondu from a clay original.

Work of this kind should certainly have a place in schools to awaken the sculptural sensibilities, the warmth of feeling, of their pupils. There have been two new schools built in this area in recent years, in Ullapool and Kinlochbervie, but they are devoid of art. Modern school construction tends to be lightweight and metallic which makes the incorporation of sculpture problematic, even if the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) 'procurement procedure' generally followed by official clients did not virtually preclude it institutionally. But even if the place of art in schools were to regain acceptance, what chance is there that today the choice would be for art of this calibre and character? It would probably not be judged 'relevant'. In a recent competition for an art work for the visitor centre at the famous gardens at Poolewe near Gairloch, Dick's entry was second to a brightly coloured mosaic. But the indomitable strength of expression in her work could and should be seen as an inspiration not only in the area but on a much wider stage. 'I suppose I have arrived at a notion of what makes good sculpture' she has written, 'and have tried by solving formal problems, i.e. via a formal coherence, to create a human 'presence'. Qualities which preoccupy me in sculpture have to do with form, harmony, how one form meets another, presence, poise, intensity, simplification' I don't think art remains as important as it ever was because at present, what science makes possible seems to most people of more interest and importance; but I think art does matter, both science and art matter'.

If there is any historical link between Dick and Spencer Watson it could be in that Fra Newbery, the famous head of Glasgow School of Art and lifelong friend, patron and portraitist of its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was a Dorset man. On his retirement he settled in Corfe Castle where he became a friend of the Spencer Watson family - and it was he who in 1937, having seen Zadkine's work at the International Exhibition in Paris, recommended that Mary go to study with him.