Emotion erupts from 60 million volcanic years on Shiant Isles

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by Giles Sutherland


“The Absolute Rock” is part of the exhibition of large-scale watercolours by Jill McManners


If something in nature is beautiful there is an almost innate, instinctive urge among some to capture this essence. Perhaps all of us respond in some way to such stimuli, although artists produce more enduring results.

There is no doubt that Jill McManners, a painter from Lancashire, felt such powerful motivations on her first visit to the Shiant Isles more than ten years ago. The islands, situated in the Minch, between the north coast of Skye and the Isle of Lewis, were formed by the result of volcanic activity about 60 million years ago. The tectonic plates hosting Greenland and Scotland separated, in effect creating the Atlantic. Magma from the mantle below the Earth’s crust flowed upwards, forming intrusions into existing Jurassic rock strata, and cooled slowly, created huge sills of columnar basalt. Over millions of years these were slowly exposed, resulting in the present, well-documented geology.

Similar geological formations inspired Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 when he visited the island of Staffa, 100 miles to the south, resulting in the Hebrides Overture. JMW Turner painted Fingal’s Cave and Staffa a couple of years later. There is an enormous edifice of Romantic thought attached to such inspirations, at the root of which is the work of Sir Walter Scott. More recently Joseph Beuys visited a part of the same geological structure, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Ultimately this inspired his tribute to Mendelssohn and the Romantic spirit of Scotland, Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) The Scottish Symphony, in 1970.

There is no doubt that McManners is working in this tradition. Her works, in part a tribute to her artistic predecessors, are painstaking, detailed, delicate and beautiful. They are the result of careful observation and gifted craftsmanship. Her large watercolours, built up over time, often involving multiple sheets of paper, convey the temporal and physical scale of these islands. They are neither stylized nor purely mimetic; often, because of geological complexity and patterning, they can appear abstracted.

McManners shows how tides, climate and botany all affect these extraordinary sculptural forms, which soar and heave out of the deep like cathedrals of time. It’s easy to see how such natural wonders, apparently unscathed by human intervention, presented such imaginative instruction to her artist predecessors.

Like a symphony or the parts of a complex poem, these paintings work together as a whole, creating impressions and emotion. They do what art is supposed to do: intervene between external reality and the imagination, communicating to an audience the intense feelings of an artist in thrall to the complexity and wonder of the universe.
Until May 7

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On 10 May, 2016

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