Andrew Welsh explores the history and ever-growing popularity of Dunkeld Art Exhibition…
Thoughts of cultural goings-on immediately north of Perth tend to focus for many on Pitlochry and its unique repertory theatre.
Just 13 miles away, however, lie the conjoined settlements of Dunkeld and Birnam, which can boast their own well-established arts centre — with one of Courier Country’s longest-running and largest displays of paintings and sculptures also staged annually at the picturesque Highland gateway.
Started in 1970 as a Dunkeld Cathedral fundraiser, Dunkeld Art Exhibition has been a permanent fixture ever since.
Such has been the event’s growth in popularity from its humble beginnings, in 2019 more than 200 artists from all over the UK showed work at the 18th Century country town’s Duchess Anne Hall.
Pandemic restrictions meant the former school hosted a scaled-down but still successful 50th anniversary exhibition at its site at The Cross last year.
Safety remains a prime concern, with capacity again being carefully restricted for its latest three-week edition, which opens on Thursday.
A popular festival
It’s perhaps indicative of how impressive Dunkeld Art Exhibition had become before Covid’s cruel intervention that this year’s show still comprises hundreds of works by 80-plus professional and amateur artists.
A committee member since moving to Dunkeld in the 1980s, exhibition chairman Margaret Scott exemplifies the spirited nature of the volunteers who pull the event together.
She tells me the annual attraction really mushroomed on launching a dedicated website in 2007.
“After that the number of artists increased every year until we had around 220,” Margaret explains.
“We used to ask artists to register in April and May online, then opened in June for a 10-week exhibition.
“We guaranteed each would have at least one picture hanging for the preview evening, and if it sold their second picture would be put up.
“Roughly at week three and six we did a rotation, but over the 10 weeks we usually sold around 440 pieces of work. This year, due to all the uncertainty, we decided to do the same as last year and stage a three-week exhibition.
“We’ll be open every day and we’ve some of our faithful artists who have exhibited for many years, as well as a number of new younger artists.”
Covid’s persistence coupled with retirements mean a core of eight members, down from 14 last year, have shouldered the exhibition’s organisational burden.
In normal years the Duchess Anne’s doors stay open into early evening, but like 2020 a decision’s been taken to curtail daily viewing at 4pm given staffing requirements.
“Three years ago I counted we had over 80 volunteers helping to steward and keep the exhibition going,” Ms Scott adds.
“At least two local ladies used to steward with their mothers back in the day when it began. They both moved away when they married but have since come back to Dunkeld.
“Last year I know we lost a number of very active 70 and 80-year-old stewards just because they were wary of coming out into busy places.
“I took over as chairman 10 years ago. The previous chairman had done 16 years and was ready to retire, although she stewarded regularly until last year.”
It might be a smaller that normal offering again, but a glance at the pieces included reveals no decline in quality.
Among the numerous landscape artists taking part are the prolific Paul Craven, former Armed Forces Art Award winner Adrian Masson, retired textile designer Alfred Marshall, Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Frances Shepherd, and Perthshire’s own Annie McLean, Anthony McCluskey and Heather Wadsworth.
Stylish works from Perth-based figurative artist Alan Wright also figure, along with a trio of stunning acrylic on board depictions of Dunkeld evening scenes by Glasgow painter Fiona Graham.
Wildlife art features prominently, with work from Kirkcaldy’s Gabi Paterson, Jeni MacNab, Mags Gray, Blairgowrie painter Sabrin Miller and Borders-based Susan Mitchell noticeable, while there are also animal portraits by Anne Stillman, Ruth Walker and Maureen Campbell.
A range of media
A broad range of media is also in evidence, with seascapes from resin and pigment artist Gillian van der Walt figuring alongside quirky teacake foil art by Perthshire talent Jane Ross.
Visitors can equally anticipate seeing popular Sarah Urie felt and wool animal sculptures, plus textile art from Neil MacGillivray and Fife’s Jean Boath, and Avril Cunningham pastels and lino cuts.
Eye-catching photo-art has its place, with images from David Bywater, Sandie Smith and Aberfeldy’s Heather Budge-Reid all on display.
Glasswork’s another medium represented, via examples from Alan Lewis and Lynn Shilp, while sculptures by the likes of Perthshire duo Dorothy Logan and Franciszka Doris will also be on show.
Other notable inclusions are decorative bird boxes from Maureen McAlpine and woodturned creations by Angus artist Sheila Gibbs, while Dunkeld resident Debbie Barnes has produced a beautiful cross-stitch embroidery showing a day in the life of Beatrix Potter’s ever-endearing character Peter Rabbit.
Art for all ages
Some of the regular exhibitors longest associated with Dunkeld Art Exhibition include Angela Gibbs, Dunfermline artist Rosemary Storm and St Andrews-based painter Walter Watson, who ploughs all the profits from his art into charitable ventures.
The younger artists taking part this year include 30-somethings Sharon Greig, from Dundee, and Abby Lindstrom King, whose acrylic painting and pyrography pen drawing on wood Chrome Swan has travelled all the way from Montana, USA.
Easily the most youthful contributor to the exhibition, however, is Highland landscape painter Magnus Ibbetson. Remarkably, he’s only just celebrated his 14th birthday.
Enthusiasm for art
Despite such prodigies, Margaret is guarded when asked if she sees the increasingly popular event as a potential launchpad for a career in art’s big league, preferring instead to savour the little triumphs that have helped maintain her enthusiasm down the decades. “I had a lovely email from one artist who says how thrilled she is if her work sells,” she says.
“It gives her so much of a boost to get her letter. So much so, that for the past few years she has donated her money to us.”
The goodwill towards the event from both participants and visiting art lovers is another remarkable aspect of the Dunkeld phenomenon.
People return to the town year after year to enjoy the exhibition’s friendly atmosphere almost as much as its array of art, and the generous manner in which so many support historic Dunkeld Cathedral’s cause speaks volumes.
“I wouldn’t like to say how much money has been raised over the 50 years, but in its busiest years we gave the church £20,000 more than once,” Margaret declares. “In 2018 and 2019 it was £9,500 and £7,500, and last year for three weeks we gave them £3,000 from our sales.”
The outstanding summer offering at The Cross is a significant added pull for many people looking to enjoy Dunkeld’s attractions.
Even last year, test and trace showed 1,500 visitors attended the shorter three-week extravaganza.
“The exhibition brings lots of people to Dunkeld, not just artists and their friends,” says the event’s chairman.
“Many people comment that they timed a visit to see it, and we’ve sent pictures all over the world with visitors.
“In previous years we used the Duchess Anne upstairs hall to hang around 400 pictures at a time — we took in around 1000 and stored the others in the downstairs hall.
“Last year we thought it advisable not to use upstairs as the staircase is quite narrow. Downstairs we have an exit with the fire door at the bottom of the hall providing extra ventilation, too. Never did we think 2020 and 2021 would bring such restrictions on everything we did.”
Margaret and her hard-working team will take an extended break following next month’s exhibition close, with forward planning likely to resume in January.
As many people now start to put the second lockdown behind them, it seems art’s appeal has the potential to help renew in-person bonds in Dunkeld and Birnam.
Even before opening day, Margaret says she can sense a growing feelgood factor. “We won’t really know until we get the exhibition going just what its impact will be, but there’s an excitement amongst the artists who are all delighted to come and exhibit,” she smiles.
“I feel we’re lucky to have a range of independent shops in Dunkeld, and hope they all benefit from the exhibition.
“I’ve enjoyed my years of helping and meeting people from all over the world, and look forward to doing our best to keep the exhibition going in the years ahead.”
Dunkeld Art Exhibition opens daily from 10am-4pm (noon to 4pm on Sundays) from August 19 until September 9 in the lower hall at the Duchess Anne in Dunkeld. All works shown on dunkeldartexhibition.com will be available to buy.