In 2019, Victoria Crowe was the subject of a major retrospective at the City Art Centre, following fast on the heels of a show of her portraits at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. For the artist, this milestone coincided with a brush with serious illness, a year of treatment and recovery which felt like “suspended animation”. Beginning to work again just as lockdown started, it was as if the shaking of certainties she had experienced personally was now being felt by the whole world.
This body of work, produced during the last year, stands alone, addressing this unique time and place for Crowe and for the rest of us. After the success of Catching the Light, an anthology of poems inspired by her work published to coincide with the retrospective, the show is also an in-depth collaboration with poet Christine De Luca, whose written responses accompany each painting. Further plans are underway for a song cycle, supported by the Michael Cuddigan Trust.
It’s a deeply contemplative show, infused with the stillness of lockdown, focussing on the landscapes immediately around Crowe’s home in West Linton and her garden observed from the window. These are landscapes obscured by snow, captured in the blue-gold half-light of winter or the flaming red of a sunset: familiar landscapes made strange, in the magic hour when the ordinary world touches the numinous.
Crowe’s images and De Luca’s words seem to lean into one another, each drawing out the power of the other. There is much uncertainty: snow blurs the paths in the garden “the way ahead unsure”; “even the solidity of trees is in question”. The poems make the times explicit in ways the paintings do not: wild fires sweeping through forests; the news “spooling numbers of the dead”.
But there is also reassurance. The trees in Crowe’s paintings are never only trees: even in their specific tree-ness, they stretch towards ideas and emotions which are teased out more explicitly in the poems. They are vulnerable, “stripped as skeletons”, but also resilient, sentinels which “keep faith”, which “stand between uncertainty and something like eternity”.
The old witch hazel is “a healing tree for a wounded world”, the coral bark maple, red in the light of a setting sun, is “fully charged to shape a brighter future”. This show is gentle but definite consolation for a world groping its way back from the edges of uncertainty.