Julia Stuart, 'Francesca Lowe and Alasdair Gray' (The Independent, 26/10/2007)
Francesca Lowe 27 is an artist who works mainly in acrylic ink on canvas. Born in London in 1979, she graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 2004 and has exhibited in New York and London. She won the Red Mansion Prize in 2003, and the Deutsche Bank Pyramid Award for Fine Art in 2004. Her work explores the human journey through life and time. She lives in London with her brother.
I first met Alasdair in Waterstone’s, in printed format, in 2004, when I came across his novel, Lanark. When Tot Taylor, the co-director of the Riflemaker gallery, later asked me what was my favourite book, I said Lanark. He suggested we contact Alasdair because most of the artists at the gallery deal with words as well as pictures. We wrote to him and then went to see him in Glasgow, in 2005. I never thought in my wildest dreams that he would agree to a collaboration.
I was extremely nervous – I had a sly whiskey in the hotel while Tot was in the loo. I was worried I would be exposed as a con-artist, and that Alasdair wouldn’t like my work. Our backgrounds are also quite different. He’s a Scottish socialist, and I’ve been brought up in the south-west of England and am middle class. I half expected him to be made of crystal or have a smoky golden hue, but he’s very normal. He’s witty and quirky. I thought he might take an instant dislike to me, but he didn’t seem to and liked my paintings. I think we’ve got common ground in that we deal with normal human issues of man’s journey, and choices that you make.
We wrote to each other for a bit, trying to work out how we could collaborate. Eventually we decided he would write a short story with the same title as my show and dealing with the same themes: man’s journey in life and how you deal with time and choice.
I’ve met him four times now. He’s extremely entertaining and I really like his imagination; so much so that I have nearly missed the plane back to London a few times. It feels such a privilege to hear him talking. He’s got an intriguing pattern of speech, and speaks in a bizarre rhythm. You never imagine you’re going to meet someone who you have so much respect for. I still get slightly nervous because he’s the only person I’ve met of that calibre. I guess I’ve never hung out and got pissed with someone who is so imaginative and knows so much stuff.
The story he wrote is amazing and appears on a panel in the exhibition as well as in the catalogue. The experience has been the highlight of my life. I hope he’ll enjoy the show and that we’ll keep in touch.
Alasdair Gray 72 the Whitbread prize-winning novelist was born in Glasgow in 1934 and trained as a painter at the Glasgow School of Art. He worked as a part-time art teacher, muralist and theatrical scene painter and playwright. Later he wrote fiction and is best known for his highly-acclaimed first novel, ‘Lanark’. He lives in Glasgow, with his wife.
Francesca’s dealer, Tot Taylor, got in touch and said Francesca greatly like my work and hoped that I might write something about hers in the catalogue for her forthcoming exhibition. Tot and Francesca came to Glasgow to discuss it. She brought colour photographs of her work and I found them very interesting. They had human figures in them, existing in what I can only call groundless space. They were crashing into each other, producing flowery or crystalline explosions. I was intrigued because she had obviously made some study of figure drawing. When I was trained as an artist, figure drawing was the basis of our skill.
I agreed to the collaboration because I felt very flattered by it, I don’t like saying no and my hobby is being friendly to the English. I liked her work and I don’t find it easy to like the work of artists who are much younger than me, because I belong to a graphical pictorial tradition which is now largely unfashionable. We exchanged some letters and she began to conceive her exhibition in watercolour, ink and acrylic. I found the images pleasing and colourfully inventive. They reminded me of illustrations in the children’s books that were most enjoyed and most formative of my own interest in writing and painting when I was wee.
She had this notion of the theme of her exhibition being some form of magic terminus – magic doors which you entered, leaving other worlds behind. There are many magic doors in literature. Francesca suggested that I write a story on the theme of terminus or magic doors. As with most writing propositions, I thought: ‘I’ve no ideas about that, probably can’t do it,’ then ideas began to assemble. I was taught it was impolite to make personal remarks, but Francesca was intelligent, good looking, charming, and likes my work – I have a prejudice for people who like my writing.
I’ve seen colour photographs from her exhibition. I like her use of symbolism. It gives me a pleasant sense of a wonderland. Ours is a friendly relationship. We can laugh together about things. I’ve found the collaboration interesting, but as I’m 72, I’m too set in my ways for her to have a major influence, except there is this story I wrote which I certainly wouldn’t have, had I not met her. It’s a story I’m pleased with.