Review of William McLaren - An Artist Out of Time by Georgina Coburn

This is a review of William McLaren - An Artist Out of Time by Hi-Arts journalist Georgina Coburn.

Georgina Coburn welcomes an important step in restoring the reputation of illustrator William McLaren.

In a world obsessed with the Art of the Now, William McLaren – An Artist Out Of Time raises many questions about Scottish visual traditions and the habitual exclusion of Applied or Decorative Arts from the national canon of Art History. The whole idea of what constitutes Scottish “crafts, techniques and aesthetics as a living tradition” begs further investigation and scrutiny.

Though none of these issues are directly interrogated by the film, the tone being set by a personal rather than a critical agenda, the documentary feels very much like part of a necessary process of cultural and social archaeology.

Aspects of McLaren’s milieu, the contradictions between an artist whose life spans reactionary periods in history but who chose to evoke artistic traditions of the past, are layers which are tantalisingly glimpsed but not explored by the film in its current form. It is ultimately the human interest of McLaren’s story that binds this introduction to his life and works together, and as an essential starting point for any cinematic storytelling it is an admirable beginning.

William McLaren – An Artist Out Of Time reads very much as the work in progress that it is, unfolding through conversations with those who knew the artist and punctuated with hundreds of images of his drawings, paintings, illustrative and decorative work. In this way the experience of the audience parallels that of the film makers in researching and uncovering McLaren’s life and work with each successive testimonial.

It is this whole process of discovery that the film evokes, and the sense of telling an individual story that may not have otherwise come to light, rather than a definitive portrayal of the man and his oeuvre. At the end of the screening I came away craving a feature that actively engaged with the contradictory layers and aesthetics inherent in McLaren’s life and work, whilst feeling equally inspired by the film makers’ six-year journey which began with a chance discovery.

A short 24-minute documentary, And So Goodbye, screened prior to the main film revealed the inspiration for Director Jim Hickey and Producer Robin Mitchell’s subsequent research and documentation of McLaren’s life and work. Mitchell’s discovery of Mercury magazines belonging to his mother featuring the artist’s work and McLaren’s art direction on the 1944 film And So Goodbye, which Mitchell’s father had also worked on, provided the catalyst for their project.

The story begins with a personal connection and this emphasis is felt throughout the documentary presentation of interviews and recollections. The presence of both Director and Producer at the screening provided fascinating insight into their process, and was deserving of a wider audience.

Described as an artist who “lived his life in the past”, McLaren’s interest in Italian Renaissance Art, French painting and 18th century lithography and engraving influenced both his imagery and techniques. His prolific output as a painter and muralist, illustrator for Radio Times (from 1951-1967), The Saturday Book and The Sphere magazine, designer of over 150 book covers and of customised furniture and interior design schemes reveals a desire to evoke an elegant civilised world, from the walls of his council flat in Cardenden, Fife, to the stately halls of wealthy clients.

The transformation of a surface or object to evoke another era is part of McLaren’s signature, based on traditional methods of construction, geometry of drawing and restoration. Both in his work in great country estates and his own domestic space, such as the painted ceiling and fireplace in his old West Bow flat in Edinburgh, there is a sense of the artist painting himself and his clients into a scene or aesthetic, backed by histories real and imagined.

The 20th century is wholly absent within this design which is what makes McLaren’s art unique and rather fascinating. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s the design and craft of the artist’s imagery belongs to another time entirely. Both the visual denial of his own time and the context of his portraiture would be interesting starting points for further film projects, perhaps incorporating some of the artist’s compositional devices into the frame.

Resoundingly, Hickey and Mitchell have replaced McLaren’s unmarked grave in Cardenden with two headstones, one carved, the other on screen, an acknowledgement of a life’s work that may have otherwise remained unseen.