Love, taxidermy and Brexit. Curious bedfellows, perhaps, unless you happen to be artist Fiona Dean, whose freewheeling conceptual taxidermy – and yes, that is a thing – goes on show this month at the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh, juxtaposed with some wild bird prints from design studio Timorous Beasties. Ranging from a large cock pheasant perched on top of a birdcage to a short-eared owl escaping from its case, this is taxidermy with a strong dose of imagination, a treading of the line between science and art, a connecting of the natural world with the livings rooms and hallways in which it may end up.
“A lot of the time I get given things,” Dean tells me, in the midst of walking her dog near her studio just outside Dunbar. The short-eared owl, a rare bird to find, came from a local who’d found it whilst out late one night in Fenton Barns. “He gave me a call and I went to pick it up. I think a lot of people are quite savvy – they find something and they’ll google taxidermists, or maybe they’ll have seen my work.” Her freezer, she says, is stuffed full, and she’s got a kingfisher and a goshawk on the way in the next few weeks. “The goshawk used to be flown by a couple near me. The buzzard in the show came from the A90 – it’s a beautiful specimen – sadly just a wee knock from a car is enough. Other times its winter starvation. You get that with owls.”
Dean, who trained in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and then Central St. Martins, studied taxidermy with the expert George Jamieson, who works from the tower house at Crammond in Edinburgh, returning to him to brush up on her skills every so often. Her work gives the impression very much of life, albeit one which has passed, the subjects getting a new freedom in death by way of their installation, even if it is an ambiguous life of the artist’s making.
Dean is particularly pleased with a pair of blackbirds which her partner hit with his car a few weeks previously. “It was a male and a female. They were mid-chase. He was absolutely devastated – but as soon as we hit them I knew almost instantly what I wanted to do with them,” she tells me. “In Victorian times, it was quite fashionable to have two hanging gamebirds in a frame, so I thought it would be quite a twist to make it with just a “common blackbird”,if you like.” Mounted in an oval frame to hang on the wall, they are in a “dead position”, Dean tells me. “I get a weird buzz out of seeing them looking dead, if that doesn’t sound odd, because to recreate a bird so it’s got a lifelike body structure, then make it look dead, well, it makes me tingly!” she says. And then she laughs. The name for these two birds came to her a few weeks ago. “’Til Death do us part.” “Oddly enough, my partner proposed to me the next day…it was all quite bizarre.”
Dean’s innovative poses conceal meanings which she has often been loathe to impart. “I’ve always found it quite hard to talk about the work, unless its from a scientific point of view, the how-did-I-make-it kind of thing,” she tells me. “I want people to get their own meaning from it,” she says, pointing out that people will react differently to different pieces. “Some things my partner finds quite morbid,” she says, “but the blackbirds have already sold to an amazing florist, an artist in her own right, who just loved them.” And it is, she says, almost self-psycho-analysis. “I love the process of doing it. I’ve got family full of scientists and artists and for me the combination in taxidermy is perfect. I do straightforward commissions – an owl being an owl. But if I’d done my short-eared owl traditionally, he would have been in a shut case in a closed wing position. Instead, he’s escaped out of the case and is sitting on top, wings stretched.”
Sometimes the work is about relationships – political or personal, “it’s easier sometimes to say things in an abstract way.” And if you are wondering where Brexit comes in, albeit very loosely, amongst the feathers and formaldehyde, it is in the form of a beautiful green parakeet, entitled “Right to Remain,” and perched on top of a pair of binoculars, which may be the most attractive contribution to the debate you will see this year.
Fiona Dean, Fine Art Society, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, 0131 557 4050, www.fasedinburgh.com 15 Nov – 23 Dec, Mon – Fri, 10am – 6pm; Sat 11am – 2pm
It has been nearly 100 years since the death of Mary Cameron, a Scottish painter who was much admired by her contemporaries in the art world for her paintings of everyday Spanish life. Exhibiting widely in her lifetime, both at the Royal Scottish Academy and at the Paris Salon – where her work “Portrait de Mme Blair et ses borzois” (a depiction of her sister with her dogs) received a “Mention Honorable” in 1904, her work has not been shown in a large scale exhibition dedicated to her work since her death in 1921, despite featuring in a number of national collections. That oversight is righted here at the City Art Centre in this major retrospective fo the fascinating artist’s work.
Born in Portobello, Edinburgh, in 1865, Cameron studied at the Trustees Drawing Academy in Edinburgh, going on to take classes at the Veterinary School to improve her appreciation of animal anatomy – horses were a speciality – and in Paris. It was not until her thirties that she visited Spain, studying the works of Diego Velasquez, a painter whom she hugely admired, and eventually setting up studios in Madrid and Seville to produce the images of Spanish cultural life, from rural peasants to the brutality of bullfighting.
Alongside a fine selection of landscapes, portraits and tableaux are photographs and archive material which sketch out in finer detail the life of this fascinating Victorian woman who had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to succeed in what was to become a considerable and very well-regarded artistic career.
Mary Cameron: Life in Paint, City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh, 0131 529 3993, www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk Until 15 Mar 2020, Mon – Sun, 10am – 5pm
Drawing, once a staple of art schools around the country, is no less fundamental now as a prime means of human expression, and this exhibition at St. Andrews Museum (touring next year) seeks in some way to trace its evolution and importance across three generations of contemporary Scottish artists, touching on its way everything from abstract art to jewellery. There is a wide range of work in the exhibition, from the late 1970s to the modern day, from John Houston to Hanna Tuulikki, with botanical drawing writ large.
Lines from Scotland,St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park , Doubledykes Road, St Andrews,www.fcac.co.uk01334 474610 9 Nov – 22 Feb 2020, Weds to Sat 10.30am-4pm