ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman, 25 October 2012

INVITING artists to discuss their work on film is rarely a good idea. In The Diary’s experience, it usually either results in very good artists retreating into their shells and mumbling unintelligibly about what they do, or very bad artists holding forth pretentiously about the earth-shattering significance of their largely inconsequential output. Every now and then, however, an artist comes along who is as engaging in the flesh as in the gallery, and the late, great William Johnstone, below, sails effortlessly into this extremely exclusive club.

In 1973, the filmmaker Suzanne Neild visited Johnstone at his studio and recorded him at work. Rather than bombarding him with questions, she simply let him chat away as he painted, and the resulting film, A Point In Time, feels incredibly intimate – the next best thing to paying him a visit yourself.

It helps that Neild’s subject was used to addressing an audience. Born in 1897, the son of a Borders farmer, Johnstone was one of the first British artists to paint purely abstract pictures, but he was also an educator, working as principal at Camberwell College of Art from 1938-46 and then principal at Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1947-60. In 1954 he received an OBE for his services to art education.

By the time Neild caught up with him, Johnstone had returned to the Borders to concentrate on his painting, living in a remote location in the Ettrick Valley – and on Sunday, as part of the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, there will be a chance to visit his former home and to watch extracts from A Point In Time at nearby Over Phawhope Bothy.

Meeting at 9am at Hawick Common Haugh Car Park, audience members will take a coach to a location near the bothy and then walk there on foot – about an hour’s yomp. Then, after screenings of extracts from A Point In Time and Steve Clarke-Hall’s 1975 film about Johnstone, I See The Image, there will be a discussion about the artist and his work led by Ken Duffy, the former director of Edinburgh Printmakers who worked with Johnstone on several projects, and the ecological artist Alex Hamilton.

In A Point In Time, Johnstone certainly throws up a whole host of gems that are ripe for discussion. While painting a landscape in watercolour, he says: “You have to think of yourself as a part of nature. You are nature, as well as the fields and views, so you have to paint your inner self as well as painting the outer thing.”

Later, while talking about the perils of overworking a painting, he says: “Of course, there’s no end to what you can do to it, but the tendency is it always gets worse. Very few people can get the simplicity of a thing.”

The Alchemy Festival website has Sunday’s event timed at four hours, but The Diary suspects the discussion afterwards may extend that quite considerably. For more information about this event, and the various other film screenings taking place in and around Hawick this weekend, visit

Leave a Reply