Stay at home, save lives

With everyone in the UK, except keyworkers, asked to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives’ due to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Alice Strang, a Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, finds works in our collection which relate to this exceptional period in our nation’s history.

Winifred Nicholson Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight 1931 © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Following the closure of schools throughout the country at the end of last week, this Monday (23 March 2020) was the first day of home schooling for many. My sons and I started with an art lesson, attempting to craft hats like those Winifred Nicholson made with her children in Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight, 1931. In her cheerful painting, Nicholson’s four-year old son and two-year old daughter are seen sitting at a table, with a view out to the Solent visible through the conservatory window behind them. Perched on their heads are delightful homemade hats, rather more successful than ours turned out to be. However, the presence of colourful mugs and plates set out before them on a striped tablecloth, suggests that they, as well as my offspring, were rewarded for their efforts. 

Elizabeth Blackadder Cats and Flowers 1980 © Royal Scottish Academy. All rights reserved. Bridgeman Images 2023

In an evening announcement of Monday 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson instructed all UK citizens to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and to save lives. One consequence of this was that many people began to work from home on Tuesday 24 March 2020. Elizabeth Blackadder’s Cats and Flowers, 1980 swiftly took on a new meaning, as the country’s felines became our new colleagues. It features two of the artist’s favourite subjects, flowers and her beloved pets. Rather than having a focal point, the viewer’s gaze is invited to roam freely over the surface of this intimate work. Each element is realised in Blackadder’s detailed technique, whilst the relationship between them is finely poised within a flattened perspective. 

Robert Henderson Blyth The Washing at the Window 1947 © Estate of the Artist, courtesy private collection on long term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland

By Wednesday 25 March 2020 and with a family’s worth of laundry building up, Robert Henderson Blyth’s The Washing at the Window, 1947 struck me afresh.

Painted whilst Blyth was on the teaching staff at Edinburgh College of Art, it depicts a young man leaning out of a window to reach a make-shift washing line.

The line is strung up between gutters and he grasps a clothes peg in his mouth, because his hands are full with this mundane, domestic task. I wonder how many who find themselves in self-isolation, will take advantage of the newly arrived Spring sunshine in a similar manner.

Anne Redpath From a Window in Skye About 1946 © Royal Scottish Academy. All rights reserved. Bridgeman Images 2023

As the week progressed, works in the collection featuring views through windows became ever more relatable, as we looked at the outside world from the inside. Anne Redpath’s From a Window in Skye, c.1946 was made during a family holiday to the Scottish island. A layered view can be seen through the window frame and its accompanying lace curtains; in the foreground, the stone wall and gate of the cottage garden where Redpath was positioned, in the mid-ground, parts of the nearby buildings are visible, whilst through them distant hills can be seen, issuing a bittersweet invitation to the viewer to join them in the Great Outdoors.

Let’s hope that we can accept this invitation before too long.

By Alice Strang, Senior Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, National Galleries of Scotland, 26 March 2020