Artist Sandy Moffat reflects on 'Poets' Pub'

‘Poets’ Pub’ is artist Alexander ‘Sandy’ Moffat's group portrait of the major Scottish poets and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Gathered around the central figure of Hugh MacDiarmid are, from left to right, Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch. In the foreground is Alan Bold and, on the steps behind, the art critic John Tonge.

Now, 39 years on from the completion of his popular painting, the artist reflects on how his imaginary vision came to be.

Alexander (Sandy) Moffat, Poets' Pub, 1980. © Alexander Moffat

Sandy writes: “As a young art student I didn’t know much about modern poetry. At school we’d gone as far as Tennyson and Browning, but no further. We had studied Burns, but on first reading MacDiarmid I found him almost impenetrable. The Drunk Man soon become a favourite, however, and indeed much more than that with John Bellany writing out the lines: “tae be yersel’s - and to mak’ that worth bein.’ Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en,” on the ceiling about his bed.

“The initial impact of Sorley MacLean's anguished love poetry Dain do Eimhir was profound. Robert Garioch’s hilarious accounts of the Edinburgh Festival: “I spent a night amang the cognoscenti ,” and Eddie Morgan’s The Death of Marilyn Monroe  were truly memorable. I’ll never forget them reading those poems. Norman MacCaig of course, was a master. That comes across in almost every single poem he wrote. And he knew a thing or two about painting!

“I began the Seven Poets commission (a series of portraits of Scottish poets commissioned in the late 1970s) with MacDiarmid in the summer of 1978 - just in time as he was to die in the early autumn. Then Garioch, who died shortly afterwards too - MacLean on Skye, followed by George Mackay Brown on Orkney. MacCaig came to my studio for his second portrait followed by Morgan in three locations - his Glasgow flat, his University office, and a few sessions in my studio in the Art School.

“Finally to Oban for Iain Crichton Smith. When I was in Stromness in 1980 working on the portrait of George MacKay Brown, I mentioned I had an idea for a big painting with all of the poets together in a Rose Street Bar. George was very enthusiastic, saying: ”My, that’s a wonderful painting you have in mind, Sandy.”

“As a student I shared a studio in Rose Street with John Bellany and we haunted the bars where a thriving bohemian atmosphere was everywhere in evidence, keeping company with fellow artists, musicians, actors, publishers, lawyers, all sorts of outlaws, and the poets themselves who form the main subject matter of Poets’ Pub.

“The pub depicted is an amalgamation of Milne’s, the Abbotsford, and the Cafe Royal. As well as the ‘seven poets’, Sydney Goodish Smith is included. Sydney sadly died early in 1975 but it seemed right and proper that he should be placed centrally as he was always the life and soul of the party. Alan Bold occupies a place in the foreground and John Tonge is coming down the steps, walking stick in hand. As well as celebrating that unique generation of Scottish poets, the painting conjures up memories of a mythical Edinburgh, the ‘romantic toun’ of my youth.”

‘Poets’ Pub’ is on display now at The Modern Portrait exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Admission is free.

If you would like to hang a print of Poet's Pub on your wall you can order a custom print.

20 March 2019