Mother & Child – Part 2

Linsey Young – Curator of contemporary British art at Tate Britain – profiles the extraordinary work of female artists as told by their daughters. Part two shines a light on Rita McGurn and France-Lise McGurn

France-Lise McGurn in the artist’s kitchen, Glasgow, with crochet figure and wall paintings by Rita McGurn. All photography Morwenna Grace Kearsley

Rita McGurn was a self-taught artist and designer. She began work as an interior designer when she and her family moved to Zambia in the ’60s. Upon returning to Glasgow, she moved into production design on commercials and films. McGurn created an extensive body of work in a wide range of materials and across disciplines, and was commissioned to make the smokestack sculpture for the Twomax building in the Gorbals, which still stands, and can be seen on the Woman’s Library Tour of Glasgow. Painting, papier-mâché and crochet were among the central methods in her practice.

France-Lise McGurn is a Scottish painter who creates layered installations, often incorporating studio-made works with the gallery walls, floors and ceilings. Working indirectly from an archive of images, her figurative compositions are made intuitively and stretch from canvas to wall to evoke movement and the process of recollection. She has recently had exhibitions at Pasquart Kunsthaus Centre d’Art, Bienne; Tramway, Glasgow; and Simon Lee Gallery, London.

Rita McGurn

Linsey Young: When I was at university, I lived at the end of your road; we didn’t know each other at the time, but I clearly remember always trying to steal a look at your mum when I walked past the house. She was so beautiful and always seemed to be working on something fabulous that I couldn’t quite see from my position peering in from the street!

France-Lise McGurn: It’s so funny you used to pass by the window; I love that. It was such an open view; it never bothered mum that people could see in. We were always a very open house with an open-door policy too, always full and bustling. I used to get recognised in the street and asked, “Are you the girl who lives in the house with all the paintings?” She was always making, and she told me as a little girl she was constantly drawing and creating things, but that art school just didn’t seem like something she could do, because her grandparents – who raised her – thought they would need money. My memory of mum is that she would be cooking, painting, crocheting, moving furniture, painting it, scribbling in notebooks, and hosting the family, all at the same time and with equal energy.

She didn’t need to take herself away to paint in another room; there could be a full house, the telly on, the fire going, and she would be smashing plates in the garden to make a mosaic. I vaguely remember the beginning of her oil paintings, but it didn’t start with one – she was so prolific it started with 20 somehow. She certainly created in bodies of work; she would become obsessed with one material and the whole house would shift… It would be painted completely in leopard skin, or suddenly be populated by papier-mâché figures.

The living room, including tall ‘Lizal’ crochet figure and crocheted cushions by Rita McGurn

That sounds like the most perfect house to grow up in. Did your mum ever work with a gallery or have formal exhibitions?

It was! No, she never worked with a gallery in a formal way. She did have some exhibitions, in Compass Gallery in the early ’80s, and some organised with my dad, in Virginia Court and Ingram Street. Iota gallery, in Partick, Glasgow, were very supportive of Mum’s practice and commissioned a wall piece in 2014, and she had several public commissions, including the Grand Ole Opry, on the south side of Glasgow. She worked as a set designer, and in interior design, so making artwork was simply something she did all the time; it wasn’t with a view to exhibiting. I mean, she liked to, but the work was getting made either way!

Wall-mounted painted wooden plates by Rita McGurn

The feminist artists I’m researching often worked with domestic materials because they were available and affordable. I wonder if it was similar for Rita?

Very much so. Everything was fair game; any surface or material could be used. My mum was born in the Calton area of Glasgow; her grandad had a stall on the Barras market (he cut keys and sold pets if I remember rightly), and she had her own stall years later. The Barras had a huge impact on her, finding bits of whatever she could get her hands on. I think that’s why the crochet was such a big part of her work; she could do it anywhere, anytime, and it was easy to get job lots of wool. I remember somehow she got her hands on some IZAL toilet paper (the shiny stuff – if you know, you know), a lot of it, and it became a 15-foot figure which now stands in my dad’s hallway.

She would use anything that was lying around or not being used, even if just for a minute. There was a joke that if you stood still too long in our house, she would turn you into a sculpture, freeze you for soup, or paint you Hammerite blue. We all lost some good jumpers to those crochet figures, as stuffing or just stitched right in.

A crochet figure in the hall made by Rita McGurn

She has such a distinctive aesthetic – did she ever talk about artists or makers that influenced her?

Mum certainly drew influence from people she loved – like Chaïm Soutine, Philippe Starck – but to be dead honest, she wasn’t a follower; she didn’t have heroes. She would get enchanted by a painting, artist or designer, but then she could fall out of love with them. I recall a fleeting adoration of Paula Rego and Darcey Bussell, but she was mysterious like that, driven by something else – a kind of horror vacui.

A collection of paintings by Rita McGurn in the stairwell at the artist’s home

She worked in set design?

She started working in interior decor in Zambia. My parents lived there for five or so years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and she worked on set design for films and commercials when they got back. I believe she started on photography shoots and then in film with Charlie Gormley, a filmmaker and my Dad’s best pal. She later did theatre too, which she loved… maybe not some of the more corporate gigs, but I remember all the props: 300 fake fish in the bath in particular.

Crochet heads in shelves, bedroom, created by Rita McGurn

She must have been thrilled when you went to art school. Did you ever talk about your work together?

She was happy; however, we never really got to the stage where we discussed artwork together, because mainly she was a mum. It would have come eventually, but I didn’t have an exhibition to speak of when she was alive. She would definitely get worried… feared that I would be shit at it, or rejected. I remember her grimaced face asking if I had got accepted to art school. She was worried for me because I think she knew being in art could break your heart.

She was delighted for me, despite the fact she never got a chance to go herself, but it wasn’t her style to think like that; she simply loved making. Her lack of training didn’t bother her. She said she would be happy whatever her children did, as long as they were happy. The one exception was if we went into the police force…

France-Lise McGurn, ‘Self-Control’, 2019. Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery London

In terms of making work, has any element of her practice informed what you do?

Her wall paintings are a direct influence, and certainly my fixation with figuration started there. One of the most influential things about my mum’s work was her approach: I didn’t learn about the ‘serious artist in their studio’ until I went to art school. I realised when I got there that there was an incredibly pretentious view of artists, and they painstakingly laid out their palettes, discussing paint hues and theory. For me, work happened compulsively, constantly and with a lot of love. I was lucky to not feel afraid of it or have a restricted view. Of course, I have had a very different life than mum, and a lot of different opportunities and training, so my set up is more normal. But it carries through, her fearlessness and dedication.

Photography Morwenna Grace Kearsley 

Special thanks to Peter McGurn

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Mother & Child – Part 1

Exploring intergenerational support and sacrifice between contemporary female creatives and their artist matriarchs, guest editor Linsey Young – Curator of contemporary British art at Tate Britain – illuminates the extraordinary work of mothers – spanning tapestry, crochet, paint and papier-mâché – as told by their daughters. Part one of two shines a light on Elizabeth Radcliffe and Beca Lipscombe

Portrait of Elizabeth and Beca in Elizabeth’s house, January 2021. All photography Morwenna Grace Kearsley unless stated

Elizabeth Radcliffe is a Scottish tapestry weaver practicing in the classical tradition of hand weaving on a loom. Influenced by the fall of clothing and textiles about the human body, she makes full-figure portraits, to create highly detailed, almost painterly effects of light and texture. Known for combining new and old techniques, Radcliffe has developed a distinctive method of finishing a shaped tapestry.

Her daughter, Beca Lipscombe, is a Scottish fashion and textile designer, printmaker, and one half of Atelier E.B. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Lipscombe’s professional practice is multi-layered and draws upon a vernacular aesthetic. This sensibility was evident in both her eponymous label and her work as a freelance designer for various companies including Liberty, Chloé, Stella McCartney and Ann-Sofie Back.

Now, under the umbrella of Atelier E.B, Lipscombe operates in the space between design, art and commerce, responding to and critiquing the tensions generated by these uneasy bedfellows.

‘Youngjoo Yoo’, 2012

Linsey Young: A lot of women artists of the ’70s and ’80s in the UK worked with textiles in extraordinary and innovative ways. How did Elizabeth come to work with tapestry and was she engaged with a network of other artists? 

Beca Lipscombe: Encouraged by her many elder male colleagues, my mum gave up her first job as a cartographer to be employed by the artist Archie Brennan, who was then the director of Dovecot studios in Edinburgh, to work in the screen-printing element of the studios. This was my mum’s introduction to tapestry.

By the time she finished her tapestry degree in the late ’70s, she was a divorced mother with two young children. She attended teacher training and once qualified she found a creative outlet in her role as an art teacher. My mum had – and has – many creative friends; however, tapestry is extremely time consuming, and although it’s changing now, for a long time it was considered highly unfashionable in contemporary art. Many of her cohort from college did not practice tapestry after they left college. 

Most tapestries, graphic or abstract, are woven in a square or rectangle. Mum’s figures when woven are cut from the loom and finished truthful to the silhouette of the sitter. I have seen many brilliant tapestries, but none accomplished in this pioneering way.

Elizabeth weaving at art school, 1977. Photography Theresa McKenna

In her tapestry portraiture she seems largely to focus on portraits of women, was that a conscious decision? 

I believe my mother’s choices regarding her sitters or characters come from an elan perspective, rather than gender.

My mum and I see the world through textiles. I believe because Scotland was such a prolific textile producing nation, it’s ingrained in the Scottish psyche, especially for my mum’s generation who would have experienced this industry at its finest.

‘Cool Bitch and Hot Dog’ at Elizabeth’s degree show, 1978

One of my favourite works is ‘Cool Bitch and Hot Dog’ (1978). It’s gorgeous, and the three-dimensional elements like nothing I’d seen before, but I also love it because it seems to capture something of Edinburgh women. My granny, who lived next to the art school, was a classic Miss Jean Brodie character – wild and contained in equal measure. I know your mum taught art at James Gillespie’s, where Muriel Spark went to school; could you talk a little about that particular east-coast character and how it is expressed in your mum and her work?

Mum created ‘Cool Bitch and Hot Dog’ in her final year at art school. It’s a full-scale figure of a woman (Cool Bitch) and her Dalmatian dog (Hot Dog). Charlie Miller, Edinburgh’s equivalent to Glasgow’s Rita Rusk, borrowed the tapestry to stand at the entrance of his eponymous hair salon. Cool and Hot then came to live with us. This work became extended family. I love her, she’s my sort of bitch – woven in two dimensions with a three-dimensional fur coat and accessories.

The Gillespie’s my mother taught at was so different from the Gillespie’s Spark would have attended and wrote about in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark was brought up in Bruntsfield in Edinburgh, where James Gillespie’s is located. My mother was brought up in council accommodation in Musselburgh, then Juniper Green, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. She was very bright, and, in those days, children were strategically placed into secondary education on their primary school performance. My mother got into Boroughmuir Secondary School, located in the same area that Spark grew up; it was a state school where they placed the children they viewed as high achievers. My mum had to travel for hours a day on the bus to get to and from school. She excelled there and became captain of the tennis and hockey teams, and also fenced. When I say this now, I know how it sounds; however, my mum really did come from a working-class background. 

People often tell me how much they loved having my mum as their art teacher, which I can imagine is how Miss Brodie’s girls felt about her. 

Atelier E.B (Beca Lipscombe & Lucy McKenzie) ‘Paravent Uchiwa-e / Fantasy escalette’, 2015. Courtesy of Galerie Micheline Szwajcer

Your mum, like so many of the other women artists I’m researching, has tirelessly juggled roles of artist, mother and breadwinner, having to take time out of the studio to support her family. How do you think that affected her work, and do you think things have changed for women artists, or do you still face similar struggles?

I remember reading that Spark left her family to concentrate on her writing career. I can imagine she was severely judged for this. I am thankful that she was so forward thinking and driven, as we wouldn’t have all her great writing.

Without a doubt women still struggle with their many roles. I can remember my mum having migraines from stress and sleeping a lot when she came home from work. No time or energy was left for her or her own work. My mum only began weaving again in 1999 when she retired from teaching, hence the 20-year gap in her output.

In contrast, my own experiences have been very different. Although I was, at one point, teaching, freelancing and working on my own label, in tandem with bringing up our daughter, I have the most supportive and intelligent ex-partner, and, unusually, I feel at times that perhaps his career may have felt the impact of having a child rather than mine. I also have a business partner and friend who sees me, understands my roles, and gave me the opportunity to get out of teaching.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz’, 2015

Elizabeth taught you art at Higher and A level, and, since 2008, you and Lucy have included her work in solo and Atelier E.B exhibitions; in addition, you also live in the same building. Are you able to talk a little about how that works? Do you discuss your projects with each other, or is it telepathic by this stage?

When I attended the art department at Gillespie’s, it was open plan and had at least five art teachers who all brought different skill sets. My mum’s specialist area was design. She was very good at inspiring from a distance. She had a cupboard full of thematically organised folders she had assembled. Most folk who went through the art department remember utilising this great resource. These folders now sit in her studio at home like a time capsule.

We don’t show my mums work out of a familial obligation. We hold her work in high regard and view her as our contemporary.    

Myself, my brother and my mother live in the same building, however we have separate dwellings. Our family experienced real tragedy when I was little and only now do I realise this is probably why we all stick together in independent yet close proximity. The house is an old whisky bond that was bought in the early ’80s by my mum and her partner at the time. We were working on this derelict building as a family when my mum’s partner died at the age of 34; therefore, this building remains an incredibly special place to us – it’s brought up three generations of women. My mum has her tapestry studio in her home, and I have my print studio on the ground floor.

My mum and I rarely discuss our work with one another. She is in her world making up for lost time.

Photography Morwenna Grace Kearsley 

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here