Lachlan Goudie’s unprecedented access to the Scottish shipyards of Rosyth, Govan and Scotstoun has resulted in a remarkable series of observational drawings and paintings. Collectively they make up ‘Shipyard’, an impressive show currently on display at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine. The artist admits he initially feared the shipbuilders might resent the presence of an observer peering at them as they went about their long daily grind of heavy manual labour. Not so, it transpires. “They had”, he concludes, “many enlightening things to say about how they view my work, their environment, the principles of shipbuilding and the kind of sophisticated craftsmanship that their profession entails”. Hardly surprising when you think about those gigantic ships coming out of the Clyde. Made with millimetric precision and aspiring to nothing less than functional perfection – these workers past and present understand craft.
Goudie, best known as a judge on BBC2’s Big Painting Challenge, has always been fascinated by the shipyards, and clearly revels in the chance to roam free there with his easel. The show boasts a broad range of paintings and drawings in a vast array of sizes. Some are clearly working sketches, with a feel of direct observation, while others are studio pieces.
In the main hall of the maritime museum we encounter two giant ink drawings depicting cross sections of ships. These form the centrepiece of the exhibition, and do not disappoint. They need to be seen in the flesh to be believed. Hanging cheek by jowl with real machinery in the museum, they successfully communicate a true sense of the scale of what’s going on in the Clyde- mega huge warships, built in separate mind boggling sections and joined together. They evoke Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, with perhaps just a hint of Piranesi. Technically they’re impressive, but they also manage to avoid feeling like diagrams, which can’t be an easy line to walk.
Indeed it’s the gestural yet light touch evident in these pieces which knits the show together across a range of sizes and media – gouache, oils, pastel and pencil. The pictures feel airy, without any of the industrial smog-spouting gloom of 50s Lowry. The pastel on paper pieces are particularly bright and optimistic, this colourful medium perfectly expressing a boyish fascination with large scale construction.
Goudie’s illustrations owe a great debt to Sir Muirhead Bone, that Scottish titan of early 20th century industrial reportage, whose work also managed to straddle the line between technical drawing and high art. As if to underline this, Shipyard contains a bonus glass case of shipbuilding prints and drawings by Bone, reminding us of Goudie’s place within the wider illustrative context, both of Scottish art and of representations of the machine age which defined the shipyards.
National pride plays its part this show, though emphatically not in a jingoistic banner waving fashion. The shipyards make military vessels, but we don’t feel the artist is celebrating military muscle here. Instead he takes real pleasure in the sheer technical achievements involved, finding them beautiful and unashamedly revelling in that fact. In doing so, Goudie celebrates the construction industry, and the proud and illustrious history of industrial Scotland at a time when, let’s face it, year by year our islands are progressively less associated with making things. He enthuses over these stunning cathedrals of metal – and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Shipyard, Scottish Maritime Museum, Harbour Road, Irvine. Until 11th February 2018.