Mardi Barrie Summer Rain 1992 copy 2
Mardi Barrie, ‘Summer Rain’, c1976, oil on canvas. Collection Royal Scottish Academy

The Edinburgh-based painter Mardi Barrie (1931-2004) was a prolific, professional artist whose works were exhibited and widely collected throughout her career. She was also a dedicated teacher. But despite these accomplishments and a notable profile during her lifetime, there is very little historical, critical or biographical writing about this artist and her work.

Known primarily for her lyrical landscapes and seascapes, Barrie deftly used a palette knife to paint scenes that lay somewhere between the representational and the abstract, between the outside world and her inner thoughts, between the recorded and the imagined. Anchoring her work with strong composition and use of colour, she allowed herself the freedom to experiment with strokes, swathes and streaks, and to evoke layers of meaning within and beyond the subject.

Barrie spent much of her career painting and teaching in Edinburgh, travelling to France and central Italy occasionally. Born in Kirkcaldy on the east coast of Scotland, she studied at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art from 1948 to 1953 beginning with studies in philosophy and English before graduating with a diploma in drawing and painting.At that time, there was exceptional artistic energy around The Edinburgh School, a highly influential group of artists studying and teaching at Edinburgh College of Art, some of whom had served in two world wars. The newly formed Edinburgh Festival also brought international artists and ideas to Scotland, while Edinburgh College of Art offered travel scholarships to Paris.

As a painter associated with the second-generation Edinburgh School, Barrie experimented and pushed boundaries. She preferred thick oil paint and the practice of drawing natural settings in situ before painting them in her studio. Dividing her time between working as head of art at a secondary school and establishing a professional studio practice, she believed the two to be mutually beneficial. In 1961, she mounted her first solo exhibition, of landscapes, at Edinburgh’s Douglas & Foulis Gallery—known for offering debut exhibitions to contemporary painters (Richard Demarco had his first solo show there in 1962, their inaugural year.)

Barrie exhibited fifty-two paintings and a portfolio of thirteen additional unframed works. Writing in The Guardian in 1963, the painter and art critic Cordelia Oliver (1923-2009) describes Barrie’s work as an ‘extreme, and, at best, eloquent simplification of landscape; its shapes recognisable and in their proper context but reduced to a few softened planes as though one might crystallise visually a vivid memory, stripped of all irrelevancies: this is a straightforward aim enough as today’s painting goes . . . Mardi Barrie achieves it often and well enough to justify her rising reputation.’ [2]

The Scottish Gallery, which turned 175 years old in 2017, soon developed a strong working relationship with Barrie, promoting and placing her work in collections and travelling exhibitions over a sustained period. The gallery’s director of the time, William Jackson, described her as a maverick and a loner. Through the gallery's support and advocacy, her work was acquired by a number of public and private collections in the UK including: The Fleming Collection, Royal Scottish Academy, City Art Centre Edinburgh, Magdalen College Oxford, Laing Art Gallery Newcastle, Scottish Television, University of North Wales. It is also represented in collections in USA, Switzerland, South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia.

Mardi Barrie Theatre Chateau 1983
Mardi Barrie. ‘Theatre/Chateau’, oil on canvas, c.1983. Collection City Art Centre, Edinburgh

In her work, Barrie coalesced the abstract, representational and imaginative in order to evoke the concept of movement and dynamism in nature. Her single-minded observation and perception of nature was driven strongly by a rigorous consideration of, and belief in, the ways in which nature is constantly changing and uncontrollable. She noted that in her studio the work, ‘was transformed to a great extent by the demands of paint manipulation and scale—paint is applied almost entirely with a knife (brush never seems to give sufficient “physical” contact with either rhythm or pigment).’ [2]

It is pertinent here to point out two exemplary paintings. ‘Across A Dark Wood’ (1963) portrays the entrance to a dark, dank forest surrounded by a stormy sky painted with grey shades and putty coloured pigment. In the centre, Barrie smears a bright, white rectangular shape, its luminosity alluding to a cloud, or perhaps something more sinister or uncanny, hovering on a planeabove the cavernous woods below.

By the 1980s, Barrie began to focus on architectural imagery. ‘Theatre/Chateau’ (1983), is an exemplary painting from this period. Composed of exterior and interior architectural elements, it is rendered in a blurry haze, giving the effect of looking through a window streaked with rain. The images appear to be reflections, dreamlike. As in her signature landscapes, this causes an effective tension. With a juxtaposition of different scales and planes, alongside a layering of forms, it is also compositionally sophisticated.

Mardi Barrie is an artist whose name has not yet been properly engraved in the canon. As one of the few women of The Edinburgh School and a notable Scottish landscape painter, she is distinguished for her refusal to conform to social and professional codes or expectations. She supported herself through teaching and selling her work and appears to have preferred working in isolation, dedicated to painting with single-mindedness and utter absorption. Could this be one of the reasons her accomplishments have not been recorded or historicised in any consolidated or comprehensive manner?

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Lauren Dyer Amazeen is a writer and critic based in Oxford.

This essay is published as part of the ongoing project Women Painting: Scottish Art 1940-1980 curated by Susannah Thompson and Marianne Greated.

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[1] Cordelia Oliver, Mardi Barrie Exhibition in Edinburgh, The Guardian, 24 June, 1963

[2] Mardi Barrie, Biographical Notes: Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, 13 December, 1963