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Alison Watt in her studio at the National Gallery, with an unfinished painting

‘Knowing you can look at a single painting for as long as you want changes the way you think’

Even the White Rabbit would be challenged by the labyrinthine route from the front entrance of London’s National Gallery to Alison Watt’s studio. Down a bewildering maze of endless corridors, through vast doors, in and out of the building, through smaller doors, all identical, the disoriented visitor finally enters a large, white, immaculate space lit by three enormous windows which open, with appropriately ancient ironmongery, over an empty quadrangle. To discover the sense of order and purpose in the studio, and the atmosphere of lucidity that accompanies Alison Watt’s work, is a great relief after travelling hopelessly.

Alison Watt spent the first two weeks of her residency learning her way to her studio, getting lost like Alice in Wonderland and often in tears of frustration. Now the isolation is welcome as she can work in privacy, free from interruption and secure in the knowledge that there is no public access to her door. Any visitor must make a prior appointment, even the director of the National Galleries, Charles Saumarez Smith, and there is a real sense that Watt’s working time and place are strictly protected, which she appreciates.

Watt is the seventh associated artist to be given a working space at the National Gallery, the first Scot to be appointed, and the youngest. Did she feel the presence of her predecessors, if at first she felt the studio was still inhabited by someone else?

‘At the very start you definitely feel the ghost of someone else,’ she says. ‘Only John Virtue was in this studio before me, and he definitely left his mark, mainly in the black paint that encrusted the phone, and parts of the floor, even although the walls had been painted white. He’d certainly left an imprint on the space, and it takes time to make the space your own.’

I ask whether there was a particular day when she felt this had happened. ‘I don’t think it’s as revelatory as that, I think it’s about work—it’s because of the work, the work is here and so your heart is here. Lots of people ask me how I’m finding living in London, and at the moment it feels like home, not because of where I’m sleeping every night but because the work is here. It’s Edinburgh that feels strange right now.’

And the work is there. In the middle of the studio, on a huge scaffold, sits a half-completed painting, pale and fastidious, folds both austere and sumptuous, combining clarity and mystery. The feeling of spaciousness and calm continues in the room, with the high ceiling, the tall windows and the white walls. The floor is grey. There is no clutter, but an atmosphere of work and order. In one corner an elegant old chaise longue covered in faded floral material looks very much at home under a reproduction of Watt’s beloved ‘Madame Moitessier’, pinned on to the wall above among postcards of several other portraits by Ingres. Also on the wall are studies of folds, works in progress.

For an artist so influenced by classical painting, having a studio in the National Gallery with full access to all the collections could, one imagines, be rather overwhelming. How has Watt coped?

‘In the beginning I had a plan, which quickly fell apart,’ she says. ‘My intention was to systematically go through the entire collection but you very quickly find yourself returning to the same things, because you become so involved. When I started the residency the painting I have my first memory of, ‘Madame Moitessier’, was on loan, so that left a huge gap. I used to walk angrily past the empty wall each day, very upset that my painting was missing, but in many ways it was a good thing as it forced me to stay out of the 19th century French room. I now spend most time in Room 30, the Spanish room, where I love the hang and the way the paintings speak to each other. I look at Zurbaran’s painting of St Francis every day.’

What impact has this had on her as an artist?

‘My whole way of looking has changed,’ she replies. ‘Knowing that you can look at a single painting for as long as you want changes the way you think. Although I could now tell you where everything is, I feel I know the paintings less. They are more unfathomable, more mysterious than before, because I have the freedom to totally absorb myself in them.’ Watt feels totally at home in her new studio, so indulged with the collection, the central heating and the practical help available that she feels she may turn into ‘a big softie’ before her two-year residency finishes and she returns to her freezing studio in Leith.

Diana Hope is an artist who teaches at Edinburgh College of Art