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Portrait of Margaret Tait by Gunnie Moberg: photo courtesy Tam MacPhail and Orkney Library and Archive

The days never seem the same: Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait, Stills, Edinburgh, 27 July-28 October 2018

Margaret Tait: film/poems, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, 23 June-8 September

and…, curated at home by Peter Todd, South London, 16-17 June 

“I would like to write a poem carefully laid in place like the table in candlelight with rowan jelly matching some other browns. I would like to lay it out square and simple and set in what is needed, completing it in a roundelay. The eye goes round and round it, receiving. The mind reads. Hear the soft sound of the flame of the candle, watch the exact formation of a word.” Margaret Tait, Personae (unpublished manuscript), Orkney Library and Archive 

Margaret Tait, born in Orkney, 11 November, 1918, produced an astonishing body of work in her lifetime, from the films and poems she is most known for, to other lesser known works — her photography, found object collages, paintings, and a wide variety of different forms of writing.  Her key concerns as an artist resonate across the various forms she worked in.  Like the movement of the camera in many of her films, Tait circled around her subjects, often returning to them in new ways and with fresh eyes and approaches, building, over time, a life’s work. 

Circles, cycles, roundelays appear in much of Tait’s oeuvre:  in the movement of the camera, in the refrain of images, and in the music and words that appear in her films and poems, then reappear in other works, several years, sometimes decades later.  She was drawn to traditional Scottish music — the Highland Reel.  Her hand-painted films Calypso (1955), Painted Eightsome (1970) and John MacFadyen (1970), use music to spin energetic circles of colour onto the film stock she used as a canvas. In her films, poetry and other work, themes and motifs repeat and resurface, including the musical motifs played or whistled and the images repeated from other films or revisited through newly filmed material.  Glimpses of gardens, children at play or looking, roofscapes, staircases, the outlines of doorways, things and people at work. There is a continual return.  

Margaret Tait’s centenary provides an opportunity to return to her work — to share it with new audiences and bring to light other lesser known works, not just her films and poetry, but also painting, photography, writing and other aspects rarely seen outside of her archive.   

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Today’s Screening Programme poster: photo courtesy Pier Arts Centre

The first exhibitions to focus on Tait in her centenary year also serve to situate her work in new contexts. Stills Gallery’s exhibition in Edinburgh, The days never seem the same: Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait, features a selection of the latter’s films, photographs and other archive ephemera, alongside work by Swedish-Orcadian photographer, Gunnie Moberg. The solo exhibition, Margaret Tait: film/poems at Orkney’s Pier Arts Centre, presents a treasure trove of Tait’s diverse body of work — films and archive ephemera, as well as paintings, found object collages and audio recordings of Tait reading her poetry, and is accompanied by an exhibition that brings together sculpture by Tam MacPhail, Gunnie Moberg’s husband, with photographic work by their son, Paul MacPhail.

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The days never seem the same, installation view, Stills Gallery, photo: Alan Dimmick

Finally, for two days in June, and…, a small exhibition, was curated by Peter Todd, a filmmaker and friend of Tait’s. Held in his home in South London, it featured watercolours by Tait alongside paintings and other art works by Sarah Christian, Prunella Clough, Caroline Gregory, Jane Joseph, Annabel Nicolson, Joanna Margaret Paul, Roxy Walsh, Suse Wiegand and Jacqueline Utley. 

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and…, installation view, photo: Sarah Christian

It’s important that Tait’s work is seen in shows such as these. The recent release of new HD scans of a key selection of Tait’s films by LUX, the main distributor of her films, goes some way towards ensuring that those films don’t fade quietly away and that they continue to be shown, are returned to and revisited, shared with new audiences and seen with fresh eyes. This, alongside the recent exhibitions, allows for the opportunity to see Tait’s work in relation to other artists enabling new dialogues to emerge, further emphasising the contemporary relevance of the work.  

The sensitivity with which the exhibitions have approached the presentation of Tait’s work, also ensures that the integrity of the original work and Tait’s legacy is maintained. During her lifetime she, like many artist filmmakers, was intimately involved in the exhibition of her work, often holding screenings in her local community, or projecting her 16mm films onto a wall of her studio or home for family and friends. Tait was uncomfortable with her work being exhibited in galleries, and was particularly resistant to offers made to show her work on a monitor or small screen. In this respect, exhibiting Tait’s films in a way that is respectful of her own intentions presents a challenging task, but is one which both the new exhibitions featuring her films admirably undertake. At Stills, a dedicated, bijou cinema space is situated in the back of the gallery, while at the Pier, a cluster of screening spaces, varying in size, are devised specifically with the intention of recreating the intimate feel of Tait’s own screenings. Todd’s exhibition set in a domestic space, also captures the spirit of Tait’s own approach.

It is both moving and powerful to see all of the work together. Like the carefully laid out table that Tait describes above, which for her, serves as a metaphor for the kind of poetry she’d like to write (and, in many ways, is akin to the close observational style which characterises so many of her films), Tait’s work deserves the same kind of loving attention: to be looked at, considered, then returned to, again and again.

The title of this essay is taken from Margaret Tait’s description of filming A Place of Work, ‘a close study of one garden and house and what could be seen there and there within the space of time from June 1975 to November 1975’. See ‘Place of Work’, Luxonline, accessed 3 September 2018.


Sarah Neely is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, where she teaches Film and Media. Recent publications include an edited collection of poems and writings by Margaret Tait (Carcanet, 2012) and Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (Peter Lang, 2016).