James Watt is a name synonymous with Scottish innovation; the Greenock inventor who created the steam engine.
But now another Jimmy has shown his talents, in the form of a Port Glasgow painter by the same name. His recent exhibit at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, is his latest public display and his first in the newly built arts centre.
The setting is more appropriate than your usual gallery. As a painter of an aquatic theme, the gallery sees the paintings overlooking the Clyde, the river that inspired the painter for half a century. The Beacon’s entire back wall is made of glass, giving for a majestic view of the water. One might think this would give visitors some small insight as to why Watt found it such an inspiring location; they would be wrong. Instead, it was the smog-filled ship yards and dirty working men that lit the fire of creativity in this Port-born man.
The man himself was in attendance on the Friday I visited, and the day before as well. He praised the new local arts centre, and the setting of his exhibition: “It’s a marvellous building, it really is. For the first time since the ship yards closed, I feel we’re really making use of what the Clyde has to offer, if not in such an industrial sense. It’s a beautiful location and it’s wonderful to see the pictures all overlooking the water. It’s where they were all painted, after all.”
Having come from a line of working-class men, poorly educated with little prospect other than to go straight from basic schooling into the expected and predictable future of a trade, Watt found himself at school-leaving-age during a time of unexpected promise. Further education was no longer an unattainable dream for the working man, being a lavish luxury of the wealthy. However, scholarship and free further education were now being offered to the working middle-class and Watts’ father, being a clever man and self-educated despite his humble station, saw an opportunity to send his equally ambitious sons on a path to a life he had no hope of attaining himself.
“Whether the workers were clever or not was irrelevant; the life they lived was what was expected of them. But my father was a very clever man. He read books that most of the other men would never have heard of and the fact that he was even interested in what they had to say was strange to them – alien even. Something he would be mocked over. Now we can see that he was just a man with a mind more than his station but with no way to correctly employ that inherent brilliance. It’s very sad really, because you just don’t know how many others were in the same position.”
And so it was that James Watt found himself able to attend art school and begin to create painted works from the scenes he saw growing up. Industry features prominently in almost all of his works and his paintings more often defy the quintessential ideal of pretty boats on sparkling water under lightly dusted blue skies. Instead they reveal the true rawness and unyielding mire of the yards and the daily toil of the men who worked there.
“It was a toil, that’s exactly the word. Those men had no prospects; they would never leave the yards once they sucked them in. They had no choice but to go straight from school and pick a trade, work at it all their lives and live the predictable, mundane life of a grafter – same as every other man in the yard. Not to say that they weren’t extremely skilled, which they were, in their way.”
Often painting these scenes of graft and Clyde creations in burnished tones, there is an almost sinister, otherworldly atmosphere from them. They depict relics of a bygone age, as the shipping industry has since died out from the area, moving on to greener pastures in South Korea and other offshore locations.
Taking great pleasure in speaking to admirers of his work, he spoke of the largest in the exhibition as being his favourite. Sitting it on the main entrance wall of the gallery, his fondness of it was clear.
“It’s not even that I think it’s my best painting, but it’s only now that I’ve lent it to the Beacon and it’s no longer hanging on the wall in my house that I can’t help feeling a little bereft in its absence. I think it’s more that I painted it at a time I now reflect upon as bring poignant… I’m actually feeling a little anxious with it hanging there, I quite want it back now.”
He laughed at that point, but there remained a glint of yearning in the kind, weathered face.
My own personal favourite was placed at the back of the gallery. Consuming a massive expanse of wall, it was one of the lighter, more hopeful images in the show. Titled ARDBEG, it was painted in 1980 and is oil on canvas. There is a light and an optimism in the freedom of the depicted boating that struck me as being quietly beautiful – a relief in a collection of largely russet toned canvases.
Interspersing the work yard-themed, brazenly painted boat scenes are pictures of a more traditional marine sort. Though one could hardly describe them as ‘bright’, they are several shades lighter than their harder-edged kin. Depicting the cloudy Scottish weather, the water’s edge in these smaller canvasses often feel lonely, using quiet, muted tones to show the simplicity of beachfront life.
The inventor of the steam engine might be a national treasure, but I doubt he could depict his home the way this James Watt does, so many years later.
Article & Interview by Gemma Clark