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Presenting the rich tapestry of Fife

There is something about the light in the East Neuk of Fife, something about the stunning sea views, the sand dunes, the pretty churches and diminutive fishing villages that makes the place an alluring proposition for anyone with half a painterly eye.

Fife In The Frame will include paintings of such familiar locations as St Monans, Cupar and Anstruther, among others
Fife In The Frame will include paintings of such familiar locations as St Monans, Cupar and Anstruther, among others

Every seaward wynd, it seems, is stuffed with painters and potters, from Crail to Pittenweem, and you don't have to go far to find someone with an easel set up in close proximity to a harbour clustered with fishing boats.

It has always been thus. Just under a century ago, the area cast its spell on the artists that were to become known as the Scottish Colourists, who came here in the 1920s to paint the same aspects that have attracted visitors both before them and since. With its fishing village life - the early 20th century, the last glory days of the elusive and bounteous herring fishery - big skies and lovely, diminutive architecture, the East Neuk provided ample opportunity for artists looking for romance and aesthetic. That artistic heritage is gathered together in St Andrews this month as a major exhibition of paintings inspired by the East Neuk, taken from the archives of both Fife Cultural Trust and the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation in London, opens to mark the 10th anniversary of the East Neuk Festival.

"Well, it was my idea really," smiles James Holloway, former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Trustee of the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation, when I ask him how this link between an art collection and a festival renowned for its high-quality music programme came about. "I've always been a fan of the East Neuk Festival, and so when I bumped into its director, Svend Brown, last year, I said 'Why don't we do something with the Fleming Collection to celebrate your 10th anniversary?' He immediately leapt at it and I realised we were committed."

Certainly it will be an appealing new link for the East Neuk Festival, which has always been best known for its music but which has, in recent years, been expanding its remit. A nature-infused literary strand, called Littoral, was introduced some three years ago - which will this year feature that king of the genre, Robert Macfarlane (Mountains Of The Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways), and some of the festival's most memorable moments have come from a keen desire by its director to push boundaries with music commissions linked to the East Neuk's idiosyncratic corners.

Holloway soon found himself scouring the East Neuk for the ideal venue with festival founder Donald MacDonald. "We eventually found the ideal place at the Museum in St Andrews, situated just on the edge of town in a little park, where I'd seen some excellent exhibitions," says Holloway. The Fleming decided they would lend the best of what they had on the East Neuk for the exhibition to complement Fife's own holdings in a show that will run the length of the summer, taking in both the East Neuk Festival and the Pittenweem Festival of art (which celebrates local and invited artists) in August. "I just thought it would be rather delightful to go to Ceres Church for an East Neuk Festival concert, say, then come to the exhibition and see how an artist had imagined it in another era," says Holloway.

The Fleming's holdings of works relating to the East Neuk are certainly fine and run the gamut of William Gillies and the Glasgow Boys to works by the Colourists. Holloway runs through the exhibits in the forthcoming exhibition, as if reeling off the inventory of some historic house. In a way it is, as the Fleming Collection originated in the holdings of Flemings Bank, which, from the 1960s onwards, faced up to the challenge of bare walls in their new London headquarters by enthusiastically acquiring what would turn out to be the most prestigious collection of Scottish art outside Scotland.

Holloway checks off William Gillies's "lovely view of Anstruther", with its rough seas dominating the town, a "super view of Cupar" by Robert Henderson Blyth and the dramatic Fife Harbour In A Storm by Thomas Marjoribanks Hay. George Leslie Hunter's view of Lower Largo is also on display, alongside a painting by Edward Arthur Walton, previously on loan to Dumfries House, but brought to Fife for this exhibition. Fife Cultural Trust's collection includes some equally "nice things" - in Holloway's words - from Hunter's view of Ceres to Sundown In Spring At Kellie Castle by John Henry Lorimer. Here, too, Gillies's views of St Monans and Sir William MacTaggart's bold oil of Kilrenny.

If it is a somewhat unusual step for the Fleming Collection to display work in Scotland - its remit, after all, is to promote Scottish art outside Scotland - then the Fleming family, Holloway says, would have approved. They were, after all, Dundonians who knew the area across the Tay well. And in this case it comes down to the artistic sum being greater than its considerable parts. "Fife Council couldn't do this exhibition alone," says Holloway, "and neither could we."

Fife In The Frame is at St Andrews Museum from May 31-August 24,www.fifedirect.org.uk. For more on the music programme for the East Neuk Festival, go to www.eastneukfestival.com

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