There's a large Alison Watt painting called Phantom, which lurks quietly on a stairwell in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. It always takes me by surprise; like all good phantoms should. This work always appears to me to be entirely composed and ethereally beautiful. There's an "otherness" about it too; an intensely sensual quality which suggests the most intimate parts of a woman's body.

Part of a series which combined Watt's investigation of the use of fabric in art, it is a personal response by Watt to Francisco de Zubarán's seventeenth century painting, Saint Francis in Meditation, which is in the collection of the National Gallery in London. Watt has said in the past that she considered Phantom to be the most resolved work of a series which she made while she was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in 2007.

Watt has always been interested in every day objects and scenes. "There's something very beautiful about ordinary things" she says. "Even the back of a canvas. That is an ordinary thing – I see it every day."

In a new series of works, which went on display last week alongside earlier figurative paintings at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in the Lake District, there's a step change in Watt's recent work. This shift sees her pulled back to the tiny details in ordinary things around her. These still lifes depict items such as a white sheet, a folded note, a feather, a box, a letter and a hose. The small stuff of life which bear a faint imprint of humanity.

Greenock-born Watt is the daughter of the acclaimed maritime artist, James Watt. Like her father before her, she studied painting in the Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), completing her studies there in 1988. Since the second fire at the Mackintosh earlier this year, Watt has talked about the experience of studying there in almost hallowed terms. It's clear that the fabric of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterwork is sewn into the fabric of her own formative years as an artist.

Before she graduated in 1987, Watt's precocious talent was spotted when she won the National Portrait Gallery’s coveted annual portrait competition. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became known for her paintings of figures, often female nudes.

The new exhibition's title, A Shadow on the Blind, is drawn from Watt's fascination with the work of the Glasgow-born photographer, Margaret Watkins (1884-1969), who is remembered for her contributions to American advertising photography during the first decade of the twentieth century and into the 1920s. Watkins lived alone in New York, where she founded her own photography studio and became one of the first women photographers to contribute to advertising agencies.

Her domestic still lifes were studies of light, shadow and form in ordinary household objects she had in her apartment. For Watkins, these objects were symbols of her emancipation; they represented her freedom as both a woman and an artist. It was duty – not her art – which drew Watkins back home and she left New York for Glasgow in 1928 to care for her mother’s elderly sisters. She never returned to North America. The phrase, shadow on the blind was used by Watkins’ neighbour in the west end of Glasgow who said that she was so reclusive, he only knew she lived next door when he saw her shadow on the blind. This phrase led Watt to think about how light and shadow creates form. As she puts it: "Without light there’s no shadow, without shadow, there’s no form." This in turn led Watt into examining how the human form could be represented without actually being present.

Directly influenced by Watkins' Shower Hose photograph from 1919, Watt presents three new paintings of the coiling hose; Flex, Helical and Volute. For all the world, they are like a disjointed family. Flex and Helical are so similar that one could almost be a facsimile of the other. It is s though they represent a real domestic item which is used every day, but moves on a daily basis depending on its use. This trio of works is complemented with an actual human presence as Watt has displayed them alongside an older work Source III, which dates back to 1995. In composition, this recumbent nude is reminiscent in composition of Ingres La Grande Odalisque (1814).

Watt often returns to the same subject in a bid to burrow deep within its surface. There are two paintings of the same white sheet as it hangs, animatedly, from an invisible hook or nail. As Laura Smith observes a thoughtful essay to accompany this exhibition, "these paintings are ever so slightly different, as though a small wind or passing hand has disrupted one to create the other."

Other works, such as Reversed Canvas, Easter and Letter, speak volumes about Watt's attention to the material details by which she is surrounded. There's an elegiac, almost melancholic quality to this new work at Abbot Hall which whispers its way into your subconscious. In the process, it confirms Alison Watt as one of the foremost painters of her generation.

Alison Watt: A Shadow on the Blind, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kirkland, Kendal LA9 5AL, 01539 722464,, until February 2, 2019, Mon-Sat, 10.30am-5pm (£7.70/£7, under 5s and students free)


In July, I wrote on these pages about Christine Borland's exhibition, The Power of Twelve, at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. Responding to a period in the building's history during which it served as a naval hospital for sailors injured in World War One, Borland took her trademark rigorous yet delicately layered approach to making art by mining its history, creating a dozen new works in the process. One of the twelve works was China Harvest in the stately home's Dining Room. This work consisted of hundreds of crockery remnants of 144 feeding cups, used in hospitals like Mount Stuart, exploded by a bomb disposal unit still stationed permanently in Belgium.

Borland's Mount Stuart work was also informed by research she carried out in preparation for the making of I Say Nothing, a major newly-unveiled commission for Glasgow Museums as part of the UK-wide 14-18 Now programme, marking the centenary of the First World War.

As part of her research for this commission, which gave the Glasgow School of Art-trained artist unprecedented access to Glasgow Museums World War One Collection, she came across a simple white ceramic invalid feeder cup which had not been formally recorded in the records. Later, Borland travelled to Flanders in Belgium where they still make safe World War One munitions. The invalid feeder cup was exploded in a controlled detonation along with 144 cups she had sourced online and which led to the Mount Stuart work.

I Say Nothing, is now in situ on the first floor of Kelvingrove beside Dali's famous Christ of Saint John of the Cross. The title comes from an inscription on a box found in Glasgow Museums' collection that once contained a Chinese soapstone money amulet but which she found in to be empty.

Consisting of two separate groups of figures, called Peace and War, the installation draws together two strands relating to the single feeder cup. The central figures in both groups are all gathered around a centrifugal point… an absent figure being force fed by feeder cup. The figures in Peace are painted black while the figures in War are painted white. The All of the figures are shrouded in a translucent water-resistant material called "glassine", almost as though they have stopped in Kelvingrove en route to a museum archive. Peace represents figures attempting to force feed a suffragette while War can be interpreted as hospital workers trying to feed an injured service-man. The faces of the central figures within both groupings of figures refer to masks made from bronze statues of Peace and War on nearby Kelvin Way Bridge.

A thought-provoking work which invites viewers to reflect on both the First World War and the world of museum collecting and care, this is vintage Borland on top form.

Christine Borland: I Say Nothing, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8AG, 0141 276 9599,, Mon-Thur and Sat 10am-5pm. Friday & Sunday, 11am-5pm