JOCK McFadyen is telling me about the time he found himself a little lost on Orkney. But not in the geographical sense.

The painter had been invited to stage an exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre for the St Magnus Festival at the end of the last century. He had travelled to Stromness with the intention of making some new paintings there in a studio he’d been given in an old disused school. But he quickly found he had a problem.

At the time he was exploring urban spaces, often abandoned, in his work. He had been making paintings of flyovers and graffiti and tube stations. But there weren’t many of those about in Stromness.

“All I could see was this beautiful island landscape,” he recalls now, “and my first instinct was to get in the car and drive to Kirkwall and look for a supermarket or a bus shelter that had been vandalised.”

“And then I thought, ‘No, don’t do this. You’re being called out. Don’t just go back to your recipe and do what you know you can do. That’s pathetic.’”

HeraldScotland: Weaving The Mallaig Commission © DovecotWeaving The Mallaig Commission © Dovecot

Instead, he began to make pictures of what he saw in front of him. It took a little adjustment, he admits. “It wasn’t hard in the paint. It was psychologically hard. Shapeshifting your mentality, repositioning your attitude. I was more or less forced to it because I was stuck there and there’s not a lot to do. And I thought, ‘Well, I can’t paint a sheep.’”

And having done so, he says, “I realised how easy landscape painting is. Terrible thing to say, but it’s not a complex outlook. It’s not like being Canaletto, painting a hillside. It’s easier. So, the paint could really swing, the paint could breathe.

“And I got it. I could see Whistler’s Nocturnes. I could see Turner’s Rothkoesque minimalism. I got into that, and I really enjoyed it. I started making smaller pictures as well, which I’d never quite done before. So, I started making all this unusual-for-me work. It took me on a new path.”

It’s a path that you can trace from then to now and from Stromness to here today, to the Dovecot in Edinburgh a week before his new exhibition, Lost Boat Party, opens. An exhibition of recent work that takes in paintings of the Salisbury Crags and Hebridean skies, dogs on Carnoustie beach and an abandoned rusting bus on Harris (some things don’t change).

And as it’s the Dovecote there’s a tapestry to go along with it, The Mallaig Commission, based on one of McFadyen’s paintings, and created by weaver Louise Trotter, is a gorgeous, deep blue thing with pops of colour.

McFadyen is clearly thrilled by it. “I am really fond of the tapestry because it’s quite blobby. She’s interpreted it quite loosely, which I like.

“There’s spontaneity in paint because it moves fast. And what they do here is quite deliberate and it solidifies what was once fluid. They make it still and exact and something quite amazing happens. I don’t quite know how it happens, but there’s a freezing of action.”

HeraldScotland: The Mallaig Commission © Dovecot Studios Photograph Keith Hunt PhotographyThe Mallaig Commission © Dovecot Studios Photograph Keith Hunt Photography

McFadyen, at 70, is anything but frozen. Born in Paisley and based in London, he’s a Scottish-born artist who doesn’t see himself as part of the Scottish art scene. And yet Scotland is part of who he is and what he does.

In the endpapers of the catalogue for Lost Boat Party there are two maps. On the inside front cover, there is a slice of east London. Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, the bending neck of the River Thames and a corner of Rotherhithe on the other bank.

“My house is almost in the middle of that,” Jock McFadyen points out. “And then on the back flap there’s the Uists,” he adds.

“So, at the risk of sounding like a Roman invader that’s my territory. I’m ranging around these places.”

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And Scotland is finally starting to make a fuss about him. The Dovecot show is the second exhibition to open in Edinburgh in a matter of months.

However not everything has been plain sailing of late. This last year should have been a landmark one for McFadyen. In his 70th year he had four exhibitions planned, but that was sideswiped by the arrival of the pandemic, which also decided to make it personal.

“Yeah, I got Covid in March 2020. It was quite bad. It wasn’t bad-bad. I didn’t go to hospital. They said, ‘Just come to hospital if you become breathless.’ And I didn’t get breathless. I got everything else. The fatigue was unbelievable. Never felt anything like it in my life.”

His wife, Scottish musician Susie Honeyman, best known for her work with The Mekons, also contracted Covid, as did both his sons. And there have been other problems thrown up by the pandemic. An exhibition at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, Jock McFadyen Goes to the Pictures, which opened last November was curtailed by lockdown. “That was a pity. Because it took three years to plan it and then I think it was open for a month.”

Another show at the Lowry in Manchester has been postponed. But the Dovecot exhibition, which is more bespoke than either, will at least go ahead.

McFadyen is suspicious of the idea of art having a nationality. But is he, I wonder, a different painter in Scotland than he is in England? “I come to Scotland all the time and I see it and I respond to it. It’s funny. It offers up something different to what I usually do.”

What he usually does is paint landscapes attuned to decay and ruination. Nothing new in that, he points out. “Actually, 350 years ago every European painter decamped in Rome to paint ruins broken pillars.” But his Scottish paintings offer a new window into his world view.

HeraldScotland: Somewhere on Harris 4, Jock McFadyenSomewhere on Harris 4, Jock McFadyen

McFadyen made his name in the 1970s with punky portraits of distorted faces and bodies heavy with the threat (or promise) of sex and violence, set against urban backdrops. As time passed, the people in his pictures disappeared.

“My pictures are influenced by road movies and novels and diasporas and things like that, so landscape is always there. And the thing about Scotland is it’s always between the buildings. Whether it’s Fife peeping in between the buildings in the New Town or Princes Street or Queen Street or George Street. You don’t get that in London. It’s just interior. You have to go out to Essex or Kent or along the Thames to find where the city gives way to the landscape.”

How does he know which landscape to paint, I ask? “There are two answers to that. The cynical one is, ‘I’ll get a better painting out of that one.’ But the fact is the most important thing is the paint. What will serve the paint?

“The paint is the subject, so if the paint doesn’t fall right you’ve got to try and save it. That’s what you’re always trying to do, which probably does allow the imagery to creep on by itself without you being fully in charge of it. Because you’re basically chucking around coloured liquid and trying to make it do something which is akin to music.

“But you have started painting a landscape. The first thing I would paint is the sky anyway and try something under it and think, ‘Oh god, it doesn’t work. I’ll get rid of this mountain and put a monkey there or a banana.’ You might do that, but the sky stays because I think it works really well.

“It’s like being in a recording studio with a band. ‘I really like the bassline, but the drums are s***. Then we’ll try to bring in the organ.’ The song is just something that’s wrapped round the music.”

He is wonderfully opinionated on his work and art in general. In our time together, he lambasts public art (“preachy”) and the art market (“unutterably dull because it’s just gone to the market for validation”). But what he loves, he loves deeply.

We talk about the idea of beauty. What’s his definition? “I don’t have one. It could be a feeling, it could be a girl, it could be a child. A new-born child is beautiful. if that isn’t beautiful what is?"

He points out of the window to a streetlamp. “That rusty bracket holding up that lamp is rather beautiful.

“In painting I don’t think there’s much that’s beautiful because there is so much crap painting everywhere.

“I think the paint really works in Whistler’s Nocturnes and Turner and, obviously, Holbein. The great artists. That’s the bar. That’s where beauty resides in painting, and everybody knows that. No matter how much they might argue with it, that’s where it is. It’s there for everyone to see.”

He shows me an image of his latest painting on his phone. At the bottom of the painting there are a line of houses. This is Bethnal Green, he says. “That’s a BP station, that’s a little hotel, that’s a bridge that goes down to the city of London.”

“But this,” he says gesturing to the mountain that dominates the painting, “is Mont Blanc. The painting was kicking around for ages, and I went, ‘F*** it,” and painted Mont Blanc there.


“I couldn’t know that was going to happen. And Susie said the classic thing. ‘That’s brilliant.’ I said, ‘Is it?’ I was just ruining it before I tore it up.”

The great art critic Tom Lubbock, who died in 2011, once wrote that in his paintings McFadyen is like a sightseer without a guidebook. It’s a line that hit home with its subject. “I realised that’s what I wanted to be. I don’t want to have an agenda.”

In short, Jock McFadyen doesn’t mind being a little lost. He knows he’ll always end up somewhere interesting.

Lost Boat Party runs at the Dovecot Studios until September 25