The Seafaring Art of Barbara Rae CBE RA

In our latest post, volunteer blogger Adam Polánek writes about the renowned Scottish artist, Barbara Rae CBE RA.

I had never been to Scotland prior to my studies in St Andrews. Growing up in central Europe, to me Scotland was Robert Burns’ poetry (in translation), Trainspotting, bright-coloured postcards of the highlands, and textbook excerpts describing a seafaring nation. On my first plane from Prague to Edinburgh, I promised myself to learn more.

If art can serve as a door to culture, then museums and galleries are the key, MUSA being one of the many to Scotland. Thanks to The Harry and Margery Boswell Collection (inaugurated 1995), the university owns a ‘sample of the best in Scottish art’ – among it, prints by one of the most important contemporary Scottish artists, Barbara Rae CBE RA (*1943). In a career spanning over four decades, she has mapped the landscapes of Barra, Crieff, Orkney, Quinag and more, producing studies of local mills, windows, gardens, and grilles. However, Rae does not consider herself a primarily Scottish artist. As if continuing in the seafaring tradition, she travels relentlessly and searches for inspiration in Ireland, France, South Africa, and elsewhere. Contrasting Seagate (1993) and Painted Desert 2 (1998) illustrates how her imaginative pieces are shaped by different locations.

HC1995.3(9) Rae (800x792)
©Barbara Rae CBE RA.

Seagate was printed in Dundee Printmakers Workshop, and depicts a Dundonian waterfront. ‘Scribbled’ black lines form the gate itself, through which we can see what lies behind: sea in patches of blue, reflections of the soft yellow sky, and mountains in burnt orange. The print seems a spontaneous depiction of nature, managing to be both eerie and calm. It is a striking study of a familiar view, but remains accessible – one does not need theory or an academic background to understand it. Such is the case with many of Rae’s prints depicting Scotland. In the words of the writer (and Rae’s husband) Gareth Wardell, ‘Scotland is her preparation, her values, her base and her point of departure’. (1)

Contrastingly, Painted Desert 2 requires more context for us to understand it. The print appears chaotic due to many overlapping colours and abstract shapes. Painted Desert is a real location in Arizona, and whilst there Rae searched for ‘ancient Anasazi rock art – Native American symbols’ (2) which she integrated into her works, including Painted Desert 2. Since the desert serves as a canvas for Anasazi symbols, the print can be considered as an homage to native stories. Though one can appreciate Rae’s mastery of form, it is the knowledge of context that truly makes us understand the meaning and importance of this work.

dbi HC2017.9
©Barbara Rae CBE RA.

Differences in style and subject matter between the two prints demonstrate Rae’s impressive artistic range. More broadly, they prove how much influence the environment has over art – Rae’s work explores the boundaries between the real and the surreal through the many places she has visited. While broadening my idea of what Scotland is, the scope of her art also highlights the important balance we have to achieve between remembering our roots and expanding our horizons.


(1) Barbara Rae / with texts from Gareth Wardell, Andrews Lambirth and Bill Hare (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2008), p. 36

(2) Barbara Rae / with texts from Gareth Wardell, Andrews Lambirth and Bill Hare, p. 102


About Adam Polánek

Adam is a first-year student of English and Art History. He is interested in both historical and contemporary political implications of art. In his free time he is mostly writing, ballroom dancing, or organizing events with Amnesty St Andrews.




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