Chris J Fergusson (Chris Stark)

The life and works of a Dumfries & Galloway artist

Married Life

Chris and David Fergusson returned to Scotland and settled into a happy marriage. They lived at a house designed in Art Nouveau style, “Southdean”, Rotchell Road, Maxwelltown, (then a separate Burgh from Dumfries), near the Observatory which is now the Burgh Museum. 
 
    David Fergusson  
 
The house was designed by David’s architect half-brother,William Spence Smith, after detailed consultation with the Fergussons. It was furnished with a mixture of contemporary furniture, some designed by E A Taylor, and good antique furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first of their three children, Nan, was born in May 1910. She grew up to be an artist of considerable stature and in the I 970s President of the Scottish Society of Women Artists.
   Nan Fergusson
 
A daughter, Margaret, was born in 1914 and their only son John in 1921. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are few examples of work from the early part of her marriage, although Chris took the opportunities presented by holidays in old favourite haunts, such as the Isle of Whithorn, to produce new watercolours.
 
During the First World War, David Fergusson enlisted in the Army Reserve and one can imagine that Mrs Fergusson devoted much time in bringing up her young children in difficult circumstances. One fine work from this period is “The Midsteeple of Dumfries” which she painted on 15 March 1918. This shows her continuing to paint in a style akin to that of the “Glasgow Boys”, one which she had most often seen and admired.

 In the early I 920s, with more time available, she began to paint more prolifically.The influence of MacGregor, Arthur Melville, James Nairn and others can be detected in the work from that time.

 During a family holiday spent in the East Neuk of Fife in 1923, she produced some fine watercolours, executed with verve. They included “Pittenweem Harbour”, which she later converted into an equally handsome oil, “Boats at Crail Harbour” and a “View of St Monans”.  All these works are shown in this Exhibition. It is tantalising to think how much more work of this quality Mrs Fergusson might have been stimulated to produce if she had had the opportunity to travel further.

In the late spring of 1925 she painstakingly worked outdoors on an oil, “The Brigend of Dumfries”, in the early morning sunlight over a period of weeks. In the summer of that year she produced a fine watercolour from Burrow Head,Wigtownshire, looking towards the Isle of Whithorn and beyond to the coastline of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. It was one of many watercolours produced during annual family holidays at the Isle of Whithorn. Sometimes a morning’s work would produce five or six pictures, many of which were almost immediately discarded by the artist if they did not satisfy her.

 From 1922 onwards Mrs Fergusson submitted work regularly to the Society of Scottish Artists (S.S.A)  The Royal Scottish Academy (R.S.A) and the Royal Glasgow Institute (R.G.I). In 1927 she sold “Shawhead, Irongray” (the painting included in last year’s successful Kirkcudbright Exhibition), at the Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition in Edinburgh.  Her daughter Nan’s young artist friend Colin Thoms, prompted the sale.  Although he had no money the buyer did – his aunt, did! It was then hung in the drawing room of a house in Kensington, London, for many years.  This painting was exhibited at a Group Exhibition of Lady Artists at John Stephen’s Gallery, Edinburgh in 1996.  Among its admirers was the prominent art critic Duncan MacMillan.  He wrote in “The Scotsman” on 15 July 1996 “Assurance is a feature of all the best painting here.  No wilting sensibility, for instance, in Chris Fergusson’s big picture of a view across a gate towards a farm, stacks and a rising field against a wood.  It has vigorous structure based clear and immediate judgment and bold handling.  The kind of thing you could just imagine some unfortunate critic characterizing as masculine”.

  In 1925 Chris Fergusson became a member of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists. It had been founded in 1882 on account of the prejudice against women artists found in some of the other leading artist societies of the day and was the first Society of its kind in Britain. She soon became a prominent exhibitor there. She won the Lauder Prize for the best oil painting in its Annual Exhibitions of 1933, 1938 and 1954, held in the Club’s premises at 5 Blythswood Square, Glasgow. The “Glasgow Herald” critic, writing of a wartime Exhibition of the Club, singled out Mrs. Fergusson’s work for praise, referring to her “vigorous and well planned river scene in oils”.

Works were also exhibited at The Royal Academy Annual Exhibitions in London, and in Manchester and Liverpool through the Duveen lending scheme.

 During the 1920s and early 1930s she concentrated principally on townscapes and landscapes in Dumfries, Nithsdale and Galloway. At the same time she was teaching painting at the Benedictine Convent, Maxwelltown, close to her home, where her own daughter Nan received her early education.There Chris produced a sensitive watercolour portrait of the Mother Superior Sister Marie Rose.At that time she also executed fine studies of her husband, David, and her daughter, Nan. Surviving students still describe their admiration of her painting technique, her personality, and the encouragement she gave to other painters.

 The Fergussons had been friends with Jessie M. King and E A Taylor since Chris’s years at Glasgow School of Art. In 1922 they collaborated with the Taylors and with E A Hornel, Charles Oppenheimer from Kirkcudbright, and with Robert Dickie Cairns, then Art Master at Dumfries Academy, to form the Dumfries and Galloway Fine Art Society. This new group’s exhibitions were held in the Assembly Rooms, Dumfries, and contained notable examples by many eminent Scottish artists of the period. Mrs Fergusson, Hornel, Taylor, Cairns and R Balfour Law served on the Hanging Committee. David Fergusson became the Society’s first Secretary and Treasurer. Honorary Members of the Society in its early years included Sir David Y. Cameron,W S McGeorge, R.S.A. and James Paterson, R.S.A.

 Chris worked at this time from a studio at 17 Queen Street, Dumfries. She exhibited every year and showed six works at the Society’s Spring Exhibition of 1927, including “The Brig-end of Dumfries” which now hangs in the Burgh Chambers, Dumfries, and “The Bridge of Devorgilla”. Both these paintings are shown in the present Exhibition. She also exhibited a now lost watercolour, “Moonlight in the Village”, - illustrated in the Catalogue of that Exhibition.

As the 1930s drew on and the threat of war clouded daily life, Fergusson’s attention switched from Galloway to the colder, harsher light of the Berwickshire coast around St Abbs, Burnmouth and Eyemouth. There, she and David went on painting holidays with their daughter Nan and her fiancé, the artist James Henderson. The young couple’s work had been influenced by years of study at the Edinburgh School of Art, where they were taught by William Gillies. Chris responded to the different perspective to painting technique which they had acquired there, in her own work. During these trips she adopted the practice of applying oil paint to canvas on the spot. The result was a number of complex and interesting paintings of the North Sea drifters at Eyemouth and the fishing ports of the Berwickshire coast. She also made several painting expeditions to the Isle of Arran to join E A Taylor and Jessie M King at their summer school at High Corrie. These resulted in some fine watercolours and one oil, “Lochranza Castle”. Despite these forays, Chris remained most at home painting the sun and wind of her native Dumfriesshire and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. An anonymous article entitled “Women and their Work”, published in “The Scottish Field” in October 1934, wrote of her view of a Galloway farmyard, “her secret is this, impatient of devious ways into which even the artist may stray she draws her atmosphere from the free air, her sunshine from the open sky, and with glorious directness transfers them to paper or canvas.