Christian Jane Stark was born on 14 September 1876 at Lucknow Place, Dumfries. She was the third daughter of a family of four daughters and one son. Her father, James Arthur Stark, was a successful solicitor in Dumfries. Her mother, Agnes Waugh Drape, was born and brought up at the Isle of Whithorn, Wigtownshire. Both parents were descended from old Galloway families.
The artist’s Galloway ancestors can be traced back to at least the 1660s. One of her forebears was an active Covenanter in Wigtownshire, and is said to have escaped capture and execution on at least three occasions.
She spent her early life in rather more comfort and security than her ancestors had experienced. Chris was brought up at her parents’ house at “Woodlea,” Moffat Road, Dumfries and received her early education nearby at Dumfries Academy where she distinguished herself academically. In 1892 she was awarded the Heron Prize copy of McDowall’s “History painting and watercolourdrawing caught her imagination most and in this she was at first self taught she left Dumfries Academy in 1894, Chris Stark visited France for the first time and travelled in Normandy and Brittany and also visited Berlin.
She then attended the now largely forgotten Crystal Palace School of Art in London. It is unclear how long she spent in London, and her early 20s are not well recorded. What is clear is that by 1900 she had committed herself to studying painting by enrolling at the then recently completed Glasgow School of Art, a spectacular Art Nouveau building, masterwork of its designer CharlesRennie Mackintosh. There she came under the benign influence of its invigorating Director, Fra. H. Newbery. She remained at the School until 1907, first as a student and then as a teacher. She taught both at the School itself, and on secondment to Kirkcudbright Academy and Glasgow High School for Girl
Her reports, signed by Newbery, indicate that she was a good student. She won the Glasgow School of Art’s Windsor and Newton prize for painting at the end of the 1901/1902 academic year. In 1903 Newbery described her progress in life drawing, painting and ornamentation as “excellent” and her figure composition he said was “very good”. In that year Newbery selected her to play the part of “The Chiefs Wife” in the college Masque, at that time a traditional student entertainment performed immediately before the Christmas Ball.
Early in 1903 she became secretly engaged to her future husband, David Fergusson. He was the son of a Church of Scotland Minister from Edgerston, near Jedburgh. His father had farming roots in Dumfriesshire in and around Gretna and Annandale. David was very musical, was keen on rugby and hockey and was evidently of a romantic disposition, with a fondness for the poetry of Robert Burns. The young couple shared a love of music, taking an active part in its performance, a popular Edwardian pastime. They also shared a deep attachment to the Galloway countryside, especially around Colvend and Rockcliffe. Although thecouple were engaged, they were not to marry until 1908.
At this time Chris was actively involved in the Suffragette Movement, which campaigned to give women the vote. A notable feature of the membership of all women s suffrage societies in Scotland as elsewhere was the predominance of women in the arts. This was possibly due to the fact that such women had already faced the struggle to work in their chosen profession. The Glasgow School of Art provided a fruitful atmosphere for the suffrage cause. Newbery’s wife, Jessie, was a very active member.
After graduating with the newly introduced Diploma from Glasgow School of Art, in the Summer of 1904, Chris traveled to Bruges, Antwerp, and Dinant, where she sketched a dramatic outline of the town beside the River Meuse, and Brussels where family correspondence indicates that she visited her painting master, Jean Delville, the Belgian Symbolist painter who was a leading influence on the Art Nouveau movement on the Continent .
She produced a number of early works during the period she taught at Kirkcudbright Academy in 1905 and 1906. She lodged in Kirkcudbright with a maiden aunt, Lizzie Stark, in St Mary’s Street. The report of the distribution of prizes at the Academy in July 1905 referred to E.A. Hornel, then examiner of watercolour and still life studies, “giving a report....entirely commendatory of Miss Stark’s instructions.
“The art work, [shown in Kirkcudbright Town Hall] claimed a leading place. Miss Stark has brought together an excellent series of exhibits, ... never before has such a high standard of excellence been attained”.
The exhibition shows two watercolours from this period. One of them, “Kirkcudbright Harbour” signed “C. J. Stark, 1905”, shows the harbour as it was before the construction of the present quay, and includes what is now the Harbour Gallery. Writing in the “Glasgow Herald” in 1993, the critic Clare Henry described this work as “a knock-out” when it was shown at an Exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival.
During her period of study at Glasgow School of Art which coincided with the height of the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Chris produced sketches and paintings as well as ornamental works such as Art Nouveau Style enamel rings. She also created items as large as fire surrounds in beaten copper, and a tapestry, in Art Nouveau style, which came to be hung in the Fergusson family home at “Southdean” Maxwelltown, but which was later lost.
In 1907-1908 “Chrissie” as her fiancé David affectionately addressed her in letters, taught at Glasgow High School for Girls as Principal Art Mistress. She then returned to Dumfries to marry David, who had earlier graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in Arts and Law. By now he had established himself sufficiently in a legal practice in Dumfries to feel that he could afford to support her.
Following their wedding in August 1908 they spent their honeymoon in Normandy and Brittany. After Rouen they visited Quimper,Concarneau, Pont Aven and Le Pouldu and other parts of the coast of Cornouaille, which had been the scene of some of Gauguin’s most significant paintings. At that time the area was still the haunt of a number of fine artists such as Emile Bernard, Paul Serusier, Henry Moret, Maxine Mautra, Fritz Thaulow and other members of the Pont Aven School. It is evident that the newMrs Fergusson’s aesthetic taste was influenced by what she saw in Brittany, by the light and colours of France and the paintings she must have admired.
On her return to Scotland she soon made use of the pottery or “faince” of Quimper as subject matter in still-life. It would also appear later in the work of Edinburgh School artists including Anne Redpath and William Gillies. The interest in Gauguin manifested itself in his colourful and innovative “Tahitian Women,1891” which came, in time, to dominate the hall of the Fergussons home. Chris’s daughter Nan painted this well executed copy while in Paris in 1935 on an Edinburgh College of Art travelling scholarship.
Only one work from the 1908 honeymoon in Brittany is known, a subtly painted study of Breton women dressed in traditional costume mending fishing nets at Concarneau. This watercolour like her early Kirkcudbright paintings, shows her working quite tightly in the mould of the Glasgow School, particularly influenced by the cool tonalities of Guthrie and WY. MacGregor.