Millions of years ago in a scenario straight out of Milton's Paradise Lost, the Basalt cliffs of the Hebridean Isles of Shiant were formed. Volcanic explosions from deep within the earth's crust sent hellish eruptions of molten lava high into the atmosphere. Rivers of magma were formed underground which, when cooled, solidified into root-like basaltic sills and dykes. Dolerite columns rose some 400 feet out of the sea. Lancashire-born artist and sculptor, Jill McManner's obsession with this terrible beauty has manifested itself in her first solo exhibition, BASALT, at London's Mall Galleries. She exhibits some 60 watercolour works of these cliffs painted face on from sketches and photographs she made from the sea with the rock towering above her. No Hell Below Us (below) is typical.
"Being there in a small boat up close to them, smelling the iron in the rock and all the life that's going on on the surface of them is quite intimidating and scary," she tells me. "But it's beautiful too and that's what's exciting about it."
McManners learned about the Shiants from a book Sea Room: An Island Life by the man who inherited them, Adam Nicolson. He wrote of his possessions, "They can be as sweet as Eden and as malevolent as Hell." McManners has a home on a small island in the Sound of Harris some 15 miles away. Yet this exhibition does not consist of "weather pictures" in the way a Blake or a Turner may have construed. Nor are they picturesque landscapes. McManners is not interested in the sky or the cacophony of bird-life that might have inhabited her work. It is the frozen energy inherent in the cliffs that is her focus. There are the abstract sedimentary patterns on which she first concentrated (the works were painted over a period of eight years) and later, the visceral power of nature inherent in the fissures, crevices, caverns and arches captured through broad and often dramatic brushstrokes that also give the almost overpowering scale to the pieces.
"I used to work in a foundry, casting bronzes where you have all the excitement of hot metal which looks like lava, and these cliffs are like that - formed from all this hot activity that went on 60 million years ago."
Strangely, McManners' sculpting background (she trained as a sculptor at the Central School of Art and Design in the 1970s) has influenced her technique. These paintings such as The dark Side of the Galtas 2 (above) have a strength and solidity in their texture not normally associated with watercolour. This has been achieved by assembling layers of paint much as a sculptor assembles a work. The layers are made possible by using heavy, rough, Italian hand-made paper. She found she could both apply paint and take it off if necessary. Being layered in this way, the paper comes to resemble a stone surface in itself. In a strange way, it mimics the layers of sediment built up on the cliffs over millions of years. The potential of rock as a subject in itself is enhanced by the colour it offers too. As well as the iron ores, the felspar and the quarz it contains, the cliffs are emblazoned with vegetation - lichen, moss, algae and flowers, for example. And with the ever-changing degree of light and with the reflections in the sea, the artist has a rich spectrum to exploit.
Part of the exhibition is devoted to photography though not in a conventional sense. At the mouth of volcanoes, sulphur deposits are known as Flowers of Sulphur owing to their floral characteristics. This inspired the idea of digitally manipulating many of the photographic images of the rocks, mainly through cutting and pasting, mirror-imaging and so on, into the shapes of real flowers. Small Dianthus (above) is a typical example. These are then printed on velvet paper. It's a clever use of McManners' skills and knowledge as a photographer, graphic designer and gardener as complement to that of her painting.
BASALT is at the Mall Galleries, The Mall, London SW1A 2BJ until 1st March.
The pictures are used with the permission of the artist.