Herald Preview of Margot Sandeman exhibition by Sarah Urwin Jones

New exhibition that may give Margot Sandeman the recognition she deserves
The Herald 26 January 2019

It is ten years now since the painter Margot Sandeman (1922 – 2009) passed away. Her work, despite early critical recognition, remained under the radar throughout much of her lifetime, but has for the past two decades been gaining the notice it deserves, not least through the slow drip of works coming out of her former studio which is still stacked with figurative work, still life and landscapes made during the later years of her long life.
Sandeman’s subjects, seen in this new exhibition at Cyril Gerber Fine Art which includes previously unseen works, were the things close to her – her family, particularly, and the landscapes that she loved. Why would you not paint what you love? is roughly how one might summarize her response, at a Meet the Artist event in the Talbot Rice Gallery during her last solo show (2006), when asked what drove her choice of subject matter. It makes parting with works all the more difficult for her sons, David and Peter Robson, whose lives she has mapped, along with their own families, in painting over the past 50 years.
“We want to hang on to a good number,” says David Robson, “because of family. Because it is family.” In Sandeman’s work it is place, too, that is family. Places such as Corrie on Arran, where she went to paint with her great friend Joan Eardley, where she took her own children to the bothy which the family bought in the 1970s, were an integral part of her poetic output.
Sandeman, whose work has, in the past decade, been purchased by and exhibited at the National Galleries, came from an artistic family, her mother Muriel Boyd, a well-known embroiderer who had studied at Glasgow School of Art, her father Archibald an amateur and committed watercolourist.
Sandeman, too, studied at Glasgow School of Art, picked out, along with Eardley – some of whose drawings, as gifts to Sandeman, appear in this new Gerber exhibition – for specialist “fast track” training. She never completed her degree, interrupted as it was by the Second World War, spent partly as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, unable to afford to continue her studies after the war.
Married to the potter, James Robson, Sandeman stopped painting for a decade whilst her children were young, but once restarted, says David Robson, there was not a day when she did not paint. Much of it was figurative work, he adds, but not portraits as such. “We would come home from school and I would sometimes be aware in my peripheral vision of mum sketching us…my brother and I collapsed after school!”
“She wasn’t good sleeper as an adult,” says Robson. Sandeman slept in her studio, says Robson, “on a futon laid out on top of the plan chest. She liked to get up in the early hours when she couldn’t get back to sleep, work on a painting, then go back to bed and start again the next day. She was quite disciplined and persistent in that way.”
Part of the reason for Sandeman’s under-the-radar career is that she did not follow any school of painting, much less the abstraction that dominated mid-twentieth century art. She was also undoubtedly seen in the shadow of her friend, Eardley. “She was never particularly fashionable in the art establishment, she didn’t particularly seek to attract interest, but she ploughed her own furrow, despite or because of having worked close to Joan Eardley,” says Robson, alluding to the hugely supportive and encouraging conversation about art that the two artists maintained throughout their lives. “They liked each other’s work because of the differences.”
Her work, too, had poetry embedded in it, sometimes quite literally, in later years boldly linear, imbued with philosophy, a shared interest with her art school friend Ian Hamilton Finlay, with whom she collaborated on a number of paintings, prints and text pieces, some of which are included in this exhibition.
She was championed, too, by artist and gallerist Richard Demarco, who Robson tells me he always felt understood his mother’s work more than the critics of the time. “My recollection was that he was sometimes frustrated that mum was seen as being merely lyrical and poetic, but he was adamant that her work was also powerful – an interesting combination of lyricism and energy.”
In the words of the critic W. Gordon Smith, reviewing an exhibition in 1991, “It could be the work of Matisse or a Japanese master but in its austerity, tonal harmony and harnessed energy it is emblematic of Sandeman and her ability to make line and colour dance to the same hypnotic tune.”