By Simon Ross-Gill
Although I never actually did set foot in the workshop or Gallery at St Columba’s and have no memories of it, it is with great pleasure that I am putting together an exhibition, as a part of A Celebration of Whiting Bay Past And Present on May 11th and 12th 2019. As the youngest grandchild of the founders I have heard more than a few accounts in my time. So this is my memory of other people’s memories. Let’s see if I get this right.
Author’s note: The article was amended on May 6th and some sections have been rewritten. Let’s just say I didn’t quite get the whole story right…
The Gallery – as it was always referred to after 1961 – was a hive of creativity by all accounts. It was first set up by Jill and Claude Gill in 1954. The latter was a woodcarver and sculptor who made furniture, and pretty much anything else that can be crafted from wood including a lectern and two chairs for Iona Abbey. Jill Gill was a popular writer who earned a living writing stories for women’s magazines.
After dropping out of London and gallivanting as craftspeople across Great Britain from Cornwall to Yorkshire via Wales, and having three sons along the way, the Gills first came to Arran when Claude was commissioned to do carvings on the staircases of the new wooden house, Greyholme at the foot of the Rosaburn in Brodick. A student of the famous furniture designer Robert “Mouseman” Thompson, Claude was invited specially by the architect William Gibson to work on his private home due to his avid interest in Celtic motifs and imagery.
According to my Dad, The Gills received Trafalgar Cottage in Whiting Bay as compensation for the work. They later bought St Columba’s church building from the Church of Scotland for 700 pounds on the condition that it was used for the benefit of the community. The other bidder was an ice cream maker/merchant. Now the Gills had a spacious place to work and printing machines and band saws replaced the pews.
Their three sons joined them on Arran to ply their own crafts and contribute to The Gallery. Mike, the eldest, cut and polished Arran gemstones which he often included in his silver and gold jewellery. Nicky, the youngest, at this time worked as a woodcarver and sculptor. The middle son Steve was a printmaker who would use woodblocks to produce posters, invitations and business cards for other artists’ exhibitions, to promote theatre groups in Glasgow and local Arran businesses. They also had shop space where they sold their crafts to Whiting Bay’s many holidaymakers – jewellery, prints, postcards, and woodwork.
In 1961, they opened an art gallery in the front of the building, showing mainly work by younger Glasgow artists, mostly abstract or semi-abstract, including paintings by Carol Gibbons, James Gorman, Alasdair Gray, Robert Methven Alasdair Taylor and occasionally by nationally -known artists such as Alan Davie; pottery by Hugh Purdie and Alasdair Dunn; sculpture by David Gilbert and John Connolly.
During the 1960’s and 70’s the three brothers started their own families and gradually went their separate ways. Jill died in 1981, and Claude in 1983, and St Columba’s church was sold for a few thousand pounds around the same time. That’s the story of The Gallery.
Although I am clearly biased, the thing that strikes me most about what I’ve heard about The Gallery and the many objects I’ve seen that were made there, is that the Gills crafted beautiful things that were utilitarian and that could be appreciated in people’s homes. Not only this but they were grounded on Arran and their work reflected the island’s natural beauty, which indeed was the very inspiration for their work and creativity. In the case of jewellery, these beautiful pieces could be cherished as items to be worn, and the prints were used to communicate ideas and mark celebrations as greetings cards rather than being purely ornamental. Possibly my favourite piece of work by my grandad is the House Championship board at Arran High School. Despite the whole school having been demolished and rebuilt, it still takes pride of place.
More time has now passed since The Gallery closed its doors than its doors were ever open. In the three years since my Dad’s death, I’ve been told many more nostalgic stories about furniture and printing and art exhibitions, and have been shown more than a few wedding rings. Quite aside from my own family connection and history, I find it most interesting what the Gills contributed to Arran’s art and crafts tradition, so it is an honour to put this exhibition together in Whiting Bay.
The Exhibition in Whiting Bay Hall – May 11th and 12th 2019
Most of what my brother and I have inherited is my Dad’s printing work that he held on to, and I do have a couple of tables and old photos loaned from relatives that will constitute the exhibition as well as an article or two that were written about them. I’ve also been loaned a few items including a tea tray that was made from the wood of the 1922 Waterloo Bridge when it was dismantled and replaced, the same wood that was used to craft Greyholme’s staircases.
If you would like to contribute anything that was made at The Arran Gallery to include in the exhibition on a temporary loan basis, please drop me a line on email@example.com. I look forward to seeing you at Whiting Bay Hall on the 11th and 12th.
Feature image shows a series of woodblock prints to promote The Gallery in 1963. All photos are courtesy of the Gill family.