By Margaret Walty of Langholm
HELEN Irving, who died last year just before her 75th birthday, was the most modest and unassuming of artists but she was also one of Britain’s best bird painters, as collectors of her work and her many fans will attest.
She had no formal training and painted as a hobby, working at the table in the small dining room of her home in Canonbie.
She never wanted to turn professional, preferring to keep the price of her works at a level affordable to local people and, latterly, not to sell them at all but to build up a portfolio as a legacy for her grandchildren.
From the late 1970s she painted on most days of her life, gathering ideas and material during the three or four hours of her daily walks, her careful observation of what she saw growing out of her great love and admiration for the wildlife and, in particular, the birdlife of this corner of southern Scotland.
The month-long retrospective exhibition of her work, which started at Welcome to Langholm on March 10, is a rare opportunity to see a wonderful collection of Helen’s paintings, all lent by their owners for the occasion.
The rapid development of her powers of observation and of her skills in her chosen medium of watercolour can clearly be seen over the years of the work on show.
There are many treasures here, among them two swallows depicted in a deceptively simple fashion on a wire, the steely gleam of the sun on their backs, and one poised about to take wing, a pair of blue tits on a lichen-covered branch against a hazy backgound of winter woodland, a wren in typical feisty pose, perched on a stem of bindweed, a plant so dreaded in gardens but shown here in its simple beauty of glowing white flower and heart-shaped leaves finely outlined in red.
Plants and flowers are inseparable from Helen’s bird paintings but also feature in their own right in several works, all faithfully observed and depicted with the lightest of brushstrokes: snowdrops in their quiet, end-of-winter elegance, primrose clumps bursting out of leaf-litter, delightful bouquets of wild flowers and meticulous studies of lichens and fungi.
The quality of her draughtsmanship is particularly evident in two exquisite pencil drawings – one of primroses and the other of blue tits on a branch of a blossoming apple tree – and in early ink and wash paintings of local landmarks such as the ruins of Langholm Castle.
Helen excelled at depicting the essence of her subjects, whether the characteristic stance of a bird and the softness of its feathers, the grace of wild flowers or the textures of stone and bark, all conveyed to the viewer with the sure touch of a true master.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to own some of her paintings will treasure them always.
The exhibition in Welcome to Langholm finishes tomorrow.