The Wigtown Daily: Full Interview with Iona Leishman

26 September 2014


Iona Leishman was Historic Scotland's first Artist-in-Residence and currently works as Stirling's Heritage Artist. She has been commissioned by the Wigtown Book Festival to paint 'Last Footfall', depicting the flight of Mary Queen of Scots from Dundrennan Abbey. Her finished piece can be viewed in the County Buildings throughout the festival.


How would you describe your job?


My job is to make art and it can pleasurable in the extreme.  I work from my studio in the top of the town in Stirling, a stone's throw from Stirling Castle where I was Historic Scotland's artist in residence 2011-12.  Now, I work from an ancient alms house, Cowane's Hospital which is fantastically atmospheric.  My job involves reaching into the paint and drawing out images, a process of discovery that amazes me in its variety.


What attracted you to Mary Queen of Scots?


As a heritage artist I've been involved with her whole Stuart family for some years now.  When I was at Stirling Castle, I became fascinated with her mother Marie de Guise whose 500th anniversary of her birth falls next year.  My painting 'King at His Fireside' is of Mary's father James V and hangs in the Princes Tower - the only painting in Stirling Castle.  In 2013, I produced an exhibition of work entitled 'Catastrophe to Crown' marking the death of her grandfather, James IV at Flodden. 


Mary herself spent much of her first five years in the safety of Stirling Castle so when I connected with Wigtown Book Festival and nearby Dundrennnon Abbey, the site of her last night on Scottish soil, it was a direct link. 


When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Jean Plaidy's 'The Young Mary' and then as a teenager it was 'The Royal Road to Fotheringhay' so my interest and involvement is of longstanding.


Why do you feel she needs a new narrative?


I really don't know if she does but in 'Last Footfall' I've produced an interpretation in paint.  I've suggested panic and haste, imagined escaping from the scene of defeat at the Battle of Langside and the relentless hard ride to a place of safety at Dundrennon Abbey on the shores of the Solway Firth.  The painting is like a dream sequence; her horse carries her along as, interspersed with fears for herself, her mind sifts fleeting images from her past life.



Tell us a little about your process.


For 'Last Footfall' I visited Dundrennon Abbey, trod the turf, looked at the contours of the landscape and sought the shoreline.  I then returned to the studio and enable my imagination to roam by stepping out of my own way - by this I mean allowing the instinctive painterly spirit to lead the way.   The trick is respond with colour and form and not make judgements of faces or shapes that might appear out of the paint, simply to greet them and bring them out into the light.  So it's a process of excavation, or uncovering a treasure.  My process is about discovery.



Which historical figure would you most like to meet?


Thinking about this really quietly, it is Maya Angelou who comes strongly to my mind.  And also Marie de Guise, Mary Stuart's mother.  I connect Maya's words "and still I rise" with Marie's motto "and yet it stands".


Now meeting with these two women would be an occasion indeed!