A HELENSBURGH woman who earned a reputation as a fine art historian and painter, Ailsa Tanner, is particularly remembered for a book she described as ‘her life’s work’.
Her carefully researched catalogues for the centenary exhibition of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists in 1982, followed by the West of Scotland Women Artists, remain essential sources of information.
Further investigation into the ‘Glasgow Girls’ then resulted in the beautifully illustrated and designed book on the artist Bessie MacNicol — a book which Ailsa published privately and launched in Helensburgh in 1998 under the title Bessie MacNicol, New Woman.
In a letter to me at the time she wrote: “I first became interested in the work of Bessie MacNicol when I was on the staff of Glasgow Art Gallery at Kelvingrove, and saw works by her, not hanging on the walls but tucked away in the stores.
“This was in 1954/5 when my mother was still alive. She is herself now recognised as a ‘Glasgow Girl’, and she reinforced my interest by remembering Bessie MacNicol’s work exhibited in Glasgow at the beginning of the century.
“In 1976 I was able to exhibit ten of her paintings in a loan exhibition ‘West of Scotland Women Artists’ along with the annual exhibition of the Helensburgh and District Art Club.
“I am proud to have been able to show so many of her paintings together for the first since her untimely death in 1904. In 1976 forgotten women artists were being rediscovered, and an important large exhibition was shown in Los Angeles.
“I have found many connections between Bessie MacNicol and Helensburgh. One of her closest women friends, Jenny Blackwood Brown, lived here, and in 1897 her future husband, Dr Alexander Frew, lived at Glendevon in William Street.
“His portrait was painted by her, probably in the cottage studio behind the house with its north facing window. She also painted his Helensburgh friends John Rennie and William Lamont.
“Her early death at the age of 34 robbed Scotland of a fine artist, recognised in her own day. She died in childbirth, and tragically two of her last paintings were titled ‘Motherhood’ and ‘Baby Crawford’.”
Ann Ailsa Louise Robertson was born in Kilmarnock in June 23 1923 but her family soon moved to Shanghai when her father, Dr Cecil Robertson, accepted a post in public health with the Shanghai Municipal Council.
Her mother and father both painted — indeed her mother was the distinguished artist Eleanor Allen Robertson (nee Moore) — but, because they lived abroad, their work initially was little known here. Ailsa, however, brought their work to light in 1997 at Milngavie’s Lillie Art Gallery, accompanied by a well-illustrated booklet ‘My Parents’.
All her research opened up neglected areas of Scottish painting, and she was generous with her knowledge and willing to share what she had learned with others.
Ailsa, for example, assisted Jude Burkhauser with the successful Glasgow Girls exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Galleries in Glasgow’s year as City of Culture in 1990, but did not accept credit. Her years of research on marine artists also helped A.S.Davidson complete his book ‘Marine Art and The Clyde’, which was published in 2001.
As well as arranging various exhibitions to run in conjunction with Helensburgh Art Club’s annual show, including ‘The Artist and the River Clyde’ in 1958 and ‘Helensburgh and the Glasgow School’ in 1972, she was also fundamental in establishing and running the Anderson Trust collection.
After returning from Shanghai, Ailsa went to school in Edinburgh, and when World War Two began she joined the Women’s Land Army, spending nearly three and a half years working on farms in the Tighnabruaich area. She enjoyed the country surroundings and became used to walking everywhere.
At the end of the war she was entitled to a war service gratuity and invested in a university course. Ailsa chose the strenuous double degree from Edinburgh, attending both Edinburgh School of Art and the university. She emerged five years later with an MA in Fine Art and a DA from the art school.
She obtained a post in the fine art department at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, and it was here that she met Philip Tanner, the keeper of engineering at the time.
They married in 1956 and she left her post to live and work at their home in Helensburgh. She took great pleasure in the garden, which she designed herself, and was a passionate gardener.
The couple had three children — John, Bridget and Nora — and despite being a busy mum Ailsa continued to paint and carry out research. Family outings could be arranged to somewhere where she wanted to paint or where there was someone to be interviewed.
Her particular but not exclusive interest in landscape included rather derelict places and she could make pictures out of unlikely things. She was a member of the Glasgow Society of Women Artists and later was elected to honorary membership.
She was very much to the fore in art exhibitions and activities in the burgh, and was invited to open the Art Club’s 50th anniversary show in 2001. Her own paintings were admired at these exhibitions and at shows in Glasgow, Paisley and elsewhere.
Ailsa enjoyed painting holidays with friends in Scotland and elsewhere. The painting classes she ran gave many people an introduction to painting or encouragement to persevere.
She also loved music, playing the piano and other instruments. She played the flute in Helensburgh Orchestral Society for many years, and was involved with various musical groups. Her other interests included architecture and learning Gaelic and Italian.
She was always recognisable, not least because she found a type of dress which exactly suited her, and she had a series made to the same pattern in interesting colours, always worn with an unusual pendant or brooch — she was known to her grandchildren as Grannie Pendant.
Always quiet and modest, Ailsa was clearly a determined person and one who was much admired and liked. She died in the Jeanie Deans Unit at the town’s Victoria Infirmary on November 19 2001.
- This article draws heavily on an obituary written for the Helensburgh Advertiser by the distinguished Scottish artist Louise Annand. As a young artist in Glasgow in the late 1930s and early 40s she was a founder member of the New Art Club and the New Scottish Group. She was awarded an MBE in 1980 and in 1996 Glasgow University bestowed an Honorary Doctorate.