I first encountered the world of Margaret Tait when, in 1949 as Captain of Holy Cross Academy Rugby Team, I found myself playing against Preston Lodge School in East Lothian. Among the Preston Lodge players was Alex Pirie [Tait’s husband], then a schoolboy. When we finally met a number of years later, he recalled that we first met as opponents in a rugby match. I regard Alex Pirie as a unique expert on the life and work of Margaret Tait, an artist living and working in Scotland’s art world, ill-prepared to fully appreciate the wide-ranging and complex nature of the way she expressed herself in poetry and storytelling, in drawing and painting, and perhaps most importantly in film.
I led two expeditions under the aegis of the Demarco Gallery’s experimental university of all the arts entitled ‘Edinburgh Arts’. Its main function was to explore the physical reality of Europe and its cultural heritage, from the shorelines of the Mediterranean to those encompassing Scotland, its mainland and its islands. These ‘Edinburgh Arts’ expeditions took place in 1976 and four years later in 1980. In 1974, ‘Edinburgh Arts’ expedition’s programme was entitled ‘From Hagar Qim to the Ring of Brodgar’. That meant that it began focused on the megalithic and contemporary culture of the islands of Malta and explored northwards, through Europe, to the megalithic and contemporary culture of the Orkney Islands.
The ‘Edinburgh Arts’ faculty was inspired by the Bauhausian spirit of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Therefore, its programme linked the world of the performing arts with those of the visual arts and literature and, naturally, it focused upon the importance of the interface between poetry and all aspects of the performing arts and that of the photographer and filmmaker. Margaret Tait played an important part in the first-ever manifestation of the Demarco Gallery’s ‘Edinburgh Arts’ when, together with Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch, she took part in a poetry reading. This revealed the importance of poetry in relation to the world of the visual artist. There was no doubt in my mind that Margaret Tait was the personification of a visual artist whose art encompassed the use of language.
In this way, she was a source of inspiration to me, along with Ian Hamilton Finlay. She was also, indeed, easily comparable in my mind to Joseph Beuys who entered my life as the decade of the sixties merged into that of the seventies. I therefore recognised Margaret Tait, like Beuys, as an artist-scientist. As a student, she was attracted to medical science and practised as a medical doctor. Her poetry reveals how her creative thinking encompassed, in equal measure, the profound truths embodied in both artistic and scientific thinking.
I cherish my memories of Margaret Tait, together with Alex Pirie, on Orkney together with those members of the Orcadian community of artists who added a much needed Orcadian dimension to the cultural life of Scotland. My memories must take into account the artistic contributions made in particular by George Mackay Brown, Tam and Gunnie Moberg MacPhail, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and all those Italian prisoners of war who provided irrefutable proof that Joseph Beuys was fully justified in saying ‘everyone is an artist’ when, during the Second World War, they devoted themselves to the building of what must be considered an outstanding nodal point and a place of religious pilgrimage defining 20th century European culture, equal in importance to the chapels of Corbusier at Ronchamp and Matisse in Provence.
Margaret Tait contributed her poem ‘The Standing Stones of Stenness’ to the Demarco Gallery’s publication defining the section devoted to the ‘Edinburgh Arts’ Orcadian expedition. This poem defines the important balance between intellectual and poetic thought. It should be studied by anyone wishing to understand why Margaret Tait used the medium of film to reveal truths obscured by scientific observation. This poem was first published in her book of poetry entitled ‘Subjects and Sequences’. The cover of this publication is dominated by her photographic image of the Ring of Brodgar, together with film-strips indicating her capacity to perceive the stuff and substance of reality, bound fast to the inexorable passage of time.
Of course, she adds an Italian dimension to the image of Orkney because of her experience as an artist and filmmaker in the immediate post-war years of Rome and its film world, centred on Cine Citta. The experience of Italy beginning to recover from the ravages of the pain and suffering of the Second World War is firmly identified with the beginnings of her artistic life and the history of Ancona Films. Her life and art reveal her right to be firmly placed within the history of 20th century Europe. I first experienced Italy in the Holy Year of 1950. My memories of Rome are forever poignant as I shared them with my father. Margaret Tait’s film on the Rome of that time centred on the experience of two young lovers who are re-united on the Spanish Steps brighten my memories. For that personal reason alone, I regard the life and art of Margaret Tait as an invaluable gift.
Professor Richard Demarco CBE
Originally published as part of Interim Edition: The Margaret Tait Poetry Archive, an exhibition at Demarco Archive Exhibitions, Summerhall, Edinburgh, November 2018 – January 2019.