A striking series of medium-sized oils, the paintings pay tribute to Scotland’s working ‘herring lassies’, women who followed the fishing fleets around the coast, helping to prepare the catch for market. The works allow Macdonald to combine his fascination for the female form with his interest in Scottish history and social commentary: and the end result is a set of candid and evocative pieces which capture the strength, camaraderie and personalities of the girls.
Three models were used for the series, including the granddaughter of Edinburgh fishmonger Kenny Welch, whose portrait hangs next to the series. A costume designer recreated the impossible-to-source oilskins worn by the lassies, and the well-captured interplay of light and shadow on the surface of the material is one of the many pleasing aspects of the paintings.
Set in Newhaven harbour, the most striking of the works are those where the subjects are set against a light grey sky, almost silhouetted as they go about their work; or – as in the highlight of the exhibition, Herring Lassie Tales – share a moment of laughter and friendship.
A larger piece – Herring Lassies At The Harbour Wall – is compositionally recreated from a photograph Macdonald found in archives whilst researching the project, and the lassies’ stiff and almost uncomfortable pose is softened tenderly by depicting two of them hand-in-hand, as if scared of the camera capturing their image.
Other works from Macdonald’s previous exhibitions hang on the remainder of the gallery’s walls, showing not only the artist’s versatility and thematic influence, but also – when compared to the Herring Lassies – how much he has evolved.
Delighted and inspired by the success of the exhibition, Macdonald now intends to continue on his historical documentary path, and plans next to work on a similar series based around the manufacture of Harris Tweed.
As an artist who – on the basis of these evocative and accomplished pieces – has perhaps found his niche at last, Macdonald’s future path will be interesting to follow indeed.
Herring Lassies is on show at the Dundas St Gallery until 17 March