Today, for the first time in months, the sun has been shining brightly. It was far too sunny to be stuck indoors so we decided to get in the car and go for a drive.
I say “drive” but I think “pilgrimage” is more fitting, because we ended up in a place I think I’m becoming slightly obsessed with; the fantastically peculiar Highland Arts Exhibition.
The Highland Arts Exhibition is located in the picturesque village of Ellenabiach, on the Isle of Seil.
The village is a pretty little place with fantastic views out to sea, but the gaudy Exhibition Building sits bang in the middle of it all like some great, unmentionable lump.
If Ellenabiach were a seemingly well-adjusted family, then The Highland Arts Exhibition would be the distant cousin it kept locked in the attic and never spoke about.
At first sight you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Exhibition is nothing more than a glorified gift shop. The windows are cluttered with all kinds of Chinese-made, authentic Scottish tat competing with each other to be rescued from the place; but once you enter it’s hallowed doors into the strangely reverential atmosphere within you’ll see that it’s much more than that.
It is a Gift Shop on Acid.
If you need china Scottie Dogs, bagpipe-shaped fridge magnets, or a plastic cockerel that crows each time you walk past it then you’ve come to the right place.
Need a tea towel with a castle on it? How about little Nessie holding a “No Fishing” sign? What about a stuffed otter? A moldy, flea-bitten bear skin? Half a moldy, flea-bitten zebra skin? A grotesque, blonde-haired “collectors” doll in a velvet dress, with arms as long as it’s body? A two foot high copy of a Greek statuette…with bird poo on it?
What about a Golliwog?
I’m not kidding.
I have watched people walk around the gift shop area of The Highland Arts Exhibition in stunned silence; blinking wildly as the garish shapes and colours destroyed their retinas.
Go beyond the gift shop however and you’ll find yourself in the inner sanctum. The art gallery itself. This where the real fun begins.
The Exhibition itself is entirely dedicated to the artistic output of just one man, C John Taylor. He was the brainchild and glorious creator of the whole place.
C John was born in 1915 and during his lifetime he composed music, wrote poetry, and created obscure “outsider art”, meaning work created by any artist who paints in a naive fashion or has little or no contact with the mainstream art world. C John was so “outside” he was practically on a different continent.
C John’s work is not only obscure but in some cases it’s downright weird, like he painted it by accident…with a spoon.
There are a few pieces in pencil that have been done really well, so he obviously had artistic talent, but for the most part it’s as if he said “Oh, Bugger it!” and just rushed stuff out as quickly as he could.
As far as I can make out there were four subjects he enjoyed painting the most. Landscapes, characters and scenes from the Bible, well-known celebrities of the time (60’s and 70’s), and members of “The Establishment”. Squiff-eyed portraits of Prince Charles and Prime Minister Harold MacMillan hang shoulder to shoulder with Paul Mcartney, Richard Branson, and Snow White (?). The walls are full of them. The ceilings too!
I’m certain that few, if any, of the subjects actually “sat” for their portraits (especially not the ones from the Bible), as most look as if they were copied from photos in magazines or newspapers; and copied at funny angles perhaps with one eye closed, or maybe two.
As I mentioned earlier there is a peculiarly hushed atmosphere within the gallery, which stems from the speechlesness that afflicts the visitors.
People stifle giggles, and God forbid you catch anyone elses eye or that would be it. So you simply walk around the place in silence, eyes wide and lips tightly pursed. It is impossible to avert your eyes from the art, it’s like driving past a traffic accident; and it’s unfathomable that there is an entire gallery dedicated to it.
Or at least I used to think it was unfathomable, but I think I’ve had an epithany.
It’s easy to laugh at C John Taylors work because, not to beat around the bush, his paintings aren’t very good. Best of all he was an eager amateur.
However, it’s plainly obvious he had huge reserves of self-belief, was a fantastic self-promoter, and most importantly had an utterly unqenchable appetite for producing joyously bizarre artworks.
What’s not to like about that?
He was succesful too! At the height of his career he owned a number of galleries, which sold his work all over Scotland so he must have been doing something right.
Thirty years or so later and our tastes are more sophisticated. A majority of his galleries have gone and so has C John. He died at the age of 84 in 1998, on a cruise ship that catered for the “senior” market, just off Tahiti.
Today the Highland Art Exhibition carries on regardless, in a frozen state of faded glory. You could say that it carries on in spite of itself, as I doubt much of C John’s work is ever sold. The eyebrow raising gift shop seems to keep the whole place afloat.
It’s difficult not to like it though, and not just because of the laughs. C John’s family still run the place and all seem genuinely glad you’ve visited; offering out free shortbread as people wander around.
What I can’t figure out is whether his family are aware of how funny the place is. They must have seen and heard people laughing, but do they know why? Do they just accept the fact they run a gallery of strange pictures and pretend not to hear, or are they completely oblivious to it and just think that they have extremely upbeat clientele?
I don’t think I’ll ask.
Before I left the Exhibition I bought myself a little book of C John Taylor’s artwork and poetry.
On the very last page is a black and white photo of the man, resplendent in jaunty cap and thick rimmed glasses.
Beneath it, without a hint of the absurd, the caption says;
“Photographed during a colour television programme.”
Go visit it HERE.