The Astounding world of C John Taylor.

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.

Build it and they will come.

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.

The great man himself

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!

Margaret Thatcher
(I think)

Gordon Ramsay
(not really)

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.”

Perfect!

My new favourite book.

 

After a day of "art".
Still stupid...but happy!

Go visit it HERE.

 

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Astounding world of C John Taylor.

  1. Mike Elkerton

    This without doubt in my eyes this is your best written work to-date.

    I have, as you know been to this bijou ‘Art Santuary’ on the Isle of Seil. Your description of the venue is a classic and so really hillarious.

    This place is a wonderous museum and art gallery and a joy to visit…………………so readers/holiday maker’s, take Andy’s advice and go on this once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the lovely village of Ellenabiach on the Isle of Seil, step back in time and go and gaze at the relics of a byegone age (Well at least the 1960’s & 70’s)

    You will not be dissapointed.

    Don’t forget to take the children around the Gallery and Museum/Gift Shop and answer all their questions about the artwork and artifacts if you can? (Without Smiling)………………and remember – any person, who can leave the ‘Highland Art Gallery & Museum’ without, so much as a snigger, giggle or none stop laughter for over half-an-hour, will not have appreciated the time and effort that the late C.John Taylor had put into his never to be forgotten artwork.

    This Scottish visitor attraction is a real gem and lasting memorial to a man who tried very hard and belived he was a genuine gifted artist.

    R.I.P C.John. Taylor

  2. Heidi

    How I enjoyed this description of the bizarre world of C John Taylor,it made me laugh so much and brought back happy memories! Having holidayed in the highlands several times (2000 -2006 inc) I felt compelled to visit the Highland “Arts” Exhibition each time I was there. There seems to be a draw, an almost magnetic pull to the place and a League of Gentlemen-like quality pervades. I wonder what goes through the minds of the coach loads of unsuspecting tourists who are bussed in in frequent droves. Do most of them only visit as it’s part of their coach tour itinerary? I admit to having felt a certain smugness as I emerged back out to the car park, watching them filter in the conservatory style entrance and my knowledge of what lay ahead! Having resisted the urge to buy my most favourite ornament I have EVER seen ( an actual Tennants Super can pouring plastic lager into a pint glass) what I cannot resist however is the gorgeous Butter Tablet sold there,glorious stuff! Anyway thank you for your hilarious blog and long may the H A Exhibition (& British eccentricity) continue!

  3. I’m guessing that what probably goes through the minds of the unsuspecting tourists is “Where can I get a cup of tea?”, or “Where are the toilets?” because they’re mostly of a certain “vintage” shall we say.

    I think there’s a deal between the Exhibition and the Coach companies that go there, so the visitors are pretty much a captive audience.
    I know about the Tennants Super can caught “mid flow”. It was actually purchased by a private organisation dedicated toward keeping the memory of C.John alive. It can now be seen in the “Contemporary Artists” section of the Tate Liverpool.

    Since I wrote that blog post I’ve heard that the free “homemade” tablet and shortbread that they give out there are actually bought in a shop in Oban, and have nothing to do with the Exhibition at all! The special “Highland Arts Exhibition” Shortbread and Tablet that they sell actually comes from the same shop, but they just unwrap it and put it in their own packaging.
    Far be it for me to suggest that they should ever do such a thing, but my faith in humanity died a little when I heard that.

    p.s. I lied about the Tennants Super 😉

    • Heidi

      There is (or was) a strange little offshoot of the “Exhibition” in Oban where the Tablet can be bought as can, yet more, taxidermy, tartan and tea towels. Do you see what an impression the world of C John has had on me, it’s nearly 7 years since I last visited and still I recall it all with vivid clarity………. If you happen to visit the mothership on Seil again and that most fabulous of sculptures (Tennants can – yes it’s a sculpture now) still resides then perhaps you would consider posting a picture of it?! That would be marvellous! 😀 P.S. What a stunning area to live in – beautiful:-)

  4. I was photographer on that cruiseship, The Saga Rose, at the time, and remember C.John…I may have a picture or two of him somewhere; I do have one of the books he used to leave in the library for the entertainment of those less…er…gifted than himself. It’s called ‘Prize Winning Poetry’, and is a real mongrel of a collection, featuring ‘Gems From Old Masters’ (Grey’s Elegy), his own Wm. McGonagall-esque efforts (rather like explosions in a punctuation factory), and the proud works of housewives from all over Scotland and the UK, inc. ‘Reality’, an emetic sonnet by Miss Frances Lawton from Warrington, Cheshire. I keep meaning to throw it away but, as Melvyn Bragg (‘BBC TV’) offers on the back of the dust jacket: ‘It is a most original volume’. On the same jacket Edward Heath observes: ‘I am delighted to add it to my collection’. Collection of what, he doesn’t say. There are some reproductions of C.John’s artwork too…he picks up where the Fauvists left off and goes berserk. Only when I’m down to my last farthing will I offer it on eBay.

  5. There are a few gems hidden amongst the daubs and sundry tartan tat, however is the man plainly had no inner critic and never knew when to scrub a canvas.
    Incidentally I could see that portrait of the chef making a decent card, certainly seen a lot worse.

  6. Great and accurate article Andy. My mum was brought up in Taynuilt Argyll so we visited C John’s gallery in Easdale quite a few times on holidays. Mainly for the free toffee and tablet. We even met him once. Think he was on a Fyfe Robertson trip. Weirdly awful poet and painter but, you’re right, the extreme oddness of the place is burnt into my memory forever. Se ur beatha! That was his catchphrase.

  7. steve baskerville-muscutt

    We have just visited this maze of “wonders” and have marvelled at the vinyl records for sale, the McGonagall beating poetry and the awesome painting of an Elvis quiffed St James with exposed left nipple. The two portraits, side by side, of the ships captain are of the same captain but awe inspiringly poles apart. There are some hidden gems which have an inner Fauvist quality but to give C.John Taylor his due, he had inner belief………when you cross that “Bridge across the Atlantic” and partake of the free shortbread and tablet you must hope they are the antidote to bring you back to your own reality. A wondrous experience.
    steve baskerville-muscutt 8th August 2014

  8. Jo

    We visited about 10 years ago – it left our limbs weak with hysterical laughter made worse by trying to escape the ladies trying to force feed us the tablet. A great day out.

  9. Ross

    I was amazed when my girlfriend and I happened across the place by accident while generally just cutting about and exploring Argyll a few weeks ago. I bought one of his dish towels, and had to get my mum an extra one just to be sure. Almost can’t bear to use it to dry dishes, might put it up on the kitchen wall!

  10. Steve W

    Whenever we are in the area we visit this building and it’s frankly extraordinary gallery. This piece is complete accurate in it’s portrayal on the place and the man and made us fall about laughing with recognition.

  11. Stuart Macpherson

    His grainy little advert was a fixture in the Campbeltown Courier when I was growing up. I took his legend and his book of poems with me when I left. Later on, I was thrown out of the Highland Arts shop in Inveraray, in the late 80s. The ladies of the shop refused my money! “We know your sort, you’re just here to mock” Me, I was all innocent, but they clearly didn’t like the cut of my jib. I still have the little book of poems though. No-one is taking that from me!

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