August 2017

House of Cards: building Orkadian Identity

House of Cards and Local portrait by Stanley Cursiter

Skech from early period, Stanley Cursiter

Stanley Cursiter is a person not known to modern audience. I stumbled upon his grand painting House of Cards in Museum of Kirkwall, was mesmerised by subtle merging between cubist architectural sense and classical softness and fluidity, and stepping stone by stepping stone, his story unfolded.

Born in Orkney, he had vast knowledge to strange and soaked in mystery history of Orkneys, to later, in spite of not having academic arts degree, become in 1948 director of National Galleries of Scotland, be appointed as His Majesty’s Painter and Limmer, and initiate foundation of Scottish Modern Art Gallery, now occupying two buildings in Dean Village.
He has given the grandfather of a person I had a chance to meet, the mansion owner next to Scara Brae Megalithic Village, a strange Viking artifact, presumably a calendar; called his permanent house guest herring gull he was feeding, “Sigurd”, and invested in reconstruction of St.Rognvald’s chapel in St.Magnus cathedral, Kirkwall.

Viking calendar, private

I need to take a tiny swing back in history. Old days Orkney, rumoured by historian Neil Oliver to be as fertile and vastly populated that is was the actual capital of prehistoric Europe, was invaded by Vikings under king Harald the FairHair, who added the islands to Norway, while making his cousin, Earl Rognvald, the first Earl of Orkney, who’s cousin in turn, St.Magnus, is still venerated in Norway as one of Catholic Saints, having amongst others a dedicated shrine in Trondheim Cathedral. Later on, the Orkney Earls participated in Jerusalem Crusades which were depicted in poetry of Earl Kari Kohlsson of same family, took up family name Rollo deriving from longer version “Rongvald”, married to French /Norman nobility on way back from Jerusalem and took up family name Sinclair, under which Earls of Orkney, Caithness and Roslyn are known to present day, not the least through famous polpularisation in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”. All the family timeline is recorded in Orkneyinga Saga, of islandic origin.

Stanley Cursiter knew this story well, and was captured by it. Here is an abstract from his biography: “Throughout his busy retirement, Cursiter was also broadcasting regularly on local and national radio, and writing many articles, and even some short stories. He was resident celebrity; the spokesman for Orkney, turned to whenever information was needed on cultural or historical questions or any kind of public debate required a rational and architectural response.
The project that probably meant most to him, however, was when he was given the opportunity to make a significant contributing to a building he had loved all his life. In 1965 he proposed and designed the St.Rognvald’s Chapel in the east end of the choir of St.Magnus Cathedral; a labour of love which stands as a permanent memorial to his contribution to local heritage. He designed a pulpit, a communion table and lectern, incorporating some wooden panels of 16th and 17th centuries, and the three distinctive figures that stand behind them representing the founding fathers of the Cathedral: The Norse earl Rognvald, his father Kol, and bishop William the Old, first bishop to be associated with the cathedral. Some of the wood used for new carvings had been found in the Cathedral crypt by Cursiter. “

During his time as a youth in London, he dedicated himself to study of illuminated books, amongst others, Manuscript of Henry III and Arthur, King of Britain, and illustrated in Arts and Crafts style George Eliot’s scenes from Clerical Life.

His portraits of local persons of prominence and their family members are still decorating many private collections throughout Scotland.

His portraiture in a step away from gentle realist society style of Sargent portraits towards more graphic Scottish Colorists like People, who he wrote a monograph about. Still in the time between two World Wars his painterly style retains incredible cerenity and vital stability.

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