A gasp of astonishment was the universal reaction from people crammed into An Lanntair’s Gallery on Saturday afternoon (December 29th) for the launch of Margaret Ferguson’s amazing artistic tour-de-force, Iolaire 100.
More than 100 paintings – all dedicated to and derived from the Iolaire disaster and almost all being portraits of victims from across Lewis and Harris – form the show.
These are the product of more than three years of work – and are a feat of inspiration that few could hope to match.
The gallery has rarely, if ever, seen such a launch…with the dense throng being more akin to an airport reception area during weather delays!
Reactions on welovestornoway.com’s Facebook Page included Christine Murray saying: “A wonderful tribute to those who were lost and those who survived.
“Very pleased to hear that the exhibition will be running up until March as it will take many visits to appreciate all of the portraits.
“I feel that my father would have been very proud to see the portrait of his father that he never saw.
“Thank you for all the hours you spent honouring these men.
And Seonaid Clarke Macleod said: “Beautifully poignant tribute to all who were aboard, including our great-uncle Angus Macleod.
“A time for reflection and respect for the very precious lives lost and also a huge amount of gratitude for everyone who put their lives on the line for peace.”
Margaret explains: “It’s so important to commemorate them now. I feel I’m honouring them in a way, what they went through.
“When people look at these paintings I want them to make a human connection. And to feel moved, of course.”
The value of the project became clear when a relative of Malcolm Macleod of Ness whose body was never recovered, viewed Margaret’s portrait of him and told her ‘I feel you’ve brought him home at last’.
It all started with a project entitled "Dol Fodha na Greine" in October 2014 when she was commissioned by Comunn Eachdraidh Nis to create artwork to mark the centenary of WW1. This was to include local soldiers and sailors and also some family members - the reference photos were from the book "Dol Fodha na Greine'.
She remembers: “As the painting neared completion, I realised I wanted to honour my subjects in a more personal way, so started painting single subjects as well. I ended up with eight individual portraits, also in oils. Their stories were powerful; a beautiful young woman Christina Campbell, had lost four brothers and her father by 1920. “
“Following my experience with "Dol Fodha na Greine" I decided in 2015 to commemorate the sailors who were lost in the 1919 Iolaire disaster.”
The project was partly crowd-funded with more than £1500 raised through justgiving.com and it won support from the ward funds of quite a number of councillors on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar It was also supported by Creative Scotland, An Lanntair, Acair, and other groups
The event was introduced by Roddy Murray, An Lanntair’s Head of Visual Arts and Literature, who said the work on the display had gone on until the very last minute – the paint was still wet in some places, he said. And the hanging of the exhibition had lasted into the early hours of Saturday. “This is a monumental body of work,” he commented.
Malcolm Macdonald, co-author of another Iolaire artistic tour-de-force, the book The Darkest Dawn, the Story of the Iolaire Tragedy, spoke of the way they had worked together sharing the images collected for the book. He spoke of his astonishment at the scale of the work and the way she brought the eyes of the men to life. “It has culminated in a tremendous achievement by Margaret.”
He mentioned how the availability of photographs had been affected by the fact that there were photograph shops in Chatham, Portsmouth and other naval bases at the time.
Margaret welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. She said of the three-year project, “I just started painting and I didn’t stop until yesterday morning…they are still wet!” She also included some relatives, including widows. She pointed out that despite the number of paintings, they only represented only about half of those lost.
Also forming part of the exhibition is a cart representing those used to carry the bodies of those lost in the tragedy, along with 201 decorated stones, one for each victim; plus a recreation of an Island hearthside, to manifest the idea of the homes waiting for those returning 100 years ago.
Margaret Ferguson about the Iolaire 100 project on YouTube.