Alexander Goudie and the witch from Robert Burns' poem

Detail of painting by Alexander Goudie Artist Alexander Goudie became fixated with 'Nannie', the witch from Robert Burns' poem Tam o' Shanter

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Witches have cast a spell over artists for centuries, notably in the case of acclaimed Scots painter Alexander Goudie, as his son and fellow artist, Lachlan Goudie relates.

My father was once possessed by a witch. She consumed his life as an artist and drove him to crazed fits of painting, during which he repeatedly portrayed his demon on canvas.

These images, casually displayed throughout our family home in Glasgow, presented her at the head of a viscerally gruesome tribe of "rigwoodie hags", warlocks and resuscitated corpses.

"Dad's witch" became a familiar presence in my childhood.

The Art of Witchcraft

The Art of Witchcraft

Lachlan Goudie investigates the Art of Witchcraft for BBC Four - exploring the Witches & Wicked Bodies show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

'Nannie', for that was her name, is one of the protagonists of Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter. The poem fascinated my father, and for the last 20 years of his life he dedicated himself to telling the tale in pictures.

When my father first described Nannie in paint she appeared hauntingly faceless. But as the representations began to pile up in our home she evolved into a beauty - a terrible one.

Rusted scythes

Her pale skin seemed to glow in the moonlight of my dad's imagination. There she would dance, supple and strong - naked most of the time - with ruby lips and a demented look to the eyes.

In his research my father accumulated vast archives of newspaper cuttings. This material featured celebrities snapped pulling gruesome expressions - including Cherie Blair. These would become the templates for his witch and her dreadful cronies.

Other photographs were more sobering, illustrating the aftermath of terrible executions or tragedies. These would be referenced in his depictions of a witch's dance, which Burns vividly places at the heart of the poem.

All this imagery was distributed around our home like scatter cushions, supplementing the monographs on Goya or Soutine and theatrical props, which included chains and rusted scythes.

Painting from Alexander Goudie Trust Goudie's witch provided him escape from the portrait commissions that had established his artistic career

On sunny spring days, my father would remain inside the studio, cocooned by his paintings of a wild Scottish winter. During occasional afternoons of respite we would drive, en famille, from Glasgow to Ayrshire - the blasted backdrop for Burns' poem.

Mistrusted women

Tam o' Shanter is a work of fiction - a tale spun from the threads of Scottish folklore and superstition. But those trips into the wilderness were vital to my father. They helped him root this myth in something real, bedding it down within the clods of Ayrshire dirt.

This sense of location is fundamental to a vital seam in Scottish culture - a fascination with the strange and the ghoulish. When you're standing alone in the landscape the line between the real and the imagined can become indistinct.

It sometimes only takes the wind heaving between the branches or the rasp of a passing crow to make me look over my shoulder.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries the figure of the Witch materialised in the European consciousness with unprecedented clarity.

To a large extent the emerging stereotype was the result of advances in printing technology - as revolutionary to the exchange of news and ideas as the internet has been for us today.

Printing moguls of the era nourished the public appetite for news reports and scandal sheets.

Painting from Alexander Goudie Trust Nannie and her followers continued to feature in Alexander Goudie's paintings up until his death in 2004

Witchcraft stories were a sure-fire hit. The accompanying woodcuts and engravings, vital for cultivating a largely illiterate audience, helped give the sorceress a particular visual shape.

By the late 16th Century, Scotland itself had become one of the hot seats for the persecution of witches in Europe. A total of 3,837 trials were recorded. Of that number 2,000 souls were executed - with up to 85 per cent of them female.

Suspects were generally poor, older women, often those mistrusted and disliked by their village.

Who was Alexander Goudie?

From Alexander Goudie Trust
  • Alexander Goudie was born in 1933 in Paisley in Scotland. He studied at Glasgow School of Art.
  • His portraits brought him fame. Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, comic Billy Connolly and Queen Elizabeth II were among his subjects.
  • One of Goudie's greatest achievements was his cycle of 54 paintings inspired by Robert Burns' poem Tam o' Shanter. He died in 2004 aged 70.

Their crimes would include stealing milk from their neighbour's cows by magical means, preventing hens from laying, ruining crops or casting the "evil eye". Confessions were often extracted by torture.

The engravings of Hans Baldung Grien, Albrecht Durer and Salvator Rosa project an image that emphasises female lust as the basis for witchcraft.

Lure of the weird

Naked women are repeatedly shown in provocative poses, identifying witches and women as a diabolical threat to moral order.

But following the Enlightenment attitudes evolved. It became fashionable to mock the rural superstitions that had fanned the flames of the witch-hunts. Increasingly the depiction of witchcraft in paintings became linked to ideas of artistic invention.

When Goya produced a series of small cabinet paintings and engravings known as Los Caprichos in about 1794, he was using the theme of witchcraft to make a satirical sideswipe at the follies of Spanish society.

He was also unleashing the power of his imagination, unfettering himself from the formal portrait commissions that dictated so much of his professional life.

In many ways the same was true of my father's exploration of Tam o' Shanter. His dalliance with Nannie did allow him to escape the treadmill of portrait commissions upon which his career was originally established.

A witch's confession

Meeting the Devil

Although my father told us Isobel Gowdie was the "last witch burned at the stake", records don't actually show what happened to her. Her confession makes for a sorrowful read.

She speaks of meeting with the Devil on a desolate stretch of open road. She describes Satan sucking blood from her neck declaring, 'I baptise thee Janet, in my own name'. She also acknowledges engaging in sexual intercourse with the Antichrist.

The awful lyricism of Isobel's account masks a crude recycling of the literary and visual codes that writers and artists had been peddling for over a century.

His paintings form part of a rich legacy of Scottish artists who have meddled with the supernatural. From John Runciman and David Wilkie to Alan Davie and John Bellany, the lore and the lure of the weird has exerted a strong pull.

My father's penchant for the spectral may have had its origins in our own family bloodline. He relished telling his boggle-eyed children that in 1662 the "last witch burned at the stake in Scotland", Isobel Gowdie shared our surname.

Frantic music

Dad's witch seemed to have a particular fix on him. She continued to be an inspiration, a terrible muse, long after his family felt it was reasonable to continue exploring the subject.

In the last years of my father's life a court battle engulfed the Tam o' Shanter paintings. Although he became increasingly exhausted by a legal struggle that hinged on a question of ownership and financial obligation, my father still could not exorcise the witch as a muse.

Even at his death a number of canvasses covered in lightning sketches, depicting the sorceress and her followers, rested upon his easels.

In the end Nannie cast a potent spell over his life and his art.

I can remember how she regularly encouraged him to turn up the volume on our stereo in the hallway, filling the house with frantic musical excerpts by Offenbach or Mendelssohn.

How she would pour him that extra glass of whisky in the evening.

How she would whisper and mutter in his ear, even to the point where my father, alone in the studio with his brushes and scribbled compositions, would finally roar out-loud: "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"

Secret Knowledge The Art of Witchcraft is on BBC Four at 22:00 BST on Wednesday 11th September. It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Witches & Wicked Bodies is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until 3rd November 2013.

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