Artist's Statement: Iona Leishman on The Battle of Flodden exhibition at Stirling Castle

| 03 September 2013

Artist’s Statement: Iona Leishman on art to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, the 1513 clash which killed James IV and 10,000 Scotsmen, at the King’s former home of Stirling Castle...

A photo of an artist with oils on canvas inside a castle setting
© Historic Scotland
“I've absorbed Scottish history from a young age through my father in particular. Flodden has always been one of these heavy sadnesses that comes echoing up through the centuries.

I visited the battle site a long time ago but it was by starting work as Stirling Castle's resident artist in 2011, learning about James IV, when the extent of the Flodden catastrophe began to resonate strongly with me.   
My work took months of contemplation. I work more effectively when I connect on an emotional, visceral level and so I knew the answer was not going to be studying the weapons and armour.

With the best will in the world, the Flodden landscape is not the most dramatic backdrop.  So when an historian friend told me that the battle was so fierce the Scots were unable to retrieve the body of the king, I knew that was my starting point, right at the red hot, bloody heart of the struggle.

It's an all or nothing approach and allows my mind to flow into the space needed.

I think around the battle too, about those left behind – the women and the children, the agony of waiting, the pain of loss and bereavement.

Scotland's defeat was so unexpected and the nation convulsed in shock.  Additionally, thinking about the frantic plotting and scheming that ensued upon the king's death is a rich vein.

Treading the earth and imbibing the sense of place is important for me and so I recently made the journey to Northumberland, visiting many spots that were key to James IV's campaign.

Where the Scots marched south over the medieval bridge at Twizel and the English marched north on their way to attack unexpectedly, I found to be an extraordinarily haunted place.

My painting is of two force fields sweeping by and through each other at that crossing of the River Till. And the airy space of Flodden battle field itself gave rise to a painting called The Earth Abides.

The most tragic aspect is the appalling loss of life, the sheer scale of loss that affected so many families and communities up and down the land.

And then it's the bitter nature of the blow to Scotland as a nation compounded by the bewildering actions of a desperate king who plunged into the melee, getting killing in the process.

I'm recalling a number of ‘aha!’ painting moments. When the two big paintings, Defeat at Flodden and The Pity of War are surrounded by the court, the families and the landscape paintings, as a big body of work, I think they all work well together.

Individually, I think of the faces of six women in Power Behind the Throne, the power of Mothers of Flodden and the panicked conversation in Court Intrigue.

The Pity of War was an epic effort.  James IV's face appeared early on and exerted a real power and I wanted to keep him right there.

When you try to keep something protected, almost talismanic in a painting, the work can become disjointed and sometimes the starting point has to be sacrificed.

On this occasion, I kept thinking, ‘He's appalled. James IV is utterly appalled at what he has done’ and it was as if he was urging me on to tell the story; his regret and sadness compelling me to paint the narrative all around him of fighting and fleeing men, rearing horses and intimations of a strong afterlife.

I painted much of this throughout the bitter wet and cold of January and February this year when the heating had failed at my Stirling studio. And James IV accompanied me all the way.”

  • Catastrophe to Crown is at Stirling Castle from September 9-30 2013.

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