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  • Tony Davidson

In search for the North

Updated: Jun 12

Inspired by the work of Janette Kerr and used in her catalogue for Kilmorack Gallery's 2021 exhbition 'Hyperborea'


Directions are relative: and the line that divides east from west impossible to define. Is it Rome, Constantinople or Delhi? If you follow the Earth’s longitude belly, you will meet your original self 28,000 miles later. Head north, however, and it is different. You get somewhere and know you have arrived when the compass spins. Around you is the white of cold elements - wind, ice and sea. Here at the furthest far, you are alive… but only just and further… we almost see that too, towards the source.


The Greeks wrote of ‘Hyperborea,’ and described it as a land beyond the north (the boreal) wind. To the Hellenics it represented the edge of the world and the location of this mythical place is not known. Possibly it is in the Balkans, Scandinavia, Britain or Siberia – but there was always trade in amber and furs between the south and the far north, so this place of wild unknown was always there, in our heads: terrifying to some and a lure others. To Janette Kerr is it is a pull. She is the ultimate north-seeking artist, looking ‘beyond the north wind’ in search of elemental experiences. Her studio in Brindister on Shetland faces north. To Kerr it is not the final destination, it is a base camp. The journey doesn’t stop here.


The most famous tale of an artist’s elemental experience is J.M. Turner’s story of being lashed to the mast of steamboat ‘Ariel’ during a storm. This probably never happened, and the boat’s name inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest;’ with Turner, an artistic version of Prospero, but it does show the desire to connect to the sublime. Sometimes this is referred to as the Northern Romantic movement, but Kerr goes beyond this and approaches it with almost scientific fervour, using some of the first scientific tools, a sketchpad and pencil.

Janette Kerr has often painted from a boat, surrounded by a heavy swell and a disappearing horizon. This experience is very different from painting at a cliff top. There is exhilaration and fear, spray and just the most human thoughts that rise when surrounded by the sea for hours at a time. She also speaks with the fishermen and storytellers, and studies charts and oceanographic drawings. Everything gets absorbed into her sea paintings and, like an individual wave, each one is very different but at the same time connected. Wind, water, sun and rain, north and south, east and west, when on a boat at sea, become the same thing, and a great connection is made.


This exhibition – ‘Hyperborea: beyond the north wind’ – comes out of Janette Kerr’s long obsession with this: looking north into the gale, studying and painting.




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