The art of Lesley Banks

THE chilly, misty weather of this week has brought intimations of winter and the retail trade, after a September in the doldrums, is beginning to sense the quickening pace of approaching Christmas. It is a time when the corporate mind, if it has not done so already, must settle the question of the Christmas card.

For some reason the choice has always been difficult for us at the Herald, but this year matters have been greatly if inadvertently simplified by a rising young artist living and working in Glasgow.

It was a couple of months ago that Lesley Banks had an exhibition at Cyril Gerber’s Compass Gallery in Glasgow. The paintings sold out almost at once. Among them them was one called Arlington Baths: Desert Storm. It is reproduced here, and is to be used for our Christmas card, by kind permission of its owners, Mr and Mrs J. V. Sampaio.

It shows women relaxing at the baths. One is reading the Herald. Like many of Lesley Banks’s paintings, it appears at first glance simply a well executed piece of social observation. But invariably when you look more closely you find some dissonance, some hint of something going wrong or about to do so. In this work the headline, Operation Desert Storm, makes its own comment.

In others there is a narrative quality. For example in those set in tenement flats around, I think, St George’s Cross, there are disturbing and mysterious details. A window-cleaner is out on the sill without a safety harness. Inside a woman clutches a football behind her back.

There might be a chip-pan fire in the background. In almost every picture some disaster may be waiting to happen. Fire is a persistent and disturbing ingredient in work that belies the first impression of placidity. At first simply engaging, it becomes powerful and disturbing. Ms Banks is not obviously in any current Glasgow school or tradition; she seems sui generis, though Mr Gerber told me that she has been influenced by a London artist she much admires, Carl Weight.

Through Cyril Gerber Fine Art, Mr Gerber acts for Ms Banks, who is 29 and a graduate of Glasgow School of Art. He said that her mature style emerged only after she was able to take to her art full-time. Before that she worked in the Compass Gallery and as a waitress and barmaid.

Now she is hard at it putting together a new collection. Some of the paintings will be in the Compass Christmas show but Mr Gerber will be taking a larger number of new canvases in January to the Islington Art Fair. There have been stirrings of interest in London in her work but this will be her first substantial exposure to the London market.

The art market is a tricky and treacherous thing, and Mr Gerber is giving her some shrewd advice. He has warned her, in particular, of the danger of letting prices go too high during a period of fashionability which may be brief and then finding that the prices have outpaced the local market. A few Scottish artists have been left high and dry in this way.

Her stint at the Arlington Baths was, by all accounts, an extended assignment. She had to wait some time for permission to paint there (she now is a regular in the pool). The fruit of her work there was a pair of canvases of which this is one. Apart from the pleasure her work gives me in general, what really drew my eye to it was an extraordinarily perceptive observation contained in it.

Whether Ms Banks was aware of it or not, by reproducing the curl in the top right corner of the front page she was immortalising a problem at that time proving extremely troublesome to my friend and colleague Alex Hastie, our production director. Indeed this was an industry-wide glitch that emerged during the switch made by the daily press from letterpress to web-offset printing.

This latter process exploits the fact that water and oil do not mix. The plate is treated so that the non-image area is water-receptive and therefore is not inked. The image area, by contrast, accepts the ink.

When one side of the sheet is carrying colour it has to be printed five times so that the component hues can be applied. The reverse side, black and white only, is printed once. The curl develops because one side is carrying much more water than the other. Alex, who solved the problem eventually by persuading the newsprint suppliers to alter their specification, compares the phenomenon to the making of Melba toast.

Toast Melba was invented in the 1890s by the great French chef Escoffier who with Charles Ritz opened the Savoy Hotel. One day Mrs Ritz complained that the toast was too thick. Escoffier came up with the idea of toasting the bread, slicing it again and then toasting the newly exposed sides. Because of uneven moisture, the result is curly toast — that delicious morsel so easy to overdose on before the meal has even started. Like various other dishes which he invented, Escoffier named it in honour of Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian opera singer.

It’s a long road from Escoffier to Arlington Baths, the Herald’s Christmas card, and Lesley Banks, by way of printing technology. Our Christmas card will be not just a tribute to a gifted local artist but also for us a domestic memento of a problem encountered and a problem solved.


Ian Murray, of Word of Mouth in Bank Street, Glasgow, discovered the story of Melba Toast for me in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Penguin #12.99). He also pointed out that in my recent obituary of Miles Davies I erred in saying that when in Glasgow he had played at the Third Eye. The venue, in fact, had been Green’s Playhouse.