Scotland/China articles

The One Life, by Susie Leiper

by Website Editor, 24 October 2012

Susie Leiper is a longstanding member of the SCA's Edinburgh Branch, and author of the well-known book,
Precious Cargo : Scots and the China Trade in 1997. She is also one of Britain’s leading calligraphers, known both for her traditional skills in writing with quills on vellum and for her innovative use of the Chinese brush as a writing tool. Susie’s formative years as a calligrapher were spent in Hong Kong, where she developed her passion for Chinese art and language. Her second solo exhibition, The One Life opened at the Open Eye Gallery in the capital in mid-October, and we met to hear more about her work and the thinking behind this new collection.

John Ruskin, art historian and explorer, believed that mountains were the “great cathedrals of the earth”, and this is a belief that Susie shares. “I love being in them”, she says, “whether it is Munro-bagging in Scotland, crossing the Pyrenees or climbing Huangshan in China – so this is life and art coming together, if you like !”

Her deep appreciation of the world's great peaks comes out very clearly in the paintings and other artwork in The One Life. Some of her abstractions delve deeper into the details of the mountains, uncovering the patterns inherent in rocks, lichens and plants – for example the first five images seen here.

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Upper row - The immeasurable height of woods decaying, response to ‘The Simplon Pass’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on board ; Radiant white, Chinese ink and colours on Wenzhou bark paper ; The homeless voice of waters, response to ‘The Prelude, Conclusion’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on wood
Lower row - Celestial pines, oil and graphite on wood ; Mighty forms, from ‘The Prelude, Book I’ by William Wordsworth, Chinese colours, ink and pencil on paper

As well as painting on canvas and wood panels, Susie enjoys using a variety of Chinese materials in her work, especially Chinese paper. “Chinese paper is very different from western paper”, she explains, “being much too absorbent for use with the pens employed in western calligraphy”. Some of the works in this exhibition are painted on Wenzhou bark paper, made from the bark of mulberry trees, from the city in Zhejiang province more usually known for its large private-sector electric industry. Meanwhile, Xuancheng, in Anhui province, is the source of the best xuan paper.

Left to right - Green earth, text from ‘Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth, concertina book, oil, plaka and pencil on board ; Midnight, concertina book in silk covers, ink and gouache on Wenzhou bark paper ; Elysian fields, concertina book in silk covers, oil, plaka and graphite on board

But as well as the physical form of the mountains of Scotland and China, Susie reflects, like Ruskin, on their spiritual nature. Her love of Wordsworth took her to his famous line from 'The Prelude', “...for in all things I saw one life...” Two millennia and two cultures separate this from the 5th century BC Daoist text, Daodejing, which contains a line that might be translated as “the dao moves in all directions at once...and gives life to everything under the sun”, but as she points out “both reiterate the same philosophical understanding that behind everything lies one universal force, or truth”. Chinese painters sought to reveal this truth or essence in their mountain paintings, and Susie aims to express this core message through works such as this third group.

Left to right - The one life 道, the character dao 道 underlies excerpts from ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth, oil and plaka on canvas ; The one life, from ‘The Eolian harp’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ochre, ink and pencil on Wenzhou bark paper ; Workings of one mind, from ‘The Prelude, Book VI’ by William Wordsworth, ink, plaka and gold on board

As Susie explains, “calligraphy, painting, and poetry are the three arts most treasured by the Chinese, and I aim to marry western calligraphy, painting and poetry with the spontaneity and harmony of a Chinese master”.

She was also intrigued to find a reference to “that paradise of ten thousand trees, or Gehol’s famous gardens” in another part of Wordsworth's 'Prelude' – Gehol/Jehol (now Chengde) is the site of the Qing emperors’ summer residence in the mountains north-east of Beijing. “Wordsworth may have seen a painting of these formal gardens, but he didn't seem very impressed by them”, Susie guesses, “perhaps seeing them as too manicured“. His landscape preference, as a Romantic poet, and her own are for the wilder and more natural.

Susie on her 60th Munro, and two views of her exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh

Guests attending the opening of the exhibition on 19 October were certainly fascinated by Susie's expressions of these ancient ideas. Calligrapher Chi Zhang, with whom Susie has studied at the Confucius Institute at the University of Scotland, commented that "her recent works get more influence from traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, with a suggestive Chinese style and also a contemporary approach". Another viewer spoke of feeling “such a lovely calmness” surrounded by the works.

This exhibition seems to have allowed Susie to take her artistic development to another, very personal level, merging her Scottish and Chinese influences - “this is what I'm about”, she says.

The One Life was shown at the Open Eye Gallery, 34, Abercromby Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6QE in October-November 2012. For more details, see Susie's own website. It's also interesting to compare her work, as a Scottish artist incorporating Chinese elements in her work, with that of Chi Zhang, a Chinese artist incorporating Scottish elements in his work – see our earlier article. And she has also made it into 'Critic's Choice' in The Scotsman.