These unique landscapes date to John Cunningham’s student years at the Glasgow School of Art, where he would later teach as senior paintings lecturer. Evident in nascent form is Cunningham’s painterly technique and unsentimental eye, qualities which would later earn him renown.
The charm of these vignettes owes in no small part to their idiosyncrasy; the luscious tone and ample mark making belies the utilitarian structures and machinery peppering the mines’ stepped terrain. Cunningham’s sensitive approach to these industrial scenes can be understood as part of a broader postwar shift, which saw artists explore the tension between the brutality and humanity of the world around them. Joan Eardley, Cunningham’s contemporary at Glasgow School of Art, pursued this dynamic through her representations of children playing amongst dilapidated and impoverished Glasgow tenements.
Cunningham renders the scenes with characteristically vibrant tone, but rather than the brighter cooler hues synonymous with his Scottish paintings, here he implements warmer, earthy tones to evoke the baking Spanish heat. Cunningham loved travel, particularly in France, Spain, Italy and Ireland, but elected to continue living in Scotland, citing the West Coast’s ‘fresh, clean air, its breezes and its light.’ Throughout his career Cunningham would elect to build up his landscapes en plein air, where he could capture the feeling as well as the likeness of his subject, only returning to his studio to add finishing touches.
The mineral wealth of Rio Tinto is believed to have drawn Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian miners, but it was the Romans the began to intensively work the landscape to extract copper, silver and gold. They were rediscovered in 1724, and in 1873 were purchased by a British company which turned the mines into one of the most important sources of copper and sulphur in the world. The ensuing excavation has created a near-lunar terrain, with a central crater several kilometres wide. The walls of terraced rock are streaked with the vivid and unusual colours of mineral ore.
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