Nan Shepherd’s sun porch
In the 1970s, Nan Shepherd’s neighbour introduced her to the artist, Barbara Balmer.
It was a brief, but intense friendship, ended by Shepherd’s death in 1981. But during those years Balmer painted ‘Nan Shepherd’s Sun Porch’.
The sun porch – conservatory – was Shepherd’s favourite room in Dunvegan, the Aberdeenshire house where she lived almost all her life. It was added on not long after the family moved there in March 1893.
In photographs, Shepherd’s often sitting in it. Smiling, in her wicker chair, among the pots of red and pink geraniums. The cat on her lap.
But in Balmer’s picture, the chair is empty. It’s turned instead towards the door leading to the garden. Which is open.
It’s as though, with her quiet walk, Shepherd might suddenly appear in the doorway. Or that she’s just left.
Shepherd often seemed far away, somewhere else
Barbara Balmer was impervious to mountains. But she ‘got’ the enigmatic Shepherd immediately. And captured her essence in the painting.
Friends of Shepherd’s said she often seemed far away, somewhere else. Like Martha, in her first novel, The Quarry Wood, perhaps.
Martha, as her world widens, grows more and more detached:
‘The cottage did not absorb her…it received her back. She was in its life, but not of it.’
‘Nan Shepherd’s Sun Porch’ is all about Nan Shepherd. Her home. Her chair. Her garden.
But she’s not there. She’s somewhere else.
Balmer’s painting now hangs in Huntly’s Deveron Arts Gallery. It’s at the top of the stairs leading from the entrance hall.
Early on in my research, I discovered its existence and bought a postcard for 50p from the gallery. I stuck it on the wall above my desk.
And on one of my footstepping forays to Scotland, I went and saw it for myself.
But by then, I already knew where I’d find Shepherd.
A lovely day in the hills
It was on a lovely day in the hills.
A particular hill. And a path leading into the mountain.
I’ve put away the postcard now. Along with my notes and files.
But like Nan Shepherd, it haunts me.