My Father’s Canvas of the Scottish Hills

My dad, Richard Hargreave, died in 1994 at the age of 50. He was a prolific painter and sculptor, and the output from that half-century was vast. We have often talked as a family about ‘doing something’ to share his works (with the modest audience who might be interested), but it wasn’t until 2020, perhaps after the introspection of lockdown, that I finally decided to do so. 

At first, I thought only of my own few pieces and whatever my mum had at home. Then, on talking to my mum more, I realised how many people across the country and beyond had pieces of dad’s work—clients and friends alike—and I posted on social media asking people to share what they had while my mum asked anyone she could think of. Dad always wanted his works to be seen, but it does tickle me somewhat that I’m doing this on Instagram, which along with so much of modern life, I suspect would have been anathema to him. But then my dad was a mass of contradictions. Gregarious, yet solitary, he was great fun and always laughed a lot and loudly. I think he’d enjoy the fact his pieces are reaching new audiences. 

Art—painting, carving, drawing, writing—and the outdoors seem to have guided my father through life since he was a boy, one often inspiring the other. As a long-term London-dweller, I haven’t inherited that same connection with the outdoors, but collating and sharing my father’s work has not only helped me see the world through his eyes, it has deepened my empathy for his world and helped me understand his character more. His works are scattered all around the globe, some close to home in the Borders and others overseas, and seeking them out has revived old connections, and created new ones. 

Watercolour painting of Max and Bridget by the river, with stone bridge behind.

Bridget & Max by the River Ettrick

Recently I was looking for work to share, when I came across a sketch book from a camping trip in Wales. It was dated June 1960, when dad was sixteen. Snowdon is featured, alongside many camping and landscape sketches, which serve as early prototypes of the kinds of scenes he would later paint in situ, most often in Scotland. 

A few years on from this, around 1964, dad’s love of the wild outdoors led him to study sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art, which was well regarded and still taught in the classical way, something which appealed to him. Possibly as important to dad was the city’s setting close to the mountains. The family were initially dead against my father studying art beyond school. Whether this opportunity to merge his two passions was completely straightforward or at least partly a case of ‘deus ex machina’ is, in our family, something of a legend. 

In family folklore, dad had a bad fall while abseiling off the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye, which averted his education while he recovered. In his own words, the event was oddly fortuitous: his recovery put paid to his family’s plans for him to study aeronautical engineering, freeing him to pursue a less conventional career in art.

To Scotland, then, where a lifetime of devotion to the hills and art was established. An active young student, he quickly joined the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club (EUMC), where he met many of his best friends—and having met my mum in art college, she joined alongside him. He ventured to the Highlands almost every weekend, even through winter, and rejoiced in the opportunities and studio space provided to him by the college. 

Painting of students camping.

Mountain camp school trip in Scotland (1983)

Ink sketch of students cooking over a fire.

Campfire scene

Watercolour painting of tent behind a tree, Loch Laggan.

Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club trip to Loch Laggan

Inscription on the back of a painting that reads: 'Tents of Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club at Loch Laggan in February (The frozen loch is seen through the trees on the right), painted from the door of my tent.

Despite a massive painting output throughout his life, dad’s diploma was actually sculpture: carving was his true calling. While he was at college, he carved a golden eagle—emblem of the hills—for the EUMC clubhouse, as a memorial for two young men who died on the Cobbler, probably in the late 1960s. His work was deeply entwined with the natural world: he carved from wood and stone, and to paint watercolours outside he collected rainwater, saying it lent a particular quality to the work. It makes sense to me that the instant sensory feedback from rock-climbing might also mean there was resonance in taking a chisel to create a figure from a block of stone.

His ability to craft with his hands extended to meeting practical needs, which served him well for these trips—and later in life, too. Mum recalls him in the fashion design department at the college, sewing his own rucksacks, tents and sleeping bags, which had to be carefully filled with down and tapered, for he wanted no space wasted! In fact, anything that could be made or crafted, was. He made his own anti-midge formula, first aid and hussif bags (a small pouch to hold a needle and thread) and hand-made leather sheaths for his axes. Later, as a family man, he progressed to coffee tables, bookcases, bed frames and even a settee. 

Mum recalls him in the fashion design department at the college, sewing his own rucksacks, tents and sleeping bags, which had to be carefully filled with down and tapered, for he wanted no space wasted!

Carving the house number in Dollar

Portrait of Richard, dressed in brown, with his tools.

Artist and some of his tools.

All the camping gear made in his EUMC days was still used after my brother Max and I were born. When we camped above the landing beach at Omaha, in France, we were all inside one of dad’s home-made white bell-tents (of course!), when mum recalls overhearing some Germans say: ‘These English must think they’re on the ice-field!’ (German was one of several languages my dad spoke almost fluently.)

One year, he made Max and I a rowing boat, clinker built with layers of wood—like the Vikings. Today, I have an ink sketch of my brother rowing that boat on Hopeman Beach on the North East coast of Scotland propped up on my desk. It was a unique gift.

After art college, when dad became a teacher, he passed on this craftsmanship to the pupils and students he took on camping trips across Scotland. My mum has been in contact with a few of them—some now in their 60s—as I’ve been trying to track down my dad’s diasporic work, and a few have reminisced of the skills instilled in those early camping days.

‘Do tents count as art?’ one asked, sending through a batch of pictures.

I think they do.

Sketch of brother Max on a canoe.

Ink sketch of brother, Max, rowing in home-made boat in Hopeman West Bay, Moray Firth

On the back of many of dad’s paintings can be found the inscription, Painted at the place. He travelled abroad a great deal, mostly by bike (starting on a shopping bike over the Alps to study in Florence in his teens), but many of his works are centred around Scotland. He came for the hills, and apart from two brief years in the south of England, he stayed. Edinburgh provided the accessibility to the landscape he wanted to be in, and when he discovered the dramatic mountains in the Northwest, they became his favourites.

As he got older, his passion for climbing developed into a keenness for high-level and light-weight camping, a style which wouldn’t be out of place today (though in his case with home-made gear, tweed breeches and wool socks). Hiking in the hills was never about ticking things off a list, and I doubt he’d have known or used the term ‘Munro bagging’, but walking provided him the opportunity to see more landscapes and to paint in them. Certainly, this practice started from before that Wales sketchbook and was carried through his EUMC days, but I remember him sketching on a small pad he kept in his breast pocket or a specially made pouch worn on his belt. He’d carry a portable tin of paint, paintbrushes cut in size to save weight and space, and always found ways to carry water for his watercolours. He wanted to paint the scenes outside, in real time. If a longer sitting was required and it got cold, he would keep warm inside a sleeping bag, perhaps propping his sketchpad on a rock. He was deeply practical, but always unconventional.

He’d carry a portable tin of paint, paintbrushes cut in size to save weight and space, and always found ways to carry water for his watercolours. He wanted to paint the scenes outside, in real time.

Black and white photograph of artist Richard painting outside his tent, with canvas on his lap, watercolours on his right, rucksack and tent behind.

Richard Hargreave painting in situ with tent, sketchpad, watercolours and a big smile.

His paintings reflect the fluctuating atmospheres, light, people and the setting he was immersed in, and he never considered taking a photograph of the scene to paint at home. His pencils, watercolours, pen and ink were his camera—those and his eyes, the most important tool of all. 

For those who know it, Scottish light is unique, and one landscape is never twice the same. My favourite subjects of dad’s tend to feature water in some capacity. Whether it’s the sea off Skye or a loch in the Highlands, the movement, clouds and shadows, and the ways in which these interact fascinates me. Mum cites the quality in a little watercolour sketch of Loch Laggan (an EUMC camping trip in the 1960s): ‘the sun gleaming on the loch, the icy feel of the mountains’. By observing and interpreting what he saw around him, he was able to capture Scotland’s many different moods and landscapes and communicate them to the viewer. A stranger on Instagram commented on a picture of the beach in her hometown: ‘I love this . . . and not just because I call Hopeman home. I can feel it.’

Life and movement are two key themes which run throughout dad’s work. As a family we were used to being constantly drawn, and he often did this surreptitiously in public. In fact, he once drew a portrait of Norman MacCaig on a train without realising who his subject was. Similarly, he played football with—and drew—Italian legend, Roberto Baggio, whilst on a cycle tour of the Western Isles. 

His paintings reflect the fluctuating atmospheres, light, people and the setting he was immersed in, and he never considered taking a photograph of the scene to paint at home. His pencils, watercolours, pen and ink were his camera—those and his eyes, the most important tool of all. 

Painting of river Tweed, with one person in the water, stone bridge and mountains beyond.

Meeting of the Rivers, Tweed Bridge

Painting of Kilmoury, Isle of Rum. Stags in the foreground, with dark mountains behind.

Kilmory, Isle of Rum

At the age of 40, after years of teaching art and what is now called design technology, my dad decided to start painting and sculpting full time. A family friend recalled him saying, ‘I wonder how long I’ve got’. He knew he had to live life as fully as possible; though he couldn’t have known he would only have ten more years. 

In those last years, he still largely focused on the human form, developing his style. In addition to several large stone pieces he had sculpted when younger, he produced many smaller figurative wood carvings. He also experimented with mixed media collage, and was hand-writing a thesis looking at the connection between ancient Greek sculpture and the drawings of the classical period and Renaissance. Mum comments that the elements within the figure are not so different from those of the Scottish landscape, and dad’s refrain on figure-drawing was that the human form was the hardest thing to master. Even his carvings depict movement in a way that is uniquely his, which is similarly present in a painting of the sky, the sea, a ballet sketch or an ink drawing for a rugby programme. The figure was a kind of key to unlocking the movements in all the other artistic disciplines. 

Painting of six figures by a beach, some climbing rocks, sitting, or standing, with water behind.

Scottish beach scene

Carving of a figure holding a large feather.

Wood carving

There is a circle of Scots pines planted in his memory at Knoydart, on the shore of Loch Hourn, the last great wilderness. In 1995, a year after he died, mum came over the pass to Barrisdale with a group of EUMC friends and my brother to honour him, and recalled a photo of that same place with my dad and some of those same companions in it. It was his favourite place. 

Legacy can feel like a grandiose term, and I am not sure how it would have sat with my dad. The pines, his artworks, and his family and friends aren’t the only things he left behind. One of dad’s camping traditions was to leave half bottles of whisky hidden in dykes or in the walls of bothies where he’d spend the night, such as in Ardvasar in Skye—whether for friends, strangers, or his future self to take advantage of, I don’t know. I recall trying to locate one of these bottles on a family trip, though perhaps it had been discovered before we arrived by some lucky traveller.

There are so many stories about my dad, and one of the wonderful things about sourcing pictures for ‘his’ Instagram profile is coming across new ones. However, one of the oldest stories is one I know very well, and perhaps best sums up his personality. His art college had a tradition of stunts at each graduation, and at his, dad tied in his love of climbing with his calling to art by abseiling down from the gallery in his full robe to collect his Edinburgh College of Art diploma. 

The pictures made the papers, but his only comment was: ‘My only worry was I’d damage the furnishings’. It completed the circle from the ‘failed’ abseil on Skye which ultimately led him to Edinburgh to begin with.

Newspaper clipping from The Scotsman, with photograph of Richard abseiling down to pick up his diploma from the Edinburgh College of Art.

Creator’s biography

Bridget Hargreave is from Selkirk, in the Scottish Borders. She studied Latin at Edinburgh University.

Bridget left Edinburgh for London in 2000 and has stayed there ever since, working in PR and communications in the charity sector and bringing up two sons. In 2015, Bridget published a book about postnatal depression, Fine, Not Fine, charting her own experiences, those of other parents, and sharing insights from mental health professionals. Having retrained as a counsellor, she has a private therapy practice in London.

In 2020, Bridget started up an Instagram profile for her father, Richard Hargreave, an Edinburgh College of Art and EUMC alumnus, who died in 1994. The account was, and is, a way to share Richard’s creative legacy with new audiences and old friends, and to reconnect his loved ones with his inspiration.