Aurand, Ute. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. Translated from the German. First appeared in epd Film, Frankfurt, June 1999.

Bell, Gavin. ‘A Reel Visionary’, The Scotsman, 27th September, 2000.

British Film Institute databases: SIFT; Film Index International.

Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). Mold. Managing a Mold Invasion: Guildlines for Disaster Response, Philadephia, 1996.

Curtis, David. [Obituary] ‘Britain’s Oldest Experimentalist… Margaret Tait’, Vertigo, 1999.

Elsner, John & Cardinal, Roger. The Cultures of Collecting.Reaktion Books, London, 1994.

Gurr, Edward. Staining Animal Tissues. Practical and Theoretical, Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London, 1962.

Encyclopedia of Microscopic Stains, Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London, 1960.

Horrocks, Roger. Len Lye, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2001.

International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Preservation and Restoration of Moving Images and Sound, FIAF, 1986.

Leggett, Mike. ‘Margaret Tait’, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists. Ed. David Curtis. The Arts Council of England. University of Luton Press. 1997.

Le Grice, Malcolm. ‘Independent British Cinema’, Studio International, May 1975.

Lillie, R.D. H. J. Conn’s Biological Stains, (8th Ed.) The Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore, 1969.

Moir, Jan. ‘First Person Highly Singular’, The Guardian, 31st March, 1993.

O’Toole, James M. ‘On The Idea of Permanence’, American Archivist, Vol. 52, 1989.

Pirie, Alex. Margaret Tait Film Maker 1918-1999. Indications Influences Outcomes, Published as a special one-off edition of Poem Film Film Poem. South London Poem Film Society. Vol. 6, April 2000.

Read, Paul & Meyer, Mark-Paul. (Eds.) Restoration of Motion Picture Film, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford, 2000.

Redding, Judith M. & Brownworth, Victoria, A. Film Fatales Independent Women Directors, Seal Press, Seattle, 1997.

Reilly, James, M. IPI Storage Guide For Acetate Film, RIT, Rochester, 1993.

Ryan, Roderick T. A History of Motion Picture Color Technology, Focal Press, London, 1977.

Stevenson, Gerda. [Obituray] ‘The late Margaret Tait, film-maker – an appreciation’, The Orcadian, 20th May 1999.

Stevenson, Gerda. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. The Scotsman, 5th May 1999.

Sussex, Elizabeth. [Obituary] ‘Margaret Tait’. The Guardian, 13th May 1999.

‘Margaret Tait, Film-maker’. Financial Times, 9th September 1970.

[Unique Misc.]

Pirie, Alex. ‘Margaret Tait Film Maker’, 1979.

[Various Ancona Films promotional material for many titles].

‘Margaret Tait, Film Maker’. [Draft scripts for the Channel Four series, Eleventh Hour, 1983].


Pirie, Alex. ‘Margaret Tait’s Films’, 31st January 2000.

Tait, Margaret. Letters to David Curtis, 7th December 1981, 12th July 1983, 17th August 1998, 1st October 1998, 3rd February 1995, 14th May 1998.


Grigor, Murray. ‘Margaret Tait’. n.d.

‘Margaret Tait’. The Times, 28th May 1999.


Hollander, Peter. Unpublished autobiography. n.d.

Krikorian, Tamara. ‘On The Mountain and Land Makar: Landscape and Townscape in Margaret Taits Work’. January 1983.

Kwietniowski, Richard. ‘The Autonomous Film-Maker. Margaret Tait: Films & Poems 1951-76’. Edited version of Leggett, 1976.

Leggett, Mike. ‘The Autonomous Film-Maker. Margaret Tait: Films & Poems’, 1979.

MacDiarmid, Hugh. ‘Intimate Film Making in Scotland. The Work of Dr. Margaret Tait’. n.d.

Shure, Robert. ‘The Long Light Days of Margaret Tait’. n.d.

[Programme notes]

‘3rd International Festival of Film and Television in The Celtic Countries. Wexford Ireland. 28th March-2nd April, 1982′.

‘Film Maker on Tour Margaret Tait’. n.d.

‘Film Makers on Tour – Margaret Tait. 7th December 1977.

NFT ‘Where I Am Is Here’. n.d.

NFT ‘Art In The Cinema. The International Avant-Garde Film’ n.d.

Medienkunst Festival Osnabriick, 1988.

2.1 Notes On Research Methods

My research began in earnest during a work placement at the Scottish Film And Television Archive during April and May 2002. Prior to this, in November 2002, I had been to the British Artist’s Film & Video Collection (BAFVC) at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to go through their Margaret Tait files. With a better idea of how this paper would be written, I returned to Saint Martins again in June 2002. The BAFVC holds several of Tait’s films on video and has a unique collection of paper documents, largely consisting of correspondence between David Curtis and Tait since the early 1980s.

The SFTVA has also begun collecting documents relating to the Tait collection which includes some recent correspondence from Tait’s husband, a copy of the BFI’s database records relating to Tait, and other miscellaneous items. I did not contact Pirie during my research since the Archive had already approached him concerning the technical details of Tait’s film making and could answer any initial questions I had for him. It is the Archive’s responsibility to engage in any ‘real-world’ work on the films and I hope that this paper might provoke further questions which they will then put to Pirie.

Although I have only discussed five complete films up to now, there are twenty-five cans in the collection relating to these titles and I will address each one below. My method of working with each can was fairly systematic: Working at a winding bench, I carefully ran each element through once and noted details such as stock dates, codes, splices, and condition. At all times, I had a video camera positioned beside me at the bench in order to make an accurate record which I could review after I had left the archive. I also made written records and drawings of the film stock for a quick reference later. Having looked at each element in the can, I photocopied any documentation included and also the can label. Having done all of this, I compared my observations with the Archive’s Technical Records of which I possess a full printed set for each can.

Besides technical books and articles I have used, I contacted several professionals who are known experts in film printing, digital restoration and colour dyes and presented my observations and queries to them. I was also able to find and contact Peter Hollander in the USA who had been out of touch with Tait for many years. 1)I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA. My correspondence with him turned out to be critical to my understanding of the dyes Tait used. With that understanding, I searched for information on the appropriate dyes and eventually contacted a Histotechnologist who had created an excellent record of dyes used in medical procedures and published it on the internet. At all times, people were intrigued by the bizarre turns my research was taking and were eager to help me in my detective work.

References   [ + ]

1. I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA.

1.5 Garden Pieces

Tait’s last effort to include hand-painted or drawn elements was a twelve minute film entitled Garden Pieces (1998). There, she adapts the technique of drawing on the film surface used in Numen of The Boughs. With this film, however, dense solid colours were added during printing to produce a very successful combination of colour shifts and line drawing interwoven into a live action film shot around her new house in Orkney. In 1994, Tait and her husband had moved to another house in Orkney which had a small quarry beside it. They saw this place as a ‘grove’, “a place for meditation and remembering.” 1)Pirie letter, 2000. There, she shot material for Garden Pieces which was finished in the summer of 1998. In a letter to David Curtis, she stressed how much money the film was costing her and that she would need to recoup some of it through sales of prints or long-term rentals. She wrote she just couldn’t “provide prints at my own expense anymore.” 2)Letter dated 14th May 1998.mentioning that about £500 would be appropriate for a sale. In August 1998, she wrote again to Curtis to tell him she’d “got this little film finished at last”, writing that it was due to be screened in the South West and hopefully in London. By October, she had news for him that it would be screened in Bristol, Munich and Berlin. By this time though, her health was failing (she had previously undergone major surgery and radiotherapy in the 1980s) and she did not travel with the films.

Garden Pieces is composed of three short ‘film poems’ under one title. They are ‘Round The Garden’ (‘right round and round again’), ‘Garden Fliers’ (‘flighty cartoon and a stunner of a piano piece’) and ‘Grove’ (‘grave and sonorous’). 3)Descriptions are from the publicity flier Tait had made. The film begins with Tait’s voice-over introducing the titles of the three sections. ‘Round The Garden’ is a series of clockwise pans from a tripod placed in their sunlit garden. ‘Garden Fliers’ is almost entirely animated ink drawings on a solid background of colour. Like Numen, the drawings ‘shiver’ yet there is also an element of ‘dance’ as in her earlier hand-painted films – butterflies, birds, flowers, circles and stars move quickly to the music of the piano. The colours shift suddenly from dense purple to vivid green, then to a rich blue, solid red, back to green and then pale blue, and so on. Often with each change in colour, a new shape appears such as leaves with green and flowers with red, though this does not appear to be a strict rule. Finally, at the end, the animation cuts back and forth to a poppy head, ending the second section before Tait’s voice introduces ‘Grove’. The third film is similar to the first yet this time the location is the quarry. The camera follows the light on trees, bushes and shrubs and the area is awash with bright, vibrant green foliage. The final shot is of a cat, moving away.

References   [ + ]

1. Pirie letter, 2000.
2. Letter dated 14th May 1998.
3. Descriptions are from the publicity flier Tait had made.

1.4 Numen of The Boughs/Colour Poems

During an interview for the 1983 Channel Four arts programme, Eleventh Hour, the subject of her hand-painted films was brought up, to which she replied:

Yes, I had done a bit, before, in sort of dance films, but in Colour Poems I was trying to do it rather differently. Instead of the usual kind of animation, I was doing the opposite, in a sense. I was trying to keep the picture as still as possible, and get the opposite effect, you know, of Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’, where you see several phases in one picture. I was trying to keep the picture still, over a number of frames, but just allowing for the natual shiver that there’s bound to be; and this was to illustrate a slightly shaky memory I had, of what of course in world terms was a very significant time in this century, the time of the Spanish Civil War.

It seems that having spent fifteen years painting Eightsome and John MacFadyen, Tait had developed both her technique and purpose behind labouring over each frame individually. Numen of The Boughs is an attempt at expressing something quite apart from the energy of movement and dance found in the earlier films. It was an experiment from which successful portions were incorporated into Colour Poems. The two-minute roll of film, painted without reference to a soundtrack, is almost entirely composed of black and white hand-drawn or scratched sequences. There is some colour in the original roll which has been applied over the scratches, but subsequent prints Tait had made were reproduced in black and white. The version which was incorporated into Colour Poems is black and white although colour was applied by hand to the negative over the animated sections.

Numen of The Boughs was never meant to be projected for the public although it was very successfully incorporated into Colour Poems, one of Tait’s most often screened films. As we have seen, Tait was concerned with expressing her feelings about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) but claims that her memories of it in the early 1970s “were simply of newspaper reports and of some people who had gone away to it and had come back…I couldn’t quite take it all in at all, really.”

So between Sorley MacLean’s poem about not having gone to the Spanish Civil War, and something of Lorca – I got the title from this book, ‘El Numen de las Ramas’, which I translated as ‘Numen of The Boughs’. I don’t know if it is the correct translation. I had started a poem in words and I tried to complete it on the film; that was what I was doing. 1)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

This poem is read aloud over the opening hand-drawn sequence of Colour Poems and because it describes quite clearly the feelings Tait had during the making of Numen and Colour Poems, I have reproduced it overleaf:

Well, yes

I do remember

the young men

going off to fight in Spain

but not Sorley McLean

not Sorely McLean in his pain

then them coming back changed

and yet not changed enough

for my notion then

of what war might be

frozen soldiers of the plains

stiff in trees

in photographs

the black showing through the thin snow

and the hard plain of Madrid

as shown to us in newsreels

stick in my vision

and click now

with McLean’s poem ‘to Evir’

and Lorca’s ‘Numen of The Boughs’

busy with studies then

and enjoying ourselves

How much did we notice?

I remember the look of young men

coming back

who’d been in Spain

and wondering about them

What took them there?

What brought them back?

What had they learned?

What sad knowledge was forever more

buried deep inside them?

In festival programmes, Colour Poems usually carries the subtitle, ‘nine related film poems’. Over twelve minutes, the film has nine titles: Numen of The Boughs, Old Boots, Speed Bonny Boat, Lapping Water, Incense, Aha, Brave New World, Things Found and Terra Firma. Much of the hand-drawn material is in the first section, although there are other short animated ‘refrains’ throughout the film. Clearly the notion of memory is important to the film as is observation “and the subsuming of one to the other.” 2)Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening. Leggett has quoted Tait describing the film as “nine linked short films, about memories which affect chance observation. A poem started in words and continued on in images; part of another poem read as an addition to the picture; some images formed by direct on-film animation, others ‘found’ by the camera.” 3)Leggett, 1979. He has also noted that the film evokes distant causes with the “sturdy present” of contemporary Orkney. “Optimistic images of freshly painted steamers, and the bustle of re-constructive activity in full colour contrast distinctly with the grainy black and white greys of The Drift Back (1956).”

Colour Poems is a film that draws on familiar observations in rich colour, intercut with the harder almost monochrome hand-drawings in black ink. Indeed, unlike the earlier hand-painted films, the drawings do not dance or wriggle energetically but just as she intended, they ‘shiver’, seemingly constricted by the frame or perhaps the window of time. Tait has suggested that by cutting colourful observations of the present with these sketches of the past, the memories keep reverberating back, never quite disappearing. “Out of one’s own memory and thought one then finds (or arranges) the external scenes which can be filmed and made into something else again.” 4)Pirie, letter, 2000.

By the year Colour Poems was fininshed, Tait had made twenty-two short 16mm films. Of those, the 1982 festival screenings list I referred to earlier shows that nine films, including Colour Poems, had shown at festivals, mainly the Edinburgh International Film Festival and one or two other experimental or avant-garde film festivals. From her letters to David Curtis and draft scripts of the Eleventh Hour programme, there is also evidence to suggest that she showed her films to local audiences. Avant-garde film makers’ interest in her work increased after Malcolm Le Grice, reviewing the Festival of Independent British Cinema in Bristol, 1975, claimed that:

The main surprise and delight came through seeing the work of Margaret Tait for the first time… Working in a direction which received no echo of support in the films of her generation, she has developed her ideas in relative isolation…she must be considered as the only genuinely independent experimental mind in film to precede the current movement… Her work is sophisticated…she is no Primitive…deserves a full critical review… 5)Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.

This attention was overdue, yet Tait was reluctant to accept the London Film Co-op’s adoption of her as an ‘experimentalist’. Pirie has written that “she was too well-informed about developments in film practice over the decades, but understood the need of others to accept the comfort of such designations.” 6)Letter, 2000. In fact, Tait herself has also said that:

I never describe my work as ‘avant-garde’. I don’t see that it’s a term one can use of oneself anyway. How can anyone say such a thing, of themselves? Besides that, there’s something too limiting about the idea of Avant-Garde – as if at all costs you must be making innovations. Cinema itself is an innovation of this century, and within the mainstream of it the most astonishing things have been achieved. It bowls me over, it really does. 7)Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

As we have seen, despite her life-long practice in short, 16mm filmmaking, Tait was always interested in making feature films. Although a discerning critic of commercial cinema, she very much wanted to express her own ideas and aesthetic in this form, eventually doing so in Blue Black Permanent, a film which was first conceived in the 1940s and only came to fruition after the establishment of Channel Four in the 1980s.

References   [ + ]

1. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.
2. Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening.
3. Leggett, 1979.
4. Pirie, letter, 2000.
5. Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.
6. Letter, 2000.
7. Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

1.2 Calypso

While I intend to continue discussing the life and work of Margaret Tait, from hereon in I shall do so with reference to the hand-painted and hand-drawn films she produced throughout her career as a filmmaker. 1)For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979. These films are:

Calypso (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 4:29, 1955)

John MacFadyen (The Stripes in The Tartan) (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 3:30, 1970)

Painted Eightsome (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 6:16, 1970)

Numen of the Boughs (35mm/16mm, colour, silent, 2:07, 1974)

Colour Poems (16mm, colour, sound, 11:20, 1974 – includes Numen)

Garden Pieces (16mm, colour, sound, 11:30, 1998)

Calypso was Tait’s first hand-painted film and although it often carries the date of 1955, it was painted in Italy three years earlier. Hollander recalls:

Margaret somehow made contact with the technical guy at the office of the British Information Service in Rome. They were making an Italian version of a film called, I think, Jamaica in which there is a scene of a cricket match accompanied by a melange of calypso music. It was still in the days of 35mm and a print of the sound track was considered not quite good enough for the mix. This BIS man gave the print to Margaret who used it to paint her film on.” 2)Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.

It is no coincidence that Tait and Hollander would make a film called Calypso at this time. In 1950, the West Indies cricket team triumphed at Lords. The win was also a symbolic victory over their colonisers and immediately celebrated by Calypso legend, Lord Beginner who led an impromtu song, ‘Cricket, Lovely Cricket’ through the West-end of London. It became the anthem of 1950 and found its way to Tait in Italy who must have found its celebratory tune irresistible.

Calypso was hand painted onto clear 35mm film stock with an optical soundtrack running down the side. Greater technical detail will be given in Section Two but here I want to briefly identify the connection between Tait and the New Zealand artist, Len Lye.

Horrocks has written that Lye had experimented with scratching on the film surface in the 1920s and took it up in earnest several years later while in London. By 1934, unaware of any precedents, he was wrestling with the practical problem of finding suitable paints which would sufficiently adhere to the film stock. Finally settling on a set of ‘lacquer paints’, he used a variety of domestic tools with which to improvise his new art.

Seeing Lye’s initial efforts, John Grierson of the GPO Film Unit, recognised the possibilities of making colourful films within an industry still largely dominated by black and white and comissioned Lye to produce “an abstract colour film.” 3)Horrocks, 2001, 136. For this he was paid £30 which was not enough to hire a composer. So he and a friend, Jack Ellitt, began listening to hundreds of records before deciding on ‘La Belle Creole’, a lively dance piece (at the time described as a ‘rumba’) by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. Ellitt drew up an analysis of the music and Lye made various cue marks along side the soundtrack where he painted. A Colour Box was completed over two months and was a striking contrast to many of the avant-garde films of the time.4

Its reception was mixed at first but by late 1935 cinemas were paying to show it because of the public interest it had created. Lye went on to make several other hand-painted and stenciled films influencing another Scottish painter-film maker, Norman McLaren who, when seeing A Colour Box for the first time, “was electrified and ecstatic.”

I wanted to see it over and over again…. Here was the pioneer of the hand-painted film. Apart from the sheer exhilaration of the film, what intrigued me was that it was a kinetic abstraction of the spirit of the music, and that it was painted directly onto the film. On both these counts it was for me a dream come true. I had dabbled with drawing and painting on film (because I couldn’t afford a camera) and had turned out a small amount of footage but I had never succeeded in making a film. Len Lye had shown the way, and shown it in a masterly and brilliant fashion. 4)Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.

Much has been written about both of these film makers and any detailed history of hand-painted film could go on at length about each individual’s output and working styles. Here, I want to emphasise the similarities between Lye and Tait’s first hand-painted films and that she was certainly aware of his work by the time she painted Calypso.

I found [Lye’s films] highly entertaining and imaginative in themselves, as well as stimulating, suggesting further development. Something about the editing to a musical beat or using a musical length to determine an in-film length was in accord with some thoughts of my own at the time… I had always enjoyed the Len Lye films which used to appear in the cinemas in the ’30s… The use of sheer colour, screen-wide, coloured my idea of film (and perhaps colour) from then on. 5)Leggett, 1979.

The basic similarities between Calypso and A Colour Box are obvious: bold, vibrant colours, painted confidently with quick strokes and set to lively dance music. The movement of colour shows an attempt to synchronise with the music yet not be governed by it. Frame lines are painted in quick, single strokes and the jitter of the animation is used to an advantage, generating an energetic and playful effect. In practical terms, both Lye and Tait were drawn to painting on film because it was cheap, not requiring a camera nor very much film stock. In this sense, both were able to experiment without too much concern for budgeting the film and it has been suggested that she saw it more as a kind of ‘sketchbook’, using it to test new ideas while in intimate contact with the film material. 6)Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).

Tait did not paint on film again until 1970. During that time, she would leave Italy having had a “very good time” and return to Edinburgh in 1954 where she re-established Ancona Films in a small office at 91 Rose Street. By this time, she had made five films, the three with Hollander mentioned above and Three Portrait Sketches (1951) and Portrait of Ga (1952), a touching portrait of her mother filmed while she was back in Orkney on vacation. The next twenty years were productive, punctuated with locum work until she received a tiny private income in 1960 and could finally finish with medicine altogether. 7)Pirie, letter, 2000. Although she had a base in Edinburgh, she went between the city, Sutherland and Orkney until the early 1970s when it became clear that she would lose her Rose Street office to redevelopment. Her time in Edinburgh is an example of her intention to remain independent just as the smaller Italian film companies had done so. Both used 16mm to their advantage as the cheaper production costs meant greater independence from the industry. In 1995, she wrote a lengthy letter about her choice of working in 16mm. She argued that 16mm film was “the answer” to her desire to work independently (“independent of what?” she once noted, reflecting on the state of the Scottish film industry), partly influenced by the efforts of the American ‘underground’ films and the pre-war avant-garde from Europe. 16mm afforded her professional quality on “laughable budgets”. She defended the format by arguing that much of television was shot on 16mm and was thus well supported by the industry. Some services were even available for 16mm before 35mm, in particular magnetic sound which she took advantage of frequently.

Another thing about 16mm was that you could get film stock in 16 that you couldn’t get in 35. 1) Colour reversal; Kodachrome gave beautiful colour. I used it for Portrait of Ga, Orquil Burn, Happy Bees and The Leaden and The Echo. 2) And there was black and white reversal too, which gave lovely rich blacks and good gradation. That was used for The Drift Back… 3) Ilford at the time sold b/w neg-pos stocks which I used a lot. And I think there was a greater variety there in 16 than in 35. I liked to use both HPS, a very fast and quite grainy one and PanF, quite the opposite, fine grain and slow. The Big Sheep is done entirely in HP5 & PanF, Where I Am Is Here, largely so but using also an intermediate speed. Hugh MacDiarmid is on Kodak b/w neg/pos. 8)Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

References   [ + ]

1. For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.
2. Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.
3. Horrocks, 2001, 136.
4. Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.
5. Leggett, 1979.
6. Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).
7. Pirie, letter, 2000.
8. Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.