Bibliography

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].

[Letters]

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.

[Obituaries]

Grigor, Murray. ‘Margaret Tait’. n.d.

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

[Articles]

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.

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.

1.2 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.