Shelagh Atkinson

Born 1959 West Lothian, Scotland


Shelagh Atkinson is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work explores the environment, politics, and language and meaning. She studied Social Psychology followed by Communication at Edinburgh Napier University. Photography is central to her working practice. She often incorporates text into her work, reworking and re-presenting well-known phrases in order to alter their meaning.  Her wide mastery of media – including print, paint, drawing, and sound – relates to her artistic endeavour to capture memory and meaning through tangible form. Disassociating herself from theory, Atkinson seeks instead to work from the heart: ‘Life is about learning which are the questions we should ask, not as we are taught, seeking answers.’ Her distinctive portraits of key figures within Scottish history – including trade union leader Mich McGahey (1925–99) and artist Elspeth Lamb (b.1951) – have been acquired by Scottish National Galleries. Atkinson was awarded an archiving programme grant in 2019 by Art360 Scotland to support the building of an archive; a process she understands in terms of a ‘dynamics of emergence’, tracing values that transcend form.

Artwork Information

Sally Beamish (2007) and Beryl (2003) are both examples of Shelagh Atkinson’s printmaking technique. The artist uses portraits to tackle different narratives, with identity featuring as a prominent theme in her work.

Sally Beamish resonates with the artist’s portraits of key Scottish figures. Modernist composer Sally Beamish (b.1956) moved from London to Scotland in 1990 to develop her career as a composer. Atkinson describes that her personal connection to the composer enabled a non-academic setting for the photograph, identifiable through the candid smile captured by the camera. One of the resultant screenprints, Making Music, was then purchased by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, testament to the standing of both Atkinson and Beamish in Scottish culture.

Beryl depicts the award-winning author Dame Beryl Bainbridge (1932/4–2010). This portrait resonates with Atkinson’s print series of prominent cultural figures, including actors, artists, and composers (also represented by the portrait of Beamish). Bainbridge began her career as an actress, but was best known for her novels that captured lower-middle-class English life. The original photograph was taken by Catrin Anderson and then screenprinted by Atkinson to create a different narrative possibility.