Exhibition celebrates a castaway sailor from Fife and the Robinson Crusoe book he inspired

A Fife castaway who inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe will be celebrated in a special installation later this month.

Tuesday, 19th March 2019, 5:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th March 2019, 5:18 pm
Black and white images...of Largo Bay were taken over the course of five or six visits in 2017 by artist Roger Palmer.

Exactly 300 years after the publication of Defoe’s book, artist Roger Palmer’s exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries will offer a fresh perspective on the much-debated novel.

Refugio: after Selkirk after Crusoe explores the conflation of Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway with the real-life experiences of sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was born in Lower Largo.

To achieve that, Roger has taken a series of images of both the Fife village and the island where Selkirk, a Royal Navy officer, spent four years and four months after being marooned by his captain – now named Isla Robinson Crusoe, some 400 miles off the coast of Chile.

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Studio wall drawings...give a flavour of the temporary art Roger will be creating on the walls of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

Roger’s inspiration for his latest exhibition was also pretty international.

The Glasgow-based artist explained: “About four years ago, I came across a children’s book, called Robinson, dating from the turn of the 20th century in a second-hand book shop in South Africa.

“There was one image, which children had written beside, which particularly interested me.

“I’ve done some work in the past, using old images to create new artworks.

Colour print...captured by Roger on Isla Robinson Crusoe, some 400 miles off the coast of Chile, where Fife sailor Alexander Selkirk spent more than four years as a castaway.

“The book was cheap so I decided to buy it.”

In the last few years, Roger has also spent time on far-flung islands. He worked on Nauru – a four and a half flight from Brisbane – for a Glasgow Commonwealth Games project and enjoyed a residency on Kronstadt, an island in the Gulf of Finland.

Roger said: “Both these islands had some political notoriety, as did Isla Robinson Crusoe which in the 17th Century was disputed territory, with both Spain and England claiming it as their own.

“That, along with the book, was another catalyst for the installation.”

Thought-provoking artwork will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Defoes Robinson Crusoe, which was inspired by the real life experiences of a Fife sailor. This silver gelatine print was taken on the island Alexander Selkirk called home for four years and four months.

However, the project really started to take shape when a friend told Roger about Alexander Selkirk.

He said: “I had abandoned the Robinson book when I came back from South Africa but when a friend told me about Selkirk, I decided to visit Lower Largo.

“I stayed in the Robinson Crusoe Hotel for one night about two years ago and really liked the village.

“By then, I was thinking there was a project in this.”

Before heading home, Roger visited Kirkcaldy Galleries and met Fife Contemporary’s director Diana Sykes.

Together, they agreed that Kirkcaldy Galleries – just a few miles from Selkirk’s home – would be an ideal venue for the exhibition.

After two years of hard work, Roger is now putting the finishing touches to his project. But much remains to be done on site.

He explained: “There will be an enormous amount of work to do in the week and a half prior to the exhibition opening on March 30.

“All the photography work is finished and just waiting to be framed but that only accounts for 50 per cent of the installation.

“The other 50 per cent is a series of temporary works which will be drawn directly on the walls of the gallery.

“I’m using six illustrations from the book I found in South Africa within the exhibition, four of which will be life-size wall drawings.

“These will only exist for as long as the exhibition – they are temporary works of art which only those visiting will be able to enjoy.

“There’s also a series of silver gelatine (black and white) prints from Largo Bay, taken over the course of five or six visits in 2017.

“And there’s another series of black and white and colour prints from Isla Robinson Crusoe.

“I’ve also included two quotes from South African author Jim Coetzee’s 1986 novel, Foe.

“His post colonial reading of Robinson Crusoe is far and away the most interesting I have read so I was delighted that he gave his permission to include them.”

The Fife installation will be Roger’s first in Scotland in more than a decade and he’s not playing it safe.

He added: “It’s been a huge challenge and a lot could still go wrong, but that’s the nature of the game.

“I’ve never worked with such a well-known piece of literature that is equally celebrated and criticised.

“That, for me, was hugely difficult but all I can do now is put it up and hope that people enjoy it.”

Diana Sykes is delighted to be staging the exhibition.

She said: “Situated so close to Alexander Selkirk’s home, Kirkcaldy Galleries is the ideal venue to mark the anniversary of the seminal novel he inspired.”

New chapter in Crusoe story

In the early 18th century a sailor from Fife left his ship and lived alone for four years on an uninhabited Pacific island.

Alexander Selkirk’s subsequent account of his experiences provided Daniel Defoe with inspiration for his novel, Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk’s island is now part of Chile; in 1966 it was renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe.

And now, thanks to Roger Palmer and Fife Contemporary, a new chapter is being written in this fascinating story.

Born in Portsmouth, Roger studied Fine Art at Portsmouth and Chelsea Schools of Art.

He has worked as an artist and a teacher since the 1970s and has exhibited in the UK and internationally.

Currently Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds where he was chairman of Fine Art from 2005-2012, Roger was also co-founder of the MFA Photography Course at Glasgow School of Art.

In 1987, he was awarded the Bill Brandt Prize.

His books include Precious Metals, International Waters, Overseas, Circulation, Jetty and Phosphorescence.

Roger Palmer – Refugio: after Selkirk after Crusoe will be staged at Kirkcaldy Galleries from Saturday, March 30, to Sunday, June 23.

For opening times visit the website onfife.com/venues/kirkcaldy-galleries.