River Cree, South-West Scotland, in winter: watercolour by my father.

Family Matters

Lesley duncanI was lucky to be brought up in a household where artistic creativity was taken for granted as simply part of everyday life. My parents, Robert and Elizabeth Munn, were both painters, he in watercolours, she in oils. Though neither was able to pursue a professional career as an artist (he was a railway official, she a teacher), they both worked to a high standard. As young adults both had been elected members of Paisley Art Institute, whose ranks included at one time such luminaries as Sir Muirhead Bone and Sir John Lavery.

My father much admired the pure watercolour technique of the fashionable Sir Russell Flint, though avoided any hints of eroticism! His style was still evolving before his premature death in his fifties. A flavour of his work is offered by the landscapes heading each section of this website. My mother had studied part-time at Glasgow School of Art, her mentors including Stuart Park, the celebrated flower painter. She herself had a lifelong passion for flowers, particularly roses. She also painted portraits. Some of the family ones are shown below.

These portraits, plus a selection of my mother’s flower studies and father’s landscapes will be on show at Glasgow Art Club, from May 5 to May 28, 2012. The exhibition follows an earlier (in 2011) at Stirling University Innovation Park. There’s a family connection with the university, since my brother was one of its founder professors.

Douglas (my senior and only sibling) had a distinguished academic career as a “pure mathematician” – the kind, he would engagingly explain, who functioned with pencil and paper, and whose intellectual undertakings had no practical application whatsoever (but had a strong aesthetic content). My earliest memories are of his accomplished piano playing; already in his early teens he was composing piano music, much influenced by Chopin and hauntingly melodic. His music became more astringent as he grew older. A selection of his compositions is lodged in the Scottish Music Centre in Glasgow. More than 90 of his mathematical papers were published in international journals.

The poems below reflect on the theme of “family matters” and I hope act as a complement to my mother’s portraits.

The pictures, from top, are of my grandmother, Elizabeth Stevenson; my grandfather, David Stevenson; my aunt, Agnes Stevenson; my father Robert Munn (the only photograph); and my brother, Douglas Munn.



Dimly remembered Uncle Bill,
Tired old artisan,
Diminished by a lifetime’s
Labour at a lathe,
Mateless, childless, graceless,
Now hugged his brother’s hearth,
Unquestioned fixture of the family home,
While, outside, starlings burbled
In the sunlit rose-beds tended
By his spryer sibling, our grandfather.

The old man gauchly dandled
Us upon his knee, and sang us
GrandfatherPolly Wolly Doodle All the Day.
His flannel long-johns flapped
Upon the washing line on Mondays,
Purged by raw hands on scrubbing board,
To be reclaimed and worn
Without acknowledgment or thanks.

Sometimes he’d thrust out a mug,
As if for alms, demanding tea.
In duty and in pity he was served
By ailing granny, harassed aunt.
And were they, too, diminished by
The unrewarded labour of their lives?

AuntOr were they all redeemed by mutual need
In some apotheosis little short of love?





(for Robert Munn, railwayman and artist)

He painted from a need
That cut him off from siblings
And ill-mated parents.
FatherWho would have thought a merchant-seaman,
Caught in mid-Atlantic trough
Instead of Flanders trench,
Should ache to hold a paintbrush
In his hand, like genteel dilettante,
And conjure from those fag-stained fingertips
A vision of the world as delicate and fugitive
As that of any Japanese court artist?

He took to southern Ayrshire’s hills
As his ancestral right,
Armed with cane fishing-rod and
Fern-lined wicker box to coffin
Troutlet from the pebbly upland burns,
His box of watercolours in spare pocket,
As necessary to the inner man as food or drink.
And still that strange creative impulse pushed him
To summon windblown landscapes of the mind.

He died when I was eight, leaving as testament
The wordless eloquence of his art; a family void.




(for Douglas Munn, mathematician, composer, and pianist)

Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie,
Played by my teenage brother,
Falls into earliest memory in a
Downpour of enchanted notes
That have reverberated a lifetime.

Later, that household god, Beethoven,
Glowers down on his Scots disciple
From a suitably Teutonic Bluthner piano,
As the Hammerclavier, with its vast elemental
Energies, drives to distraction those who
Overhear the adult man’s relentless practising.

Then the ultimate peak, Opus 111,
Sonata beyond nickname, harnessing the
Heroic masculinity of the opening movement
To the Arietta: sublime timelessness jolted
Into syncopation and final, trilled, resolution.

Chopin’s Ballades, Berceuse, Barcarolle (so many Bs)
Cascade through childhood recollections
Of weekend visitors, Scotch high teas,
And walks by the Firth of Clyde.
Waves of music; waves of memory.

Images Not Icons

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