The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney was established in 1979 to provide a home for an important collection of British fine art given to Orkney by author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner (1904–2005). The Collection includes works by major twentieth-century artists Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, amongst others. The Centre also curates a year round programme of exhibitions and events for the education and enjoyment of the general public.

Art Unlocked is an online talk series by Art UK in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This Curation is based on a talk by Andrew Parkinson, Curator at The Pier Arts Centre, on 23rd June 2021. You can find a recording at

6 artworks
  • The simplicity of the work’s title and subject helps illustrate the friendship that formed between Gardiner and Barbara Hepworth and highlights the sculptor’s interest in the human form, landscape and pre-historic archaeology.

    This work links the ancient character of the Cornish landscape, closely associated with Hepworth, to the landscapes of Orkney which she was undoubtedly aware of through her friendship with Gardiner.

    The work implies a deep understanding of the stone tools and monuments of pre-historic civilisations – from the famous circular form of Men-an-Tol - that Bronze Age structure located on a high moor in West Penwith - to the ancient mace heads of the Neolithic era.

    This is one of 29 works by Hepworth in the Collection.

    Two Forms (Orkney) 1967
    Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)
    Slate & lacquered wood
    H 21 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    Two Forms (Orkney)
    © Bowness. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

  • 1929 (fireworks) comes from a period of change and development in the artist’s work. During the late 1920s and early 30s, Nicholson was moving from a position of purely figurative art towards a more formal abstract language of geometry and plains of colour. While the allusion to still life was to remain, Nicholson’s picture plane would become more open with the introduction of circles and low-carved relief bringing a cooler and more analytical edge to his work.

    Around the time this work was painted, both Nicholson and his friend the artist Christopher Wood (1901-30) were striving to reach a simple and direct form of expressionism by painting with a child-like intensity of vision.

    This is one of 11 works by Nicholson in the Collection.

    1929 (fireworks) 1929
    Ben Nicholson (1894–1982)
    Oil on wood
    H 29.5 x W 46 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    1929 (fireworks)
    © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2024. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

  • The paintings of Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) spring from a deep seated desire by the artist to recall his life at sea as well as to record local events and places. Cornwall and Orkney share a common maritime heritage - Lands’ End and Scapa Flow both sit on strategic sea-lanes that signal both commerce and exchange - and the distinctive lighthouse structures depicted by Wallis at Longships and Godrevy surely have their close cousins at Hoy High and Pentland Skerries lighthouses in Orkney.

    Viewing these paintings of maritime life by Alfred Wallis in Stromness is a reminder of their essentially universal appeal – the places and ships may be particular but the connection to common human experience is clear.

    Against Longships fog c.1934–1938
    Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
    Oil on card
    H 29.5 x W 43.5 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    Against Longships fog
    Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

  • In 1941, Margaret Gardiner met with Naum Gabo whilst visiting some of her artist friends in St. Ives. Margaret commissioned Gabo to make a new construction, and soon after Gabo presented her with maquette for Spiral Theme.

    Gabo’s breakthrough was closely followed by Linear Construction No.1, with the art critic Herbert Read noting, ‘If Spiral Theme brought together in a single, exquisitely delicate form many of Gabo’s existing concerns, his next work, Linear Construction No. 1, opened up a completely new line of development in his art.’

    The sculpture represents, in purely visual terms, an expression of order and beauty that correlate with scientific advances in physics and mathematics being made at the time.

    Linear Construction 1942–1943
    Naum Gabo (1890–1977)
    Perspex & nylon monofilament
    H 21.2 x W 21.2 x D 5.6 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    Linear Construction
    © Nina & Graham Williams / Tate Images. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

  • 4 + 4, a sculpture by the Norwegian artist Camilla Low (b. 1976) is on the face of it a cool interpretation of abstract art – a totemic work in wood painted in brightly coloured panels. Indeed there is a nod to works by Gabo and Hepworth, in the Pier Arts Centre Collection, along with other pioneers of Modernism in Europe as well as a debt to the conceptual ideas of artists from later in the twentieth-century such as Sol le Witt (1928-2007) and Eva Hesse (1936-70).

    Low notes: ‘I think of the works as a set of interactions – not one autonomous piece like the historical figure in traditional sculpture but more like a poem, or a set of letters in typography – all depending on each other in order to function’.

    4+4 2005
    Camilla Løw (b.1976)
    Wood & paint
    H 140 x W 10 x D 10 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    © the artist. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre

  • This painting by Steven MacIver (b. 1979) portrays the Tokyo district of Akasaka and is part of a much larger series of paintings by MacIver that mapped a route around the globe at latitude N41 in a physical and imaginative journey the artist undertook in 2009. The project was international in scale and applied MacIver’s skilled draftsman’s eye to the schematic depiction of football stadiums and other iconic structures around the globe.

    The work reflects MacIver’s fascination with architectural space and his interest in mathematical concepts and the rules governing perspective as well as their formal application to the two-dimensional surface.

    Akasaka 2010
    Steven MacIver (b.1979)
    Oil on canvas
    H 120 x W 150 cm
    The Pier Arts Centre
    © the artist. Image credit: The Pier Arts Centre