Interview with Adam McLean - New Year 2006

Interview undertaken by Brian Wilson, on January 3rd 2006, at McLean's workshop in Glasgow.
Go to other information about Adam McLean

BW: Thank you for agreeing to another interview. I am surprised at the changes in your workplace, it is not quite as I remember things.

McLean: Yes, the hall is now a 'Hall of Tarot'! Not quite that which the esotericists believe still lies hidden under the pyramids.

BW: You certainly now have a large collection of tarot cards.

McLean: Don't worry. I am not about to tell your fortune! I recently became very engaged by the multiplicity of tarot card designs that had come into being in the past 50 years. These reflected all sorts of different ways of envisaging tarot imagery, in different art styles and interpretations, but which at the same time still held to the tarot structure. It reminded me of the 16th and 17th century emblems books, and I decided to investigate this aspect of tarot. I was immediately frustrated because there is no library that holds a collection of tarot cards. They seem to have been entirely ignored by libraries and archives and also by the art world. So in order to study them I knew I had to buy copies of the decks themselves. It has been quite a struggle but I have now amassed a collection of over 1000 actual decks with a hundred or more scans of decks on my computer.

BW: So is your interest in tarot in the symbolism?

McLean: Not really. I am more interested in the artwork itself. Not its supposed meaning. As I began to see more and more I decided to create a study course on this aspect of tarot, looking at the artwork. It will not attempt to interpret tarot symbolism. No esoterics, no kabbalah, nor even alchemy! Nothing like that, merely a survey of the artwork. I have begun work on creating a study course and hopefully will begin issuing this in a few months time.

BW: You seem to have moved towards the medium of study courses. I see from your website that you have created seven so far.

McLean: Yes this is a good way for me to work, and people seem to like the idea of receiving the lessons every fortnight. It lets them gradually work through a text or aspect of alchemy. Some of these get a good response. My foundation course on alchemical symbolism, which I wrote some years ago now, let me just check the date. Wow I wrote that in 1999 ! How those intervening six years have passed by in no time. It is frightening how your life just seems to run away from you as you get older. There is so little time left to do all the things you want to. Anyway, last year I created two courses, one a general course on how to read alchemical texts and another a very specialised in depth look at a 17th century alchemical allegory called the 'Metamorphosis of the Planets'.

BW: Have you had a good response to these new courses?

McLean: Yes, the course on how to read alchemical texts has been quite successful. I wrote it because it seemed to me that few people today know how to read an alchemical text. Instead they read into it what they want to find. Essentially they seem to use alchemical texts to reflect back to them their own ideas and preconceptions. You must have seen this kind of stuff on the internet, where someone sets up a web page in which they use quotations from alchemical texts to support their own wacky ideas. I get so tired of that nonsense. It is also so discourteous to the original writers of these texts, to interpret them through a filter of modern fabricated ideas. So I wrote this course to help people find a way of actually being able to read an alchemical text within its own context and not merely project their own meaning onto it.

BW: I suppose you must find all sorts of strange ideas about alchemy on the internet.

McLean: Yes. One expects that I suppose. But what is rather depressing is that there are very few people interested in trying to find out what marvels there really are in alchemical texts and imagery. We seem now to live in a world of rhetoric, where people are trying to win us over to their particular viewpoint and who don't care at all about the true facts or original meaning of something. Alchemy being rather obscure and arcane is wide open to be exploited in this way. It does rather depress me that there are few people walking the path I am on. I always seem to be out on a limb. Nowadays everyone seems to totally and uncritically accept that melange of 20th century romantic nonsense, esotericism, new-age, psycho-babble. I feel rather isolated from those given up to this artificial construct. Will people catch up with me in ten years time? Or will the tide of esoteric mush just get higher and higher till I am entirely left stranded?

BW: What annoys you most about such interpretations of alchemy?

McLean: I suppose I just get depressed that so few people take delight in the actual writings and artwork in its own terms. They want to press everything into a set of modern preconceptions, totally ignoring the intentions of the original writers. Just as an example, back last year I published a facsimile of an amazing 18th century manuscript The Pneumo-cosmic Manuscript. In writing my commentary on this series of 52 circular coloured drawings I have been careful not to interpret or press ideas onto the work, but rather to let the reader explore it for themselves, as a work of great imaginative beauty. No doubt this will one day fall into the hands of someone who is so taken up by their own rhetoric that they will see it unambiguously as containing the secrets of the Illuminati, Freemasons, or some secret mysterious order. Just in the past few weeks I have had two separate individuals on two different sides of the world contact me about mysterious symbols they have found hidden in conventional and well known paintings. They want me to confirm that these are alchemical symbols, related to some secret message hidden in these works. Of course this is all nonsense, and these 'symbols' only exist in the mind of those individuals. I suspect that novel the Da Vinci code has sort of endorsed this kind of thinking and approach. It is a bit sad that people take a novel that seriously as a guide to exploring paintings or alchemy. I suspect the writer of that novel only saw his writing as a novel and never expected that people would confuse his fiction with fact and research. But it seems to have left a trail of nonsense behind it, that people like myself inherit and have to try to clear up. It is a bit like the 'Necronomicon' nonsense in the 1970/80's when people fabricated a number of books purporting to be transcripts of some manuscript called the 'Necronomicon' which is, in reality, just part of a story written by the novelist H.P. Lovecraft. I even have a tarot deck based on H.P. Lovecraft, the little booklet of which quite amusingly perpetuates the myth that this has some reality outside the mind of Lovecraft. People unfortunately are often unable to read irony and literary devices but take it as some kind of truth.

BW: Have you been doing more painting ? I see you have made a wonderful large version of the Garden of Eden and a portrait of Paracelsus.

McLean: I did manage to do some painting in January and February last year, but since then have found no time at all to paint. My paintings take so much time, about 50 hours work at least. The Hugo Van der Goes 'Temptation' was a delight to do and I consider it my best work to date. I don't dare think how long it took to finish. Of course no one will ever pay me enough for the work I put into it, so it will probably stay with me indefinitely. Maybe 2006 will provide me with more time, but if people won't pay me for my work then probably I won't be able to do it, as it is costing me to produce items which don't sell. Probably when I am old and unable to do anything, people will come knocking at my door expecting to buy things like this at a low price. It is so depressing when your work is not valued. However, I have recently found myself contemplating some imagery which I feel will eventually take the form of a series of paintings which unites alchemical emblematic material with the pictorial language of surrealism and fantastical art. If I find time I will work on some of these in the coming year. They will be entirely modern paintings but shaped by and enformed with alchemical and emblematic symbolism.

BW: It must make you feel rather sad that you don't have much time to work on this.

McLean: Sad, not really. I think I am quite realistic about things. I am disappointed that I cannot sell my paintings at a reasonable price for the amount of work I put into them, because this means that I cannot economically sustain my work of painting, and thus I have to face up to the reality that I will not use and develop my talent much further, as I have to do other things to support myself. 2005 was a case in point. I have not been able to undertake any new paintings since February 2005 and it seems unlikely that things will change in the near future. Unfortunately there will be very few paintings with my signature at the bottom. There are not that many years left for me to do such creative work.

BW: You sound a bit depressed about the future?

McLean: Oh dear, you are trying to make me sound negative. In reality I get on with things. I make things happen, but one is always contrained by lack of money. Look at my house now, it is a total clutter of things. I hardly have room to live. My work even spills over into my kitchen. I seriously need more space! Instead I have to do everything in a small apartment, when practically I should really have separate workspaces for the different activities. But bookbinding competes here for space with research, and painting images. Everywhere as you know there are piles of papers delicately balanced. But as you see I squeeze what I can out of every resource that I own, and make things happen.

BW: So what would you do if you suddenly had substantial resources available ?

McLean: I can't really respond to such a hypothetical question. What would help me greatly would be to find a part-time researcher. I have so many tasks to do that could be speeded up greatly with a little bit of help. My own archives here really need some organising, there are databases which need to be developed further. I do have quite a lot of important research material in my various collections. I have a pile of projects which are half completed that could be pushed forward with a little but of help. Unfortunately I just don't have the resources to pay someone to undertake this. In a way, it is as if I am running a research institute with no members of staff. I have such a mass of research material but it needs organising.

BW: Earlier you showed me a copy of an amazing book that you published last year with those strange opening out illustrations.

McLean: Yes. That is a project I have wanted to do for years. In June and July I just set myself to solving the problems of making that book and worked on it for some months. I have taken the engraved versions of Freher's Three tables, coloured them and assembled the amazing opening out illustrations which have various flaps which you raise to reveal the interior aspects. It was really rewarding to complete this task, but producing the books for sale has been quite a chore. I decided early on to make an edition of only 60 copies and to sell only 50 of these. I will keep ten for when I am old. I have sold three batches of ten and once I make up another batch of ten copies will offer them for sale. It takes a full week of work to assemble ten copies of the complex images and bind them up into book form. It is certainly one of the most important works I have yet undertaken. Only someone as crazy as me would ever think to attempt this!

BW: What do you think is the future for your alchemical studies?

McLean: Again, this is not really my sort of question. I would like to be able to undertake more penetrating research into alchemical texts and history. My own work just evolves out of what I am doing. Sometimes it takes many years for a project to come to fruition (like the Freher) while others happen quickly. I don't really have a master plan. I just get taken up with the delight of a particular work and then drive myself to do something with it - publish it in some form, for example. I would like to spend more time developing the web site, but this just soaks up hour upon hour of time. Recently I updated the site with some new graphics and menus and created a few new sections. It probably took a hundred hours of work, I didn't keep a count, but no one ever realises how much work goes into researching and gathering material for a page. Then annoyingly some cut-and-paste merchant comes along and steals all the information that took me many hours to put together and lifts it onto their web site without crediting me in any way. Now that stings and hurts! Someone once said to me "information is free". What a fool he was - definitely a user rather than an originator of information. It costs hours and hours of time and years of expertise to organise and make such information available.

BW: Can you give us an idea what you will be working on in this coming year?

McLean: Not a clear one. I want to develop the study course on the artwork of contempory tarot designs. I would also love to be able to complete my transcription of a 17th century English alchemical diary and publish that, but it requires so many days in the library to complete this task. Other projects will emerge as the year progresses. I would like to embark on another specialist study course on some alchemical work. I have in mind Ripley's Twelve gates, though there are other key works to tackle also. I would also like to revisit my study course of alchemical symbolism and produce a second course on this theme. There are also a pile of hundreds of emblems which I should really try and find time to colour. I just showed you my recent coloured version of the Paul Kaym Heart engravings and the initial mock up book of this series. That will be ready to publish in the next few weeks. I want to try and paint at least two of this new series of paintings. There will be many things that I work on this coming year which I don't know anything of at the moment, because I am always actively researching and there are always unexpected treasures to discover during my research. In a sense I am on a journey through alchemical material, and respond to discoveries I make, rather than having a kind of overall masterplan.

BW: It must be amazing to be on such a journey through the rich world of alchemy.

McLean: I suppose I have been on this since my late teens. I first discovered alchemy when I was 13/14 but could only find a little about it from history of chemistry books. When I was at university I was able to read all sorts of things and that was the late 60's when all kinds of ideas were becoming available. From that time on, I have substantially lived in an alchemical world, and very few minutes go by when I am not thinking of some aspect of alchemy. So my life has circled around alchemy. To most people this is a totally stupid thing to have done with my life and they probably will think of me as a rather pathetic figure, but it has been a good journey for me and there remains vasts tracts of alchemical land for me still to explore ahead, and no doubt great treasures of alchemical texts and imagery still to find.

Thanks to Adam McLean for giving me so much of his time.
The text of the interview is my own summary of what was said, any errors are mine.
Brian Wilson <>