by Carla Scarano
Shaping forms with colours, merging Scottish artistic heritage with Parisian avant-garde movements and well structured compositions are the main features that characterise the Scottish Colourists. They were not a group of painters with a common goal and exhibited together only three times. Nevertheless, they shared a common path. JD Fergusson, FCB Cadell, SJ Peploe and GL Hunter lived and worked at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when modernism and the avant-garde movements suggested a more cosmopolitan approach to art. Modernist art opted for brighter colours and informal composition, experimenting with lines, subjects and techniques, and avoiding classical arrangements. Consequently, art should not imitate reality but create new forms that explore pre-classical ‘primitive’ cultures. It should also aim to stir emotions in the viewer instead of conveying a definite message or meaning.
The Scottish Colourists studied and worked mainly in Scotland but also spent some years in Paris in contact with and inspired by the thriving artistic movements of the French capital. They were especially influenced by Fauvism and Post-Impressionism and by artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Manet, Monet, Matisse and James McNeill Whistler. They merged these new trends with the traditional Scottish landscape painting of the Glasgow School and the Glasgow Boys (1880-1890). These schools painted rural scenes using both naturalistic and innovative techniques influenced by Dutch painting and Japanese prints. Their success was also influenced by the increasing wealth produced by industrialisation in the late 19th century. This allowed the new, rich middle class to purchase the artists’ artworks and fund their studies.
The exhibition at the Lightbox cleverly highlights distinctive personal characteristics that connect and differentiate the four painters. The name ‘Scottish Colourists’ was officially used in the 1950s by TJ Honeyman in his book Three Scottish Colourists. Their work was underestimated for many years. They were not included in Roger Fry’s exhibition on Post-Impressionists in 1910 and 1912 at London’s Grafton Galleries, and their pictures were not present at the Royal Academy’s survey exhibition of 20th-century British art in 1987. Nevertheless, eventually their vibrant, engaging pictures acquired more and more popularity at national and international level.
Some of them were self-taught, like Hunter and Fergusson, the latter being the most favoured by the critics and the most versatile. He applied intellectual ideas to his pictures as in ‘Rhythm’ (1911), a female nude almost geometrical in the shaping of the body and clearly influenced by Fauvism in the dramatic use of colours. The title is also connected to a modernist art periodical called Rhythm. A similar approach is in the portrait of a dancer, ‘Villa Gotte Garden’ (1920), in ‘Voiles Indiennes’ (1910) and in ‘La Châtelaine’ (1930). In these pictures the colours sensually shape the figures, with reminders of Cubism and, in the self-portrait (1907) of Expressionism. Similar characteristics are in Fergusson’s still lives, such as ‘The Blue Lamp’ (1912) where the contours of the objects are marked to emphasise the rhythm of the striking hues.
Cadell studied at the Royal Scottish Academy and at L’Académie Julian in Paris. He painted en plein air according to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists’ new approach, both in France and in the Scottish isle of Iona. The consistency of his pictorial style is clear in ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ (1921) and ‘Negro in White’ (1922) where light and shadow play on the figure, modulating the shapes in an almost naturalistic way with a restricted palette. A different approach is in his still lifes. The colours are flat characterised by decorative features and the objects are positioned strategically to strike the viewer’s eye.
Peploe’s paintings stand out in their different style that shows his mastery in oil painting, influenced by the Dutch masters, as in ‘Souvenir’ (1905), and later of Cubism, as in ‘Still Life’ (1913). This new approach was influenced by his stay in Paris that encouraged him to deconstruct forms in bright colours. The expression in ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (1907) is perfectly caught in a close-up that concentrates on the face, emphasising the eyes and the mouth in a skilful rendering that is sketchy but, at the same time, conveys accuracy.
One of the most meaningful pictures of the exhibition is Peploe’s ‘Tulips – the Blue Jug’ (1919); it is innovative in the sinuous meandering of the flowers in an apparently figurative composition. Some of the tulips emerge from the space outside the canvas; this unsettles the picture and emphasises the almost abstract shapes of the subject. The colours magically balance in shades of pink with occasional yellows, an orange in a white bowl and a blue jug in the background. The whole composition is harmonious in its uniqueness, attaining a rare uniformity.
The other outstanding picture of the exhibition is Cadell’s ‘The Black Hat’ (1914) where the sketchy pictorial rendering of the brushstrokes creates a perfect consistent impression in colour and form. The portrait faces the viewer and is reflected in the background mirror, generating multiple layers of vision. In the foreground the woman holds a red rose that attracts the gaze and focuses the scene.
The other painter of the group, George Hunter, moved to the US with his family in his youth and lost some of his paintings in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He was slightly isolated from the rest of the group and strongly influenced by Impressionists. In ‘The Artist’s Bedroom’ (1920) and in ‘Reflections, Balloch’ (1929) displayed at the exhibition, the painter explores the effects of light in an interior scene and the reflections on water in the landscape. His still lifes have geometrical forms reminiscent of Cézanne’s artwork.
This is a comprehensive exhibition that well delineates the progress of the Scottish Colourists’ art. It explains how and why they were influenced by avant-garde movements and their consequent production of distinctive artworks connected to their Scottish heritage. Their influence on British art was significant and eventually acknowledged.
Burning Bright: The Scottish Colourists, 7 September 2019 – 12 January 2020, The Lightbox, Woking