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Edinburgh City Arts Centre’s Festival exhibitions (running until 14 October) combine two inspired, integrally related collections.  The Scottish Colourists, Inspiration and Influence, explores, largely from the City’s own collections, the origins and developments of the Colourist movement; and A Life in Colour provides a panorama of the work of Leslie Hunter, one of the Scottish Colourist giants.
The work of the Colourists, John Duncan Fergusson, Francis Caddell, Samuel Peploe and Leslie Hunter, briefly fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s, only returned to popularity in the 1980s.  Their collective contribution to Scottish art has now been reassessed: this exhibition illustrates why.  It also puts these artists in context.  The cornucopia of Scottish painting which is presented illustrates the rich, infinitely varied artistic culture from which the Colourists emerged.They did not arrive, ready-made, with unique and innovative methods, but developed from the European tradition, the Impressionists and the Fauvists, and from their immediate Scottish predecessors, including McTaggart, Lavery and the Glasgow Boys.
Among the works seen as preceding the Colourists, Edward Hornell’s Japanese influenced The Orchard stands out, as does George Henry’s Poppies, with its abstractly arranged and highly coloured background, before which stand four young girls with blushing cheeks reflecting the screen of poppies in the foreground.  David Michie’s Portuguese House, is an awesome kaleidoscope of whites and primary colours. View from the Mound Looking West, is a winter scene with dramatic angles, edges and shadows, by William Crozier, a haemophiliac genius who died tragically at the age of 37 after a fall in his studio.  Crozier might well otherwise have played a full part in the Colourist school.
John Duncan Fergusson was seen as the leading Colourists.  His French scenes, many from seaside towns, reverberate with colour and energy.  Francis Cadell, trained and studied in Franceprior to the Great War, but returned to Scotlandto work.  His interiors and portraits reflect the inter-war Edinburghworld but his landscapes span further afield.  His still-lifes with their thick-black edged shapes, are perhaps seen as the exemplars of the Colourist tradition, and burst with vitality.  He earned little from his work during his lifetime and died in poverty in 1937 but his paintings now sell for £200,000-plus.  Samuel Peploe also developed his intuitive use of bold colour in France.  Like Cadell’s, his still-lifes have become almost representative of the Colourist tradition but, again, his landscapes create a powerful vision of Scotland and his Rocky Shore, Iona, is one of the compelling pieces of the exhibition.
The Scottish Colourists, Inspiration and Influenceis a panoramic exhibition which encapsulates the Colourists and the art which shaped them.  If it has a weakness it is that such a vast trove inevitably includes quite disparate works and styles.  The very stylistic rigour of the Colourists is less apparent than it might have been in a more focused exhibition.
Along with Fergusson, Cadell and Peploe, the fourth great Colourist was Leslie Hunter.  George Hunter, who adopted the forename Leslie, was born in Rothesay.  His family moved however toSan Francisco.  Hunter initially remained inCaliforniabut spent time inParis.  He was preparing his first professional exhibition in 1906 when the great earthquake hitSan Francisco, destroyed all his work and impelled his penniless return toScotland.
A Life in Colour illustrates the work of Hunter, perhaps less known in the public mind than either Peploe or Cadell.  Hunter gradually developed his skills and after the 1914-18 War painted extensively in Fife, where he produced vibrantly coloured still-lifes and landscapes, all well-represented in the exhibition.  His 1920 landscape, Ceres Mill, is curiously muted despite its rich red roofs, verdant trees and pink flowers.
By the mid-20s however he hadworked inLondon,Paris,VeniceandRome;the colour begins to burst from his work as a bolder, more vibrant vision emerged.  He moved in 1927, on Peploe’s advice, to the South of France where the Provençal landscape inspired works of wonderful colour and vitality.  Hunter’s French sojourn however was cut short by tragic circumstances.  Engrossed in his work and careless of hiscircumstances, he accidentally swallowed turpentine which had been in a wine bottle and was forced home to recuperate.  He returned toGlasgowproducing unsurpassed still-lifes and some superb portraits, including the 1930 portrait of Dr James Hunter, aGlasgowsurgeon, captured with a unique intensity and energy.  Tragically, despite increasing commercial success and impending marriage, Hunter’s health deteriorated in 1931 but he neglected to seek treatment.  He died aged 54.
These two exhibitions forcibly remind us ofScotland’s twentieth century artistic tradition and successes.  The Colourists wereScotland’s first great modern art movement.  They combined intellectual rigour with emotional vitality, transcended sentimentality and integrated Scottish art into a European context.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 8 August 2012:

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