An abiding characteristic of Scottish painting in the twentieth century was an obsession with colour.
Its source is long-established – the 1905 Paris exhibition of the Fauves, who were known as the wild beasts of the French avant-garde, led by Matisse, Derain and Van Dongen. Their work had an immediate and volcanic impact upon the art of the senior colourists, Samuel Peploe and John Duncan Fergusson, and was later absorbed by the younger Leslie Hunter and Francis Cadell.
But how was the Colourist quartet's compulsion to explore the extremes of colour transmuted to the next generation of Scottish artists? The groundbreaking exhibition at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, 'Colour and Light: The Art and Influence of the Scottish Colourists', explores – arguably, for the first time in a museum context – their impact on future generations.
Their immediate beneficiaries were a group of artists, now known as the Edinburgh School, all of whom attended Edinburgh School of Art from just prior to the First World War to the early 1920s, depending on their age and war service. They were David Macbeth Sutherland (1883–1973), Dorothy Johnstone (1892–1980), William Crozier (1893–1930), Anne Redpath (1895–1965), William Gillies (1898–1973), William MacTaggart (1903–1981) and John Maxwell (1905–1962).
Most of them also went on to teach at Edinburgh College of Art, which meant that Sutherland, who had visited Paris before the war, taught the 1920s intake of William MacTaggart, John Maxwell and William Gillies. 'There was something about him,' recalled Gillies, 'and his brilliant handling of colour. He was a tremendous stimulus to us all.'
But the closest link to the Colourists was Peploe himself who joined the staff of the ECA – if on a hands-off basis – in 1926. The future arts administrator Sir Norman Reid recalled that: 'Peploe père looked in...' One of the marked shifts between the careers of the four Colourists, who were never well off and had to survive through selling their work, and the post-war generation, was that the latter could be cushioned by teaching posts. Although Anne Redpath – perennially short of money – never succumbed.
Peploe and Cadell were the two Scottish Colourists resident in Edinburgh after the war and they kept a sharp eye on the rising generation. As members of the exclusive artists' group the Society of Eight, which could only be topped up by a death or resignation, they backed the election of William MacTaggart at the tender age of 24 and later William Gillies, aged 33. When Cadell was asked why such an artist should be elected, he replied: 'Seven of us thought he was the right man.'
Dorothy Johnstone is another member of the group who moved in Peploe's circles especially during the First World War and the early 1920s, when both artists spent time in the artists' town of Kirkcudbright. Her effervescent portrait of Cecile Walton, as well as her townscapes of the period, reflect Peploe's vision.
Apart from personal contact, there were other ties which bound the generations. On their own initiative, without bursaries to support them, the four Colourists had carved out their early careers as consciously European artists – living, training and working in France – and in Cadell's case Germany too. Post-war, all four Colourists had sought inspiration in the south of France, joining the cosmopolitan artist colonies around Cassis and Antibes. As Duncan Macmillan has pointed out, 'Thanks to the Colourists and Glasgow Boys there was a sense in which maintaining links with France was seen as a part of the Scottish tradition.'
The next generation was quick to follow in their footsteps. By 1925, Anne Redpath was living in nearby St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat working alongside William Crozier, who was based in Italy, and William MacTaggart on their frequent visits. William Crozier's 1930 The Slopes of Fiesole signals his debt to the Colourists.
The Colourists' lifelong exploration of still life as a subject worthy of contemporary painting also left its mark. 'There is so much,' wrote Peploe, 'in mere objects, flowers, leaves and jugs – colours, forms, relations – I can never see mystery coming to an end.' The still lifes of Gillies, Redpath and Maxwell – although they sing with the authentic voice of their individual creators – are testament to Peploe's belief.
Redpath summed up the inheritance of the Fauves and their Scottish peers. She wrote that the paintings of Matisse and those of his school, 'were orchestrations in high-pitched intense colour, pink and orange, violet, yellow and silver green, colour that seemed almost brutal after the gentle harmonies of the impressionist.'
Like all artists equipped with acute intelligence, curiosity and sensitivity, Redpath and her fellow members of the Edinburgh Group – not to mention upcoming youngsters such as Elizabeth Blackadder (b.1931) – followed their own destinies as artists, open to any number of influences.
But as Duncan Macmillan has pointed out, 'when looking at this generation it is important to remember the role of Colourists as intermediaries.' It was they who set the next generation on their path to glory.
James Knox, Director of The Fleming Collection
'Colour and Light: The Art and Influence of the Scottish Colourists' is on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria until 1st February 2020