Issue 218
September/October 2021

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Oct 23, 2021

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Elizabeth Blackadder remembered…

Ninety-one year old Richard Demarco pens an appreciation of a late contemporary "who inhabited an art world now almost unrecognisable from the art world of today."

I FIRST MET Elizabeth Blackadder when she was a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl at Falkirk High School.

We were both travelling on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Falkirk. Elizabeth Blackadder had joined the train wearing her school uniform and carrying a large black portfolio containing her drawings and paintings. I, too, was carrying a portfolio of my drawings and paintings.

We began a conversation in which I explained that I had begun my journey at the British Railway's St. Enoch's Hotel in Glasgow, where I was working, having just left Holy Cross Academy in Edinburgh.

We were both hoping that the contents of our portfolios would be judged good enough to enable us to begin our careers as students at Edinburgh College of Art. Elizabeth Blackadder explained that she wished to study art history at the same time as painting which would mean that her degree would be under the aegis of Edinburgh University.

I explained that I planned to study under the School of Design, hoping to focus on mural painting, book design and illustration, etching, lithography and typography.

I realised that Elizabeth Blackadder's academic qualifications would set her upon a five-year-long course and that my schooldays had not provided me with the academic qualifications that would benefit me from what I could see was a preferable course of study.

However, we were destined to become fellow students in what I now consider as halcyon years of the immediate post-World War Two period in the history of Edinburgh College of Art. Our contemporaries as students and as teachers included a significant number of ex-servicemen and women who had survived their wartime experiences.

In the School of Painting there were Robin Philipson who had survived the war in the Far East, Robert Henderson Blyth who had survived the invasion of Europe post D-Day, and John Kingsley Cook, the Head of the School of Design who managed to survive serving as a merchant seaman in the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic.

Among the senior students were George Mackie who had miraculously survived as a RAF bomber pilot flying on many missions over Europe. The Head of Mural Painting was Leonard Rosoman. He had survived the London Blitz as a voluntary member of the London firebrigade.

Among Elizabeth Blackadder's fellow painting students were David Michie, Alastair Park, Frances Walker, Barbara Balmer, and John Houston who was to become Elizabeth's husband.

Together, they became highly successful students, both benefiting from their travels together after being awarded Andrew Grant Travelling Scholarships to Italy and France.

It was then that I regarded them as inspiring interpreters of landscape in both drawing and painting. Their art was the embodiment of the Edinburgh School of Art made manifest in the art of their leading teachers, in particular, Sir William Gillies, Sir William MacTaggart, Anne Redpath, John Maxwell and Denis Peploe.

Elizabeth Blackadder and John Houston were among the artists I exhibited in the inaugural exhibition of the Richard Demarco Gallery in August 1968. They were both elected to The Royal Scottish Academy and proved to be among the most popular artists in the exhibition programmes of The Scottish Gallery.

Elizabeth Blackadder was elected a Royal Academician and was eventually honoured by being appointed a Dame of the British Empire. She was the first woman artist to be elected to both The Royal Scottish Academy and The Royal Academy.

My appreciation places Elizabeth Blackadder within a generation of artists who, I do believe, inhabited an art world now almost unrecognisable from the art world of today. Like myself, she inhabited a war-torn world of art but somehow managed to pursue a career in which she defended, and indeed exulted in, the great tradition of art which defines our cultural heritage.

Her death represents the end of an era. I shall miss her extraordinary gift in delighting in the simplicity of her domestic world and the pleasure she derived from the life of her beloved cats. She captured their movements with exactitude and there is no doubt that, in so doing, she helped define the ineffable interface between the animal kingdom and the domain of humankind.


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