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Aug 20, 2017
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    The Much-More-Than-Scottish-Much-More-Than-Colourists

    Peonies in a Chinese Vase, George Leslie Hunter

    I'M OFF TO A LECTURE about the Scottish Colourists by James Knox, Director of the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation. Haven't heard of it? Nor had I.

    The current edition of its glossy in-house magazine says it: "...owns the finest collection of Scottish art outside institutions, comprising over six hundred works from the seventeenth century to the present day."

    It ran a smart gallery in London's Mayfair until 2016 when it announced the establishment of a 'Museum without walls,' to enable the collection to tour. Fitting that the first of these ventures is to Berwick's Granary Gallery, just inside some of the most spectacular and secure town walls in Britain, and a former Scottish capital to boot.

    Quite a coup for Berwick Visual Arts Director James Lowther. I very much hope this partnership will offer many more exhibitions. So, remind me, who are the Scottish Colourists, are they any good, and should you see this?

    Glasgow 1948 - bombed to hell and back. Joan Eardley, living in and recording street kids in damp, crumbling tenements. Smog so bad you could'na see one side of Sauchiehall Street from t'other. Not that it made much difference. Everything was black, white or grey; or felt that way. People needed cheering, walls brightening up.

    Any good marketing pro knows you need a catchy strapline to define and sell your wares. Canny Glaswegian art dealers T and R Annan certainly got it right when they came up with a cracker to describe the work of Cadell, Hunter, Peploe and Fergusson - "The Scottish Colourists". It stuck, and sticks still.

    Except...except... labels restrict, confine, limit. These four artists are really "The Much-More-Than- Scottish-Much-More-Than-Colourists". Francophile British Europeans, of international stature.

    Samuel John Peploe, Luxembourg Gardens c 1910

    It's not surprising that four well off, young, talented artists searching for inspiration and excitement in the early 1900s would yearn for "Gai Paris". Desperate to escape dreich weather, urban industrialism, and the strictures of a dour Presbyterianism, La Belle France beckoned invitingly. Bowled over, they revelled in sunlight, wine, women, song, fresh air - everything that this exciting hub of European culture and avant garde expression could offer.

    They followed closely in the footsteps of artistic legends Manet, Monet, and Cé zanne. Three artists who, by then, were the establishment. More experimental and risky were the Fauves and Neo-impressionists - Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Derain. Deconstructing form and content, rediscovering nature and primitivism, these artists released and revealed primeval energy, movement and rhythm on canvas, just as Diaghilev did for dance and Stravinsky for music.

    Interestingly, Peploe wrote to his wife that the French had the same animal joi de vivre of the Gaelic western islanders.

    Heady times. It rubbed off alright, and it shows. Fergusson's 'Blue Nude' from 1912 throws caution to the wind, revelling in a daringly strong, simple, sensual line. Peploe's 'Lady in a White Dress' is pure movement and loose brushwork.

    As Fergusson observed, light is the mystery that reveals truth and reality through colour and form. Their mastery of light and movement is particularly striking in Peploe's 'Luxembourg Gardens', painted about 1910. It shimmers and shakes with energy, colours bright and brushstrokes fresh.

    Quick to absorb and reflect the qualities and mannerisms of their heroes, they learnt their lessons well and brought them home, leaving the avant garde behind.

    I don't think these four wanted to shake off their middle-class roots, or their Scottishness. Paris was exhilarating, but its memories seem to have been strong enough to inoculate them against dreich days and the Kirk.

    Favoured subjects? Fashionable Edinburgh drawing rooms and the delicate flowers and elegant ladies therein. This was just what the market wanted, something sophisticated and continental with a whiff of je ne sais quoi.

    When city life palled, and it clearly did, they wanted out, seeking air, light and water - sea, harbours, boats and beaches. They decamped for coast, country, and the Western Isles, taking their French sunglasses with them.

    Works like Fergusson's "The Drift Posts" of 1922 show the Highlands disconcertingly a la Cé zanne. Accomplished certainly, but Scottish?

    More homegrown is Cadell's 'Dunara Castle off Iona'. Wisely he left it unvarnished, giving a freshness of colour and texture that sings out. Turn away and the yacht will have moved, its brilliant white mainsail tight to the wind.

    That is a major strength of this exhibition. You really can get up close and personal with these works. It's a treat to be able to see their three-dimensionality and to be surprised by colour and scale, often much smaller and more intimate than you would suppose.

    Colour? Yes, a vital element, well used, but no less important is their skill in adopting and adapting a French style and applying it so effectively to subjects that excited their imagination. So, more following in the footsteps of great French artists, less taking off on their own.

    What's more, they provided a vital stepping stone for those Scottish artists who admired, were influenced by, and came after them.

    But original? Risk-taking? Innovative? I don't think so. Does it matter? Not a jot. The best of their work is of the best, and should be appreciated as such.

    Forget labels, just enjoy the painting.

    The Scottish Colourists Granary Gallery, Berwick until 15th October 2017. 11am-4pm (closed Tuesdays) The Granary Gallery, 2nd Floor, Berwick YHA, Dewar's Lane,Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 1AJ 01289 330999

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