An exhibition at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 18th October, 2019 to 1st February, 2020


By James Knox

The Fleming Collection.          65 pages. £9.95. ISBN 978-15272408-8-9

reviewed by Jim Burns

George Leslie Hunter - Peonies in a Chinese Vase

The Scottish Colourists were four artists – S.J. Peploe, J.D. Ferguson, F.C.B. Cadell, and Leslie Hunter – who, according to James Knox, are now acknowledged as “one of the most talented, experimental and distinctive groups in 20th century British art”. It wasn’t always that way and, until comparatively recently, you had to travel quite a distance to see even individual selections of their work. Visitors to Edinburgh and Glasgow could find paintings by them in galleries, and the excellent Fleming Collection in London (now sadly closed) helped to bring the Colourists to the attention of viewers outside Scotland. They were never completely forgotten, but it’s doubtful if all that many people were aware of them.

The current exhibition in Kendal is drawn from the Fleming Collection, and is a delight to see. The word “colour” really is distinctively applicable in virtually every canvas on display, though that in no way lessens the effects of often skilled applications of the line.  A painting by Peploe of Kirkcudbright, known for its established artists’ colony, is perhaps illustrative of a successful combination of colour and line.

What is significant about the four painters in question is that, although sharing interests and some experiences, especially of studying and working in France, they each had individually-identifiable styles. Ferguson and Peploe were friends, both born in Scotland, and brought up in comfortable circumstances. After their initial training, they both studied in Paris, where they were initially influenced by Manet and Whistler, but soon fell under the spell of Matisse and the Fauves. Peploe was “reserved by nature”, but Ferguson was “a born instigator and propagator, a lover of credos and manifestos, of movements and affiliations”. Knox describes him as a “well-built, handsome swagger of a man”. Ferguson could perhaps be described as more-intellectual than the others, and likely to analyse what was being done. It’s significant that he was connected with the short-lived (1911-1913) but influential magazine, Rhythm, just prior to the First World War. The word “rhythm” often crops up in descriptions of the swirling brush strokes of Colourist paintings.

The group was never actually referred to as “Scottish Colourists” until the 1920s, but prior to that Ferguson and Peploe had been joined by F.C.B. Cadell and Leslie Hunter. Hunter, though born in Scotland, had moved with his family to California when he was fifteen. Precociously talented as a draughtsman, he provided illustrations for magazines and books, including those by Jack London. In Knox’s words, he was “a striking bohemian figure with an eye for the ladies”. He was determined to succeed as a painter, and not just as an illustrator, but his early work was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco fire. He returned to Scotland, and began to develop “an individual style, rooted in a study of old masters as well as more recent French schools”. He had spent some time in Paris.

As for Cadell, he like Peploe, grew up in Edinburgh, and attended Edinburgh Academy, where he was noted for caring only for drawing. When he was sixteen he moved to Paris with his mother, studying at the Acadèmie Julian. He also spent a year in Munich. He was early influenced by the Impressionists, though a visit to Venice 1910 “loosened his technique and boldness of colour”. Back in Edinburgh, he drew attention with “a series of swagger portraits, still-lifes and interiors”. Of the four Colourists, Cadell was the only one to serve in the First World War and was wounded twice.

There is no denying that the Colourists had a certain amount of success before and just after the First World War, with their paintings being exhibited in Edinburgh and Glasgow, London and Paris.  But not everything ran smoothly after that. Peploe died in 1935 at the age of 64, possibly during a flu epidemic. Hunter had died earlier, in 1931, after suffering “nerve attacks” which led to a “creative block and problems with his dealers”. Cadell, “who had never been business-like, fell prey to the collapse of the art market following the 1929 stock market crash, reducing him to penury. He “died destitute” in 1937.

Ferguson was the survivor, and “lived on until the ripe old age of 87” after a lifetime involved with the “Scottish art scene, writing, editing and founding groups and clubs”. It has been poInted out that Ferguson never gave up on his attempts to re-create the cafè culture he’d experienced in Paris for a British context: “Ferguson wanted to invest his corner of each city (he lived in) with Parisian–style culture, its accessibility, vitality and intellectual bite”. He was probably often disappointed with his attempts to do it in London and Glasgow, but at least he could look back on his own presence in Paris at a time of great ferment in the arts, and genuinely claim that he had been a contributor, not just a spectator, to what had happened in the heady days before the First World War.

It should be noted that the Colourists had contact with, and in some ways were influenced by certain members of the group known as “the Glasgow Boys”. Arthur Melville and John Lavery might be cited as two of the artists who had encouraged both Ferguson and Pepoe. Lavery had urged them to take an interest in Whistler, and Melville was allied to the Glasgow Boys who, to quote Knox, were “tonal painters relying in gradations of colour to convey a sense of light and depth. Melville was a proto-colourist, using passages of pure colour to convey light and heat. As such he, he anticipated by 30 or so years the later achievements of the Scottish Colourists”. It was Melville who persuaded Ferguson and Peploe to go to Paris.

It’s obvious that the early deaths of  Pepoe, Cadell, and Hunter, and Ferguson’s decision to settle in Glasgow when he left France in 1939 rather than reside in London, must have played a part in the subsequent neglect of their work outside Scotland. And the events of the 1940s, and the start of new movements such as the Abstract Expressionists, and the rise of St Ives as a location of some importance, would have drawn attention away from other artists. Later Scottish painters like Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde gravitated to London, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham went to St Ives. It would be some years (the 1980s) before major group exhibitions of the work of the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists would again begin to revive interest in their work outside Scotland.

The exhibition at Abbot Hall Gallery is well worth seeing. It includes a few paintings by Lavery and Melville to indicate their influence on the Colourists, and a few others (look out for some especially good work by William Crozier) who, in various ways, can be said to have been influenced by the Colourists. But it is their work that is the main attraction, and its vibrancy and variety is still there. The painters were engrossed by colour, and it shows in the brightness coming from their canvases and lighting up the gallery while outside a cold day was darkening down.

A final note. I recently obtained a copy of The Society of Six Colourists, by Nancy Boas (Bedford Arts Publishing, San Francisco, 1988), a book about a group known as the “Oakland Six” notably active in California in the 1920s. Looking at the illustrations I was struck by some similarities to the work of the Scottish Colourists.  One of the Americans, William Clapp, had been in Paris in the early-1900s when Ferguson and Peploe were there, though there is no indication that he knew them. But, like them, he had been impressed by the work of the Fauves. Another of the Six, Louis Siegriest, encountered the Fauves when their paintings were shown on the West Coast in the 1920s: “I remember thinking how simple (the Fauves) worked. I thought they were grand”.