Published  16/01/2013

John Bellany: A Passion For Life

John Bellany: A Passion For Life

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
17 November 2012–27 January 2013


A 70th birthday exhibition in the National Gallery of an artist’s homeland holds a special category, a pinnacle of celebration by any standards, both as an appreciation of an exceptional talent, and a trust in the future.

This comes as just such a commemoration of a Scottish painter, still painting as ever at the opening day. Here in John Bellany’s case, both situations are apt: in this show we find a deep evidencing of the roots of his inspiration together with a diligent tracking of his real life, as revealed in his oeuvre to date. Half a century of remarkable, unremittant productivity has led to hundreds of paintings, etchings and drawings.1 The task facing the curator, Keith Hartley of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has been nothing less than momentous, in selecting the most representative range of his life’s work to date, for the occasion. Fortunately Bellany himself was readily available to consult.

Given the rooms at the Scottish National Gallery, the final selection put together with the artist has been limited to no more than some 80 paintings and graphic works. This might have provided fair case for criticism given the spatial constraints imposed by the available hanging space, however elegant. But the result as derived is both comprehensive and superb in effect. There has been a rewarding spatial presence of his very large works, such as the 1964 triptych Allegory panels (left: 212.4 x 121.8 cm; centre: 213.3 x 160 cm; right: 212.5 x 121.8 cm), which dominates the first room, commenced when Bellany was still a student.

Space has always been an important collateral for him since early times; we are confronted however with a remarkably mature range of paintings, technically as proficient, as typically descriptive of a context both religious and yet expressive of the whole ethos of a fishing community: in this case describing the practical output of the fishing industry and those engaged ashore on disgorging blood, and gutting and cleaning the fresh catch for market. That is indeed the metaphor for Bellany’s whole life.

 His childhood and teens developed primarily within his own close fishing family. The life of the communities both of Port Seton and Eyemouth, in which they were participants, was dominated by survival or death at sea, and the church proffered only some kind of insurance, without intellectual corroboration. The coastal waters from Fife Ness and the Isle of May at the entry to the Firth of Forth, to Port Seton opposite and along the coast to Eyemouth, are dotted with marked wrecks of some 40 fishing vessels from these harbours seldom publicly quantified: plus a host of some 200 larger vessels that have come to grief over the past 180 years, tramp steamers, coasters, pleasure boats. There were also marked on the seabed, frequently soon to be shrouded in entrapped fish nets, a whole series of hazardously projecting wartime masted and disintegrating, official maritime wrecks; warships, submarines, and even a crash-landed Junkers 88 German bomber: all have been carefully charted.

Quite apart from reefs and rocks out to sea, and on shore, there was to complicate the fishing always a treacherous weather regime of fog (also known locally a “haar”), strong currents and high winds. From such conditions was forged the depth of character and resolve of the Bellany family, for generations. Only those who have studied the charts and the few actual memorials on shore can truly recognise the adversity of this background.2

Lay officialdom and the public beyond, pays scant regard even today, as witness the removal of Coastguard Stations, as political “cuts” today. Survival now is beyond technology, to a lower priority.

Bellany was fortunate to follow his own initiative beyond all this, with entry to Edinburgh College of Art to gain early scholarships there, but had no illusions with his classmate Sandy Moffat,3 about the prevalence of “drawing room art” in the Edinburgh of that time. Fortunately a key point in Bellany’s development as a student was his discovery, in an old chest in the city studio he was renting, of a plentiful cache of perfect French reproductions of Old Master drawings. Influencing his own drawing these images became fundamental to his art.

Later in l967 as a student he made a trip to Germany with his two friends, the painter Sandy Moffat and the poet Alan Bold. Impressionably he came face to face with the horrors of Buchenwald and the depths to which in wartime humanity had sunk, (also including the bombing of Dresden through which they passed en route). Significantly, Bellany now became increasingly aware of North European art, encouraged in his own work by older German artists, and of the move early that century into figurative expressionism and symbolism in the dramatic creative arc running from Oslo to Vienna. He could sense an affinity with such tendencies, which characterised a significant movement of the early 20th century, which indeed bolstered his accompanying detachment from French Impressionism. The 1960s were for Bellany therefore a key episode in his career, made up of several influences. The two large panels in the early hang here, Pourquoi? and Pourquoi? II establish this new awareness by Bellany dramatically, rapidly incorporated in his expanding oeuvre: now strongly encouraged during his time by his tutors at the Royal College of Art in London. From the mid-l960s in fact he was to remain in London, being elected a Royal Academician in l991while still in his forties.

Paintings further executed in the 1970s thus express the depressing impact of an overwhelming disillusion Bellany could feel about humanity, only relieved by the additional expiation of family turmoil during those years, running on into the 1980s, a perplexing episode of trial by loss, firstly of his second wife Juliet Lister, and then in the same year 1985, the death of his father. The painting then, Requiem for my father, has a sublime, even serendipitous quality, after the preceding turbulent years. This also marks the point where Bellany gave up drink on a permanent basis, now again with the reassuring, stoical support of his first wife, Helen, and the welcoming re-enclosure of family life. Home briefly from the threatening sea-swell of life, however, for his liver was failing. He was next admitted to Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge in 1988, to undergo a liver transplant. On 14 May 1988 fortunately, against some odds, he pulled through. Here displayed wall-hung is perhaps the most dramatic, yet masterly drawing of his life, executed at that date with paper and red chalk soon after coming round, propped up in bed. Indeed this must be one of the most trenchant master graphic works of the 20th century anywhere: followed by a similar watercolour, indeed a series of self-portraits, which indeed express that passion for life, as in the exhibition title. The artist’s own expression here is now one of incredible relief, on survival of death. Lazarus had prevailed, and not to be the only such occasion, in the future.

Of course the fishing communities in which Bellany grew up were no strangers to death. Firstly as a boy he was obliged to go to no less than three services per Sunday, in defence and hopeful mitigation of the threat to fishermen at sea and their families at home. The threat was permanent, not only from storms at sea or blind navigation in fog. Available maritime technology in the 1940s and 50s was less advanced than today. As described above the broader peril at sea remains. Now as he renewed his work, his own brush with death would deeply impose for him a clear motivation he felt, to surmount fate.

The exhibition shows now how Bellany renewed his referencing of old masters such as Titian, and Rembrandt, applying this allegorically with the female form. In the mid-1990s with the resurgence of interest in the landscape, that became a moving and vital component in Bellany’s artistic vocabulary, both rural and urban. Eyemouth’s major historic disaster of 1881, involving the deaths of 189 fishermen from this small community, like South Wales’ Aberfan tragedy, the notorious “Black Friday”, which Bellany commemorated with painting in 2000. Before then, in 1995, John and Helen Bellany were to visit Mexico, and the Mexican approach to religion and death profoundly affected them both, and so in situ Bellany produced there remarkable, colourific volcanic landscapes, of which two are exhibited. By 1998 the family had acquired a second home in northern Italy, and this emboldened sense of colour was fulfilled now in new landscapes, also Scottish landscapes as later, showed strong, bright hues, typical of the new resurgent stage in Bellany’s work.

There are also in this show additional and unforeseen graphics. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, author of a famous poem, a Drunk Man and a Thistle, which is portrayed in this guise. And that haunting spectre of 16th-century Scottish history, John Knox, is appropriately consigned graphically to oblivion (as if he had haunted Bellany during the Addenbrooke’s transplant operation): the etching was completed in 1986, (started in 1971) and entitled Death Knell for John Knox. Thus significantly too it marks the new stage in Bellany’s life and art. Ghostly effects of the past, as with Goya, driven out to oblivion: not a moment too soon.

This Seventieth Anniversary exhibition for John Bellany constitutes a fine tribute to Scotland’s best artist today as many would argue: and arguably too one of Europe’s greatest, particularly in his form of figurative expressionist. He well sets the bar higher for de Kooning, for example. He has confused the less capable critics for the best part of four decades, by going his own way, and not much influenced by galleries or critics en route (although John Russell early acclaimed his work). Today, posterity can truly regard him as a painter of exceptional talent, standing within a specifically North-European tradition. This exhibition consolidates that achievement as well as revealing the powerful Odyssey of his whole life.


1. See McEwen, John, John Bellany, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1994.

2. Baird, Bob: Shipwrecks of the Forth and Tay, Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Scotland, 2009. A highly professional charting of wrecks of vessels of all sizes marked on the Firth of Forth since 1800 through 2008.

3. Sandy Moffat a fellow Scottish artist with Bellany since student days contributes an article to the excellent catalogue (‘John Bellany’ published by the Galleries with articles also by Keith Hartley and John McEwen). The personal aspect of the exhibition is also enhanced by the poem: ‘The Studio’ by the artist’s second son Paul Bellany. (b.1968).

4.  See Catalogue p.31.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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