Five Scottish artists you should know

By Zinny Donovan

A dive into Scottish art history through five artists.

The visual arts have a rich history in Scotland yet, despite living and studying here, one might still find themself at a distance from the culture. As a brief entry point to this dense, beautiful, and varied world of art, here are five Scottish artists that you should know.

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell

Though he was born in Edinburgh, Cadell spent much of his youth in France. In 1899 he moved to Paris, beginning three years of education at the famous Académie Julian, and remained in the city until 1907. His time in Paris, along with further stays in Munich and Venice, exposed Cadell to the vibrant European avant-garde. This is not to downplay the Scottishness of Cadell’s art; he spent most of his career in Edinburgh and repeatedly returned to Iona to re-paint its landscape. The European influence resulted in Cadell adopting a painterly style with loose and obvious brushstrokes, seen most obviously in his Impressionistic works of the 1910s. Notable examples include Reflections painted in 1915 (on show in the Kelvingrove) or Peggy in Blue and White (1912). Some works of this period including The Artist’s Drawing Room (1912) show Cadell moving towards the element of his works that is now most celebrated: colour. Here, a mass of cloth is rendered in a striking red paint that seems almost smeared across the work. Cadell is one of a group of artists known as the Scottish Colourists, a self-explanatory name that was applied to Cadell as a result of works in which he pared down the impressionistic quality of his brushwork in favour of scenes with stark contrasting blocks of colour. This style peaked with his coruscating The Orange Blind, also hung in the Kelvingrove. Cadell imbues the piece with a mysterious atmosphere – its colour both lures and unsettles the viewer, inviting you into a room that feels both warm and stilted.

Stanley Cursiter

Stanley Cursiter is a central figure of modern Scottish art; more than just a painter he was a curator, art writer, and spent 23 years as keeper and later director of the National Galleries of Scotland. A keen enthusiast for Scottish art, he aimed to promote and maintain the health of art in Scotland. He is often given credit for the very introduction of modernism to Scotland. He secured loans for works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, and Gaugin from the enormously influential exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which had caused excitement in London, bringing this furore around modern art to Edinburgh. However, the establishment of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in which he played a vital role, was perhaps his most enduring contribution to the nation’s art culture. This is not to downplay his artistic achievements which cover a wide range of movements and styles, including a remarkable but brief foray into Futurism, and a period of dramatic illusionistic realism. From the 1950s onwards he mostly divided his year between painting portraits in Edinburgh, and landscapes in his native Orkney.

Sylvia Wishart

Also an Orcadian, Sylvia Wishart specialised in landscapes, particularly in Aberdeen where she worked as a lecturer – but her most exciting works came after her academic retirement in 1987. This period of 21 years until her death in 2008 was an enormously productive period where she repeatedly painted the landscapes of Orkney, mostly of Hoy Sound, and usually as seen from her cottage window. Obvious in these works is an intimate understanding of the landscape that is contrasted with a desire to present the place, via medium and form, in differing ways to capture all of its ever-changing characteristics. The result is a vast array of works that show the island, the passage of time, and the morphing effects of light and weather as seen through the eyes of Wishart.

Paul Jeffay

Paul Jeffay (born Saul Yaffie) was a Scottish Jewish artist. He grew up in Glasgow, initially in the Gorbals, which at the time was the centre of Scotland’s Jewish community. Later he would move to Cathcart, and in the 20s to Paris, to be closer to the beating heart of the art world. Jeffay’s work is wide-ranging. Including etchings of people he encountered, the notable Visages du Ghetto was produced following visits to Warsaw – these portraits demonstrate a keen eye for depicting human emotion and how to convey a wider scene through a simple portrait. He later produced post-impressionist scenes of modern urban life, Au Bar and La Rue des Rosiers. His most colourful works, however, were still lifes that seem somewhat reminiscent of Cezanne, full of careful observation of the relationship between light, shape, and colour. Cornflowers (1948) and Still Life (1922) among them, the latter featuring beautifully orange fruit that contrast with the blues around them.

John Runciman

John Runciman is an artist of a much more traditional flavour than the four artists already discussed from the last hundred years or so, working in the mid-18th century. His few surviving works may seem to be typical history painting oil-on-panel depictions of biblical scenes. It is, however, precisely their conventional style that marks them out. John Runciman and his elder brother Alexander drew on works by Old Masters such as Rembrandt or, in the case of John, a specific interest in Rubens and Dürer; they hoped to expand the scope of what Scottish art could be beyond the genres of landscape and portraiture that dominated at the time. Few of the younger Runciman’s works remain. He died young from tuberculosis, aged either 24 or 25, and shortly before his death he tragically destroyed most of his pieces following criticism from a fellow Scottish artist in Rome. However, among those that survive, Hagar and the Angel (held by The Hunterian) presents an old testament scene transposed into a Scottish glen. Runciman’s loose brushwork here maintains a strong contrast of light and dark and retains a dramatic composition. His much darker work, King Lear in the Storm, is similarly evocative.


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