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The Colourist with one foot in modern Scotland

The Scottish Colourist Series is a project by the National Galleries of Scotland to mount major retrospectives of the work of that movement's three leading lights.

Alice Strang, curator of the National Galleries of Scotland's exhibition of                       JD Fergusson's work, checks out some of the paintings ahead of yesterday's openingPhotograph: Julie Howden
Alice Strang, curator of the National Galleries of Scotland's exhibition of JD Fergusson's work, checks out some of the paintings ahead of yesterday's openingPhotograph: Julie Howden

FCB Cadell kicked things off in October 2011, followed by SJ Peploe last autumn. Now it's the turn of JD Fergusson, an Edinburgh native like the others but resident during his long life in Paris, London and Glasgow where, in 1939, he settled in a top floor flat at 4 Clouston Street and where he would become an important figure in the Scottish artistic renaissance of the post-war years. As with the others before him, four rooms of Modern Two are given over to a chronological survey of his life and work.

On the face of it, the Colourist Series has been a riot of Edwardian and flapper fashions, stately interiors (Cadell's exquisite studies of Edinburgh's New Town are especially noteworthy), still life paintings of flowers, a few striking nudes and dozens of portraits of handsome women in over-sized hats. But in presenting the retrospectives as a troika, the curatorial intent is to place the three men within the context of contemporary European art and, while not ignoring their common ground, to also draw out the differences between them. And there is much about Fergusson in particular that sets him apart.

More so than his colleagues, he was in thrall to France and in particular Paris, which in the early 1900s was the centre of the art world. But by the turn of the century, while still in his mid-twenties, his questing nature had also taken him travelling through Morocco and Spain.

In a 1902 self-portrait known as The Laughing Man, we can already see the lines of experience on his face. By the time he paints Self Portrait: Grey Hat In Paris seven years later, he has become a moody, fedora-wearing artist with a sartorial trademark - a vivid green tie - and enough sense of his own mystique to cast his face in shadow. That self-confidence never left him and even in his late seventies he was a charismatic and striking figure, a contrast to the pipe-smoking family man Peploe.

As well as cities and travel, Fergusson's story is one of women and of lovers. First there was Edinburgh girl Jean Maconochie, whose handsome face stares out of early portraits including The White Dress and The Feather Boa. Then came American sculptress and illustrator Anne Estelle Rice, who Fergusson took up with in Paris in 1907. She became the subject of many paintings of the period, including the one which adorns the exhibition catalogue, Le Manteau Chinois (1909).

Another American Fergusson painted was Rice's friend Elizabeth Dryden, a journalist with Philadelphia journal The North American. She was in Paris to write about fashion for the articles that Rice would illustrate. In La Cocarde, Fergusson paints her accordingly: a chic woman in a stately cream and black dress, her mouth a slash of strawberry red lipstick. And she's wearing a hat, of course.

But the woman with whom he is most associated is influential dancer, choreographer and educationalist Margaret Morris. British-born, Morris was a sexually adventurous bohemian who glided through the artistic and theatrical worlds of Paris and London, and it was in the French capital that she met Fergusson in 1913. They were together until his death in 1961. He painted her nude in 1931's Megalithic (a pun on Meg, his name for her) and even cast her in bronze, in the sculpture Eastre (Hymn To The Sun), from 1924. And here's another departure from the Colourist formula: Fergusson worked in three dimensions as well as two, creating sculptures in sandstone, brass and bronze that often had strong pagan themes. Several examples are on show here.

Unlike Cadell and Peploe, who had both died by the outbreak of the Second World War, Fergusson was able to cast his artistic shadow over post-war Scotland. But, increasingly, he saw himself as having a political role to play as well. For a six-month period after a driving tour of Scotland in 1922 he had painted solidly, only stopping his daily routine to fuel up on porridge. The results are shown here, a quartet of energetic landscapes displaying a green, jagged, stormy, fecund Scotland of mountains and glens. It's as if he is seeing his homeland for the first time - perhaps, in a sense, he was.

A decade and a half later, choosing Glasgow as a domicile over his native Edinburgh because it felt more authentically "Celtic", he began to flirt with what the curators call "Celtic Nationalism". Celtic imagery and symbolism began to appear in his work, though there is little on view here that speaks to a cogent sense of Scottish Nationalism as we would recognise it today - not the bright, lush paintings he made during his regular visits to Cap d'Antibe in the south of France, anyway. But he put time and energy into thinking about Scotland and its artistic and cultural heritage. He acted on it, too: as well as founding Glasgow's New Art Club, he edited Scottish Art And Letters and, in 1943, wrote Modern Scottish Painting.

Fergusson, then, is the Colourist with one foot in modern Scotland. That and the sheer size and energy of many of his canvases make this a fitting and muscular end to what has been a very worthwhile survey.

PEPLOE

The best known of the Colourists, Samuel John Peploe lived in Paris for two years prior to the First World War - he was lured there in 1910 by his friend, JD Fergusson - but spent most of his working life afterwards in his native Edinburgh. It was there he painted many of the still lifes on which his reputation rests today.

His early work was influenced by Manet; his Paris work - initially met with scorn in Edinburgh - by the Fauvists. In later years he undertook many painting trips to Kirkcaldy, Cassis in southern France and to the Western Isles, often in the company of FCB Cadell.

Highlights of his from the second show in the Scottish Colourists' series included The Coffee Pot, from 1905 (sold at auction in 2011 for £937,250, then a record for a Scottish painting).

CADELL

The first of the National Galleries of Scotland's Colourist shows, in 2011, was given over to the youngest of them, Frances Campbell Boileau Cadell. The last major solo retrospective of his work had been at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1942, five years after his death.

Like Fergusson, Cadell painted many portraits of stylish women but the fact that he was almost certainly gay lends them a different sensibility - as it does the male nudes he painted in the early and mid-1920s, such as The Boxer and Negro (Pensive).

He was also a keen chronicler of clothes, fashion and interiors. He made many studies of rooms in his house at 6 Ainslie Place in Edinburgh's New Town; in his large, chic studio at 130 George Street in the city; and in his cottage on Iona.

He had exhibited in Paris by the time he was 20 and enrolled at Munich's prestigious Academy of Fine Arts a few years later. But though internationalist in outlook and not averse to the odd trip to Venice or Cassis, Cadell remained the most doggedly home-based of the Colourists, to his eventual detriment: he died in poverty and relative obscurity.

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