Born: June 18, 1942; Died: August 28, 2013.
John Bellany, who has died aged 71, was widely recognised as one of Scotland's finest and most important post-war painters. His life was as tumultuous, and dark, as his sometimes supernaturally powerful oils.
Prolific, painful, pained and colourful, Bellany had an inimitable muse which sprung from personal trauma as well as a lust for life. His health had been under pressure for many years, including a liver transplant in 1988 that not only saved his life but inspired some of his most affecting art, and a dramatic double heart attack in 2005 that nearly killed him. Recently he had been suffering from macular degeneration, which impaired his vision, and a long period of depression which had lifted in time for a magnificent exhibition of his works at the National Galleries of Scotland last summer.
Bellany was the son of a fisherman, Dick Bellany, and from a family of fishermen and boat builders. He was born in Port Seton, East Lothian, spending much of his childhood there, as well as his grandparent's home town of Eyemouth in Berwickshire. Both the symbols of a fierce childhood Christianity, the delicacy of mortality and the sea - boats, shellfish, seascapes and fish - appear repeatedly in his work. These images are anchored in his youth.
Port Seton had a population of only a few thousand, but held more than a dozen churches, and the Bellany family attended church two or three times on Sunday. Thus his childhood and early life were dominated by Calvinism and the terrors and fruits of the sea: he was profoundly affected by the stories surrounding the Eyemouth disaster of 1881, when only 26 boats returned from 45 that set out to sea in a storm. The sense of loss and danger were not only historical - he had first-hand acquaintance with fishermen who earned their daily living on the sea. He worked at gutting fish as a schoolboy.
That fierce Christianity of his youth condemned alcohol as well as sexual activity outside marriage, and he grew up amid a fear and anxiety of both the pleasures of the body and the threat of hellfire and damnation. He once wrote that John Knox dominated the thoughts of his formative years. "From education to physical and emotional outlets - 'Sin Is Always In The Air' with Knox looking over your shoulder, a heightened awareness of human vulnerability and mortality," he wrote. The familiarity with the sea and its dangers is present throughout his work right until present day, visible in his work following the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004.
He studied at Edinburgh College of Art under Sir Robin Phillipson from 1960 to 1965. While a student, he won an Andrew Grant Scholarship, in 1962, with which he travelled to Paris, and after he graduated, another scholarship allowed him to visit the Netherlands and Belgium. His first solo exhibition was held at the Dromidaris Gallery in Holland in 1965, in the same year that he saw a Max Beckmann exhibition at the Tate in London which was to greatly influence him. Another, more traumatising experience, came in 1967 when he visited the Buchanwald concentration camp. The 1960s also saw him discovering another important artistic influence, Fernand Léger, whose monumental works encouraged him to work on a large scale. His second solo show came in Edinburgh in 1968 and by the time he went on to attend the Royal College of Art in London, from 1965 to 1968, he was already recognised as a significant talent.
Bellany went on to be lecturer in painting at Brighton College of Art in 1968 and from 1969 to 1973 was lecturer in painting at Winchester College of Art, visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and at Goldsmiths College of Art. From 1978 to 1984 he was lecturer in painting at Goldsmiths and was artist in residence at Victoria College of the Arts, Melbourne in 1983, all the while developing his own very personal art.
From 1970 onwards he exhibited in solo shows throughout the UK, with his first international show at the Rosa Esman gallery in New York in 1982, which led to a string of shows around the world. In 1986 he was given the first solo show ever to be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, centred around his portrait of Ian Botham. He also had a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery, Scotland, in 1994, exhibiting his portrait of the composer Peter Maxwell Davis.
While his artistic star was ascending, Bellany's health and private life experienced turmoil. He left his first and current wife Helen, who was left to care for their three children, Anya, Paul and Jonathan, after seven years of marriage in 1972. He had fallen in love with Juliet Lister, and married in 1979. Juliet took her own life in 1985.
That was not the only darkness in Bellany's life. In the 1980s, both of the artist's sons had joined skinhead gangs associated with the far right.
The healing of the rift between Bellany and his children was slow, and fraught by the collapse in Bellany's health due to his excessive drinking. Bellany remarried Helen, whom he first met at Edinburgh College of Art, in 1985. It was Helen who finally persuaded him to stop drinking: he took his last on September 30, 1984. But the drink caught up with him: in 1988, he had a liver transplant, a nine-hour operation that saved his life.
His work from Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge, is some of his most searing, a self-portrait from that time, now in the National Galleries of Scotland, he believed was among his best work. The hospital etchings are "in the class of Michelangelo", according to Peter Howson, "it looks like his hands were guided by a force greater than himself."
The artist, now with houses in Cambridge, Edinburgh and Barga, Italy, flirted with death again in 2005, when he suffered a heart attack whilst attending the opening of an exhibition at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. He collapsed on the traffic island of a busy road. A young man attempted to revive him and a nurse, who had just left the hospital after her shift had ended, stopped and gave him heart massage. Bellany was brought back to life in the ambulance after her procedure. He described the event as his "second Lazarus experience".
In recent years, he had to wear a hearing aid, and in 2009 underwent cataract surgery: he reported that he was beginning to lose his sight in 2010.
His relationship with his children was now healthy and close, and his sons free of their associations with the far right: his filmmaker son Paul made the acclaimed documentary Fire In The Blood about his father. Throughout his life, he was given honours and accolades. He was elected Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1988 and in 1994 was awarded the CBE.
He went on to be given an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Edinburgh in 1996 and an Honorary D Lit by Heriot-Watt University in 1998. He was elected RA in 1991, Honorary Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1986, and in 1998 was made a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art, London.
He is survived by wife Helen, daughter Anya and sons Paul and Jonathan, and eight grandchildren.
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