Born: July 14, 1933;

Died: November 15, 2021.

ART was John Halliday’s life. From start to finish he was steeped in art. He grew up in Kirkcudbright, from childhood taking the artistic circle of Jessie M.King and E.A.Taylor in his stride. He once told me, “As a small boy I remember Jessie organising huge parties and fancy-dress cavalcades. I liked the look of what they were doing.”

When the distinguished painter Cecile Walton came to Kirkcudbright in 1947, a close friendship developed between her and then 14-year-old schoolboy. So it was no surprise that in 1949 he went to study at Glasgow School of Art.

But it was not all plain sailing. When he left school his father insisted he start a “proper job”, as apprentice at the local Galloway News. However the brilliance of his sketches and cartoons persuaded the newspaper’s editor/proprietor, John Maxwell, to encourage him to return to Kirkcudbright Academy to complete his secondary education.

Halliday, who has died aged 88, loved the School of Art. “My four years there were wonderful, despite the fact that I was extremely poor”, he said. “I was always cold, never enough to eat. As a student it was a very basic time. Yet they were the best years for me. I had the advantage of being aware of the great tradition of this famous Art School. The artists who I knew at home had all been part of the GSA story.

“I was lucky to be there when painting was very strong and drawing was all-important. I was doubly fortunate as teachers of the calibre of William and Mary Armour, John Miller and Geoffrey Squire were on the staff.”

Halliday worked hard. In 1953 he won two Royal Scottish Academy awards, the Chalmers Bursary in open competition with others, plus the award for the outstanding finals diploma show. It enabled him to go to Europe to paint in Italy and France. This was his dream and ever after he adored travelling in Europe, with Venice his favourite place.

He was a pure romantic at heart and Venice the perfect place to indulge this, along with his nostalgia for costume, theatre, masques and masks – which, of course, he had experienced as a small boy. Some of his most memorable oils depict a figure from Commedia dell’Arte characters set against small picturesque Venetian bridges in Burano.

Determined not to become an art teacher, he made his name as a sought-after muralist with commissions for Glasgow’s Clydesdale Bank, Prestwick Airport, Culzean Castle and Chatelherault, among others. He completed a total of 71 murals in various historic buildings and private homes. They often incorporated detailed trompe l’oeil techniques, quite rare in late 20th century work.

Halliday’s work has been exhibited in major British, European and American cities. He excelled in landscape painting. His studios in remote places were conducive to this. In the early 1990s he moved to a steading in bleak moorland on the Pentland Hills.

As far as the eye could see, magnificent scenery was waiting to be painted. The tonal range of dark, rich, shadowy hills, sheet water and dry matted grasses and reeds in subtle, subdued shades was a challenge to any artist. But he was uniquely fitted to do justice to this sort of solitary, open panorama where slight changes of cloud in a vast sky affect everything below.

Though charming, gallant and sometimes very social with friends in high places, Halliday was essentially a loner. His idea of paradise was a desolate white cottage hideaway where he could paint the landscape from his front door. In winter. a large barn window looked onto a frozen purple Loch Stroan. In summer, cattle grazed at dusk, dim shapes amid the mist. The resulting pictures were always subtle, often darkly mysterious, always entrancing.

The Galloway landscape, Kirkcudbright harbour, Carrick shore and Dee estuary never failed to inspire him. Latterly he had a studio on the Solway coast at Auchencairn. When Gracefield Art Gallery bought his ‘Galloway Loch in Winter’ for its permanent collection to hang alongside his early heroes, the Glasgow Boys like Guthrie and Walton, he was well pleased.

Halliday had a lifelong love of Calabria and Sicily. He used to say, “The places in the world where you feel immediately at home are where the light is kind to your eyes.” The light in Galloway, where my parents used to live, I well know is special, as for John was Siracusa, Eastern Sicily, Palermo, and Cape Cod in the USA, another favourite place. Yet he could also make a magical jewel image from washing on a line or a shale coal bing in West Lothian. Amazing: a shale bing in West Lothian!

Halliday, though, could be infuriating. He was not always tactful when it came to dealers and commercial galleries who wanted to sell his work. He always hoped to work in theatre, designing for it. Meeting architect Jack Notman, another theatre and opera lover, was significant, but not always productive.

Portraiture was another facet of this multi-talented painter, and I do wish he had painted me, as he promised. Toward the end of his life he returned to live in Kirkcudbright, and one of his glorious portraits, ‘Woman in Black’, was installed in pride of place for the 2018 opening of the new, well-overdue civic Gallery there.

Halliday, along with others, had fought long and hard for this Kirkcudbright gallery, and I am sure we will all enjoy seeing many of his wonderful pictures installed there in the future.

Halliday painted right to the end, at 88 still lively, thrilled to be working on a commission for the new Moat Brae House in Dumfries, celebrating the home of Peter Pan’s famous Scottish creator, JM Barrie. A fairytale indeed.