James Watt

Born: November 17, 1931;

Died: July 7, 2022.

MARINE artist James Watt, who has died at the age of 90, was well-known as a painter of boats on the Clyde, but he had several other claims to fame. He was an inspired and beloved teacher, a founder of the Glasgow Group, a celebrity in the Faroes – and he was also the father of Alison Watt, one of Britain's best-known painters.

Many years ago Alison told me: "I grew up with a father who spent a lot of time in the studio with his paints and canvases. As a child I assumed that was normal, that every house had a studio! I wouldn’t be an artist without him. He taught me to look at the world differently."

James Watt was born in Port Glasgow in 1931 to Alexander Watt and his wife Isabella (nee Hooper). His entire family, including his grandfather, and everybody he knew, were in shipbuilding. He was always passionate about boats. In 1998 he told me: "I was hooked at an early age. I played and sailed around the Greenock harbour. I revelled in ships, fishing boats of any sort. My obsession gave me a way of life. Painting was almost accidental. It was just a natural progression.”

He believed he was very lucky. "I was in the right place at the right time. I caught the tail-end of the Clydeside shipbuilding boom in the 1950s. Shipyards had full order-books and the river teemed with craft of every sort. So I always had a subject”

His paintings are in a formidable array of collections – those of the Queen and Prince Philip, The Princess Royal, The Arts Council, the Hunterian, Glasgow Museums, Paisley Museum & Art Gallery, IBM, Britoil, the Danish Embassy, Yarrow Shipbuilders, McKean Museum and Art Gallery, Clyde Shipping Co, the Royal Bank of Scotland ...and also the town council in the Faroes.

The Faroes played a large role of his artistic life. "From the first moment I got there I knew this was the place I wanted to paint", he said. "I found a whole culture. I exhibited there every year for 20 years. The place and the people are fantastic. There were six newspapers for a population of 45,000 and the island support the arts in a big way. Every office, bank and shop has original paintings on the wall.”

Watt went to Glasgow School of Art for four years where he was taught by Ted Odling, Douglas Percy Bliss, and David Donaldson. In 1958 he was one of 13 founders of the Glasgow Group, an artists' co-operative which continues to this day. Irritated by the conformist, unadventurous policies of local exhibiting societies like the Royal Scottish Academy and the RGI, and at the dearth of commercial outlets in the city, they got together with other GSA students and graduates to exhibit at Glasgow’s then-beautiful McLellan Galleries.

The Glasgow Group was the Transmission Gallery of its day.

After two years National Service in the army, from 1955 to 1957 he became an art teacher, and a much-beloved one at that. He was noted for his kindness and good counsel, and one former student says of him: "I had pretty much zero talent but he sparked a lifelong love and interest in art." Another remembered “His was the fastest-moving Volvo down the school drive. He was some man."

Later Watt became a member of the RGI and was elected a member of Society of Scottish Artists in 1965. In 1997 he received The Royal Bank of Scotland Award at the Glasgow Institute.

He dedicated much of his life to recording the River Clyde and its industries, and his vast body of work forms a vital archive of the river. Greenock's McLean Museum and Art Gallery exhibition, The Lost Clyde: The Paintings of James Watt, mounted to celebrate his 90th birthday, is still running.

From charting the mid-20th century highs to the more recent lows, his work forms both a highly personal and irreplaceable historic archive of a river whose industries helped shape the modern world. It personifies the notion of the artist as the ‘chronicler of change.’

Watt preferred a dramatic winter landscape with dark brooding skies. Sunshine never appealed to him. As he once said, "I would never paint the Scottish coast as if it was the Côte d’Azur”. He was never a passenger, never just an observer. He was often a crew member, too. He told me: "I can haul in nets along with the rest. I've even got my own lobster pots in the Faroes. I was never able to separate the two things, painting and boats.”

The first puffer he ever painted was wee, fat and dumpy. "I fell for her in a big way. She was called Lady Bute. She had such a lovely red funnel”, he reminisced. “To me, boats are not just motifs or images in a picture but things I love, things I know about.” Indeed his house was not filled with books on art, but books on ships.

To start off with, figures around the docks and on the boats featured in his work, but soon he eliminated them. "I discovered they were destroying my pictures. I needed a sense of movement to animate the composition but I found that the steam swirling around coal-fired ships worked better."

Watt found a gap in the market early on and remained one of the few artists painting boats. "I went on puffers taking malt from Paisley, which still had a harbour then, to distilleries on Islay and Skye, or I sailed down the coast to the Irish quarries to bring back limestone to Stranraer." In the 1960s he painted a series showing the building of the QE2 at John Brown’s yard at Clydebank.

Latterly he also painted at Crinan. "There was always a lot happening there and it was fascinating compositionally because I could get boats at three different levels on the sea, in the basin, and on the canal."

He spent his working life teaching at St Columba's in Greenock and also taught evening classes at Glasgow Art School for 25 years. "I enjoyed it all" he told me.

He had a full life, living near the Clyde and doing exactly what he loved.

James Watt is survived by his children Caroline, Jim, Pauline and Alison and by three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.