Norman Kirkham: An appreciation

ARIST Norman Kirkham, who has died aged 84, was a kenspeckle figure in Scottish art circles.

A past President of Glasgow Art Club and Honorary Secretary of the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Art (RGI), he exhibited worldwide, and his work is held in numerous collections, including those of the Duke of Edinburgh, The Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy and Glasgow Museums.

Respected by fellow artists as a skilled painter, his sense of mischief and uncompromising approach to his craft meant he was perhaps not as well-known outside the art world as others of equal talent. A genuine enthusiasm for painting was underpinned by an innate sensitivity, subtle use of colour and tone, fluid and expressive brushwork and fine draughtsmanship.

Kirkham, as he was known, was born on November 20, 1936, and grew up in a tenement in Maryhill, Glasgow. His father John worked away often as a parquet floor layer and his mother Nan looked after the family. He attended Dunard Street Primary School before moving to North Kelvinside Senior Secondary School.

He excelled at art and a highlight of his teenage years was two weeks spent at the annual Castle Toward summer school, a hothouse for talented budding artists. “Norrie drew on everything,” recalls his younger brother, Douglas. “There are stories about him drawing on the white walls of the air-raid shelter during the war.”

An athletic figure, keen on running and rowing, Kirkham learned how to play the bagpipes at the College of Piping in the city’s west end. Known at school as ‘Steel Wool’ because of his shock of wiry black hair, he left school aged 16 to start his formal training at the Glasgow School of Art. In the world-famous Mackintosh Building, his seven-decade-long love affair with drawing and painting began.

His new-found outré art-school ways quickly bled into family life and his brother remembers Norrie introducing them to spaghetti Bolognese at Saturday lunchtimes: “Ingredients like bay leaves, tomato puree and spaghetti started appearing in the house. This was very unusual in 1950s Glasgow”.

Kirkham was a student at GSA for five years, and was encouraged by renowned painter David Donaldson, a tutor. He gained a diploma in Drawing and Painting before completing a post-graduate year in Interior Design. In summer holidays, he had a variety of jobs, including spells working as a Redcoat at Butlins Filey, a tram conductor based at Glasgow’s Maryhill terminus, and a kitchen porter at Gleneagles.

He left GSA in 1958 to do a delayed stint of National Service, stationed at Edinburgh’s Redford Barracks before moving to Hereford with the Royal Artillery Regiment. Much to his Glaswegian friend’s amusement, he ended up getting a commission and went from being Private Kirkham to Second Lieutenant Kirkham. Later, looking back on this period of his life, he described it as “a complete waste of time”.

After a period as a school teacher in Larbert, he began work as an interior designer and furniture designer with Macdonald Furniture Gallery on Glasgow’s Cathedral Street.

Artist Norman Edgar recalls first meeting Kirkham at John Boyd’s life-drawing evening classes at GSA in 1972. Together with Boyd and painter Archie Forrest they began frequenting the nearby Glasgow Art Club after class. Mr Edgar says: “We ended up joining, becoming firm friends and long-term members.

“We once went to London to see an exhibition and afterwards went on to the Chelsea Arts Club, which had a reciprocal arrangement with Glasgow Art Club. I was talking to someone at the bar and turned round to see Norrie with a beautiful blonde woman on his knee. He was telling her that her sling-back sandals paired with denims didn’t do her outfit justice. The woman turned out to be Lucy Irvine of Castaway fame.

“I loved Norrie’s ability to cut to the chase, to be unequivocal in his opinions and on occasion deliberately capricious and downright bloody. To be present at one of these rants and to watch the expressions of stunned incredulity on people’s faces was a joy.”

In 1975, Kirkham gave up his job to commit himself to painting. For the next three decades, he combined painting with teaching extra-curricular classes and demonstrations. He ran GSA’s continuing education programme for many years and devoted much time and energy to the running of the Glasgow Art Club and RGI.

A mentor to many, he was known jokingly among peers as “The Lady Artists’ Friend”. His teaching style was not to show or tell, but to encourage.

Commissions during these years included a portrait of variety stars Fran and Anna (now in the collection of Glasgow Museums) and a portrait of the goalkeeper Alan Rough. One of his huge “genre paintings”, as he called them, hung in Tennent’s Bar in Byres Road, Glasgow, for years.

Kirkham married twice; briefly in the early 1960s, then in 1976 to fellow artist, Evelyn Buchanan. The couple were together for 20 years. A beautiful portrait, Evelyn in Red and Black, still hangs in Glasgow Art Club. His last major exhibition, Kirkham at Seventy, was held in his beloved Glasgow Art Club, in 2006.

He met his partner for the last 16 years of his life, the film and television producer, Paddy Higson, while she was President of Glasgow’s Southern Art Club. They enjoyed several happy years before he succumbed to dementia and had to go into a care home, where he was well cared for and content. He died after contracting Covid-19.

Ms Higson says: “The man I loved gradually disappeared over the past few years — the fun person, who loved paint, red wine, the colours around him, visits to meet friends in the Art Club, and even the trips we made to the Highlands and Islands – he used to say that it was all just miles and miles of f***-all with passing places! But he did get some wonderful paintings from these trips.”

Norman Kirkham is survived by Paddy, his sister Iris Inglis, and brother Douglas, sister-in-law Mary Kirkham and three nieces.