Robin Spark, painter.

Born: July 9 1938;

Died: August 6 2016.

ROBIN Spark, who has died aged 78, was an Edinburgh-based artist who came to painting as a career in middle-age, after working in the civil service; much of his work drew on his strong attachment to his Jewish faith and heritage – something which was also a factor in his estrangement from his mother, the novelist Muriel Spark.

Their difficult relationship often brought him unwelcome attention, especially when newspapers reported that Dame Muriel had expressly removed her son as a beneficiary of her will, and her critical and popular renown inevitably overshadowed Spark’s own attempts to mark out his own artistic path.

During his time as a clerk in the civil service, he was encouraged by his friend, the Israeli artist Udi Merioz, to take his painting seriously and, after night classes, enrolled in Edinburgh College of Art in 1983.

After graduation, he made his living as a painter and art teacher, offering private tuition, eventually producing more than 1,000 works and exhibiting in several countries. Spark had pictures held in the Royal Scottish Portrait Gallery and his work was sought out by private collectors, including Professor David Daiches. In 2006, there was a retrospective of 20 years of his work at GallerA1 in Leith.

He was born Samuel Spark, to Sydney Spark, a teacher, and his wife Muriel, in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and named for his paternal grandfather. He and his wife Rachel had emigrated from Lithuania, where Samuel had been conscripted into the Russian army; in Scotland he worked as a travelling salesman in the Borders.

Robin’s father brought up his younger brother and sister after his mother died in childbirth when he was just nine, but managed to go on to Edinburgh University. Though he had hoped to be a doctor, he could not afford to study for so long, and instead became a teacher, taking a three-year contract in Southern Rhodesia not long before the outbreak of the Second World War.

There he was joined by Muriel Camberg, also from Edinburgh but 13 years his junior, whom he married. But Sydney Spark suffered from serious depression (as his wife was to, in later years) and manic episodes. His behaviour became erratic and at times violent. The couple separated not long after their son’s birth in 1938.

Though she had at first walked out on both of them, for several years Muriel Spark brought up her son on her own with considerable difficulty, as Sydney’s health deteriorated, money was tight, and the war raged on. She eventually determined to return to the UK, which she managed, by way of a troopship from South Africa in early 1944.

Robin, at five, was consigned for a while to an African boarding school, funded by his mother’s work for British Intelligence (she was responsible for breaking the news of the von Stauffenberg plot to the authorities, telling them the bomb had blown Hitler’s trousers off).

In later life she maintained she had intended to bring her son to live with her in London. In the event, when Robin – who had settled on that name after one of his friends in Africa, and abandoned Samuel – returned to the UK, he went to live with Muriel’s parents, Bernard and Sarah Camberg, at Bruntsfield in Edinburgh.

His grandparents were a huge influence; Robin was to live with them until his grandmother’s death, and stayed on in their flat until his own death. Bernard was a sociable Scots engineer with the North British Rubber Company whose parents, like Samuel Spark, were Lithuanian Jewish emigrés. His wife Sarah, who was English, and had been brought up as an Anglican, had a Jewish father.

Robin was later to expend considerable energy on the extent of his maternal grandmother’s Jewish ancestry (Judaism proceeds matrilineally). His mother Muriel, who in the post-war years, and under TS Eliot’s influence, embraced first Anglo-Catholicism and then the Roman Catholic Church, hotly denied that Sarah’s mother was Jewish.

After the row became public in 1998, the pair – whose relationship had been strained and distant since Robin’s childhood – hardly ever spoke. Of his work, Muriel Spark said: “I don’t think he’s any good and nothing will make me say so” and, when asked at a signing about her son, declared: “I think I know how to avoid him now.”

Whatever the truth about his ancestry, when Robin joined his grandparents at the age of seven in 1945, Bernard and Sarah were staunch supporters of the Salisbury Road Synagogue and quickly arranged for their grandson to take Hebrew lessons from Rabbi Bernard Zucker and prepare for his Barmitzvah.

He was educated at James Gillespie’s primary school and then Daniel Stewart’s College, which he left at the age of 16 to enter the retail jewellery trade. He did his National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps and, after demob, took night classes to obtain his Highers.

Armed with these qualifications, Robin Spark entered the Civil Service, where he worked for 20 years in a number of departments, including the Scottish Office. His final post, before going to art college in the 1980s, was as Chief Clerk to the Scottish Law Commission.

Robin Spark was to remain firmly committed to his heritage, and was a well-kent and popular member of Edinburgh’s Jewish community. After graduation, his faith also found obvious expression in his work; as well as his painting, he produced a number of articles on Jewish art and culture, in addition to researching his own family background.

In addition to his group and solo shows, he undertook a certain amount of teaching at evening classes, and with some private pupils. His work was largely expressionistic and figurative, though he later also moved more noticeably towards abstraction, and experimented with photography and printmaking. His most recent retrospective, at Space Artworks earlier this year, concentrated on his abstract paintings. Spark acknowledged that his late career change had required bravery and commitment, but also felt that he had benefited from beginning as a mature student.

“When I went to art college I found a lot of people were technically very much better than I was,” he told one interviewer. “But then I thought, well, they’re not Jews, they’re not interested in Judaism. I’ll bring my own particular brand out. And it worked."

He was keen on the other arts, especially literature and cinema, and fond of animals, and had very modest material needs. When approached by reporters with the news that his mother, who died in Italy in 2006, had left her estate to Penelope Jardine, her former secretary and long-term companion, he claimed that he had no interest in challenging the will (as he could have done, under Italian law).

“How many dinners and breakfasts can you have in your life?” he said. “How many beds can you sleep in? You only need one bed to sleep in, one house to live in: I'm lucky. I've never put great value on money per se.”

Robin Spark married in 2014 and is survived by his wife Anthea.