HE WAS the most famous of the four artists we now know as the Scottish Colourists –the eldest, the most commercially successful in his own day and, by contemporary accounts, the man who kept them bound together in friendship.
Yet there is something unknowable about Samuel John Peploe; something reserved and rather mysterious. Born in 1871, he lost his mother at three, and his banker father at 13. Brought up by his nanny, he left Edinburgh for Paris in 1891 to study for three years at the Académie Julian. A family man who married late, he was 39 by the time that he and his pregnant bride Margaret walked down the aisle at Christ Church, Morningside, in April 1910.
In his introduction to the catalogue of the handsome retrospective curated by Alice Strang for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, gallerist Guy Peploe, S J Peploe’s grandson, explains that he never knew his grandfather, but imagines how he might have been “shy to the point of appearing austere to the outside world, but a warm family man full of surprises”.
Indeed, sometimes from this distance Peploe can seem as dry and scratchy as the acid-hued tulip paintings that we now associate so closely with his name. He was a radical in paint, but conservative in dress; traipsing about Iona beaches in the 1920s with his great friend, the painter Cadell, he still wore suits.
His marriage was happy and his brushes were clean. His heavy easel, on show in a cabinet, has largely been scraped thoroughly but for a glutinous ridge of grey goo. The silver teapot, made famous by his virtuoso rendering of its shine, is shiny still. There are no clues here. When he had finished his work Peploe would absent himself from his studio and let his dealers take what they wanted. His only published writing about his art was printed without his knowledge by mistake.
Strang has unearthed only four self-portraits of the artist. Painted within months of each other in 1900, they show an introverted figure in dishevelled evening dress or in his painting smock; both seem like disguises.
In one picture he is at work, sheltering behind his easel. He is smoking, and the pipe smoke rises with the calligraphic grace that would anticipate his increasing interest in oriental art. It seems like a feint: nothing of interest here, follow the line. It’s always away from the artist and into the paint.
There is a balance to be achieved in the way we understand the Scottish Colourists. And despite local loyalties we must be realistic. Like many artists who took home avant-garde traditions, it would be wrong to mistake him for the first generation, for the real groundbreaking thing. At the same time it would be foolish to dismiss the way artists like Peploe were European citizens, alive to the work they viewed in the studios and galleries of Paris, the things they saw and heard in the bars where artists gathered and in the French countryside where they went to paint.
In his early career he had loved Manet, absorbed all he could from the old masters, but he was blown away by the plein air painting of Sisley, and Pissarro. And he was a diligent student of Cézanne, that most important yet tricky and unlovely of the post-impressionists. When these artists were only just trickling back into British ways of thinking and painting, Peploe was hard at work in Edinburgh isolation, practically applying their lessons.
After stints in Paris at the recommendation of J D Fergusson, Peploe settled in Edinburgh in 1912. As an artist he took considerable artistic risks, losing his long-standing commercial relationship with the Scottish Gallery when his work got too radical, turning his back on teaching work until his last years, and swallowing humiliation when that bastion of the artistic establishment, the Royal Scottish Academy, first turned him down. So there’s a fine line to be drawn between home and away, between pioneer and imitator, in this 100-work show. Perhaps it’s best expressed by the group of tiny paintings that illustrate his working methods, where isolated scenes of the island of Barra in calm and storm hang next to the thronging bodies of the Paris Plages.
What this retrospective tells you is that Peploe was a relentless reinventer, from the darkened still-lifes and portraits of his early years, to the hard-won lessons he learned from Cézanne. Those Chinese vases, tulips and oranges are but a tiny segment of his career. At the French coastal resort of Royan in 1910 he seemed to come alive, sitting to paint on the quay even on the day his first son was born. In Iona he could be analytical, but sometimes he painted with passion and a palette knife.
Hung in a clever balance between themes and chronologies, the exhibition reminds you that Peploe really could paint. That the odd, forced quality of his most experimental works – his wife’s face shadowed in lurid pistachio green, a meaty brown pork chop painted as though it were an ancient rock – went against his natural fluency and ease. Criticised by one of his teachers, he is reputed to have retorted, “but wouldn’t you want to be able to draw like me?” Who wouldn’t indeed.
Peploe was always dogged by a dualistic reception: he had been the first of the modern artists in Scotland to be recognised. Among the first ever tranche of purchases by the Scottish Modern Arts Association in 1907 was a masterful little Still Life (1906) that now belongs to the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Even now it is breathtaking in its insouciance, in the confidence of its wet sweep of paint. But it caused a scandal at the time – who on earth, went the criticism, would want a painting of bananas?
Peploe died in 1935. The following year, James Caw, a former director of the National Gallery of Scotland, praised him fulsomely. But back in 1908 the same man had said Peploe was “possessed by a perverse taste for the ugly or bizarre”.
Late in life Peploe returned to his long-standing interest in painting trees. He began painting at Rothiemurchus, finding what he thought was a pristine landscape in the remnants of the Caledonian pine forest. It wasn’t to last. When he returned to a favourite spot and discovered that the footpath had been tarmacked over he vowed not to return.
In the closing stages of the exhibition there is a late painting he made of woodland at Boat of Garten in 1929. It shows a semi-circular stand of Caledonian pine. Ancient and imposing, these fine trees loom over a central, and notably slight, birch.
I don’t think it’s too fanciful to understand this work as an old man reflecting on his role as a Scottish elder statesman, the changing times, and the emergence of new generations of artists. Perhaps it reflects a mature man remembering his own years as an impudent and impatient youth among ancient giants.
But the artist was ever reluctant to play the grand old man in public. As his wife said of him: “He was a wonderful man, my beloved Sam with his great beautiful mind and his innate integrity, and so modest that he was utterly unaware of it all.” What S J Peploe really thought, we will never know. «
• The Scottish Colourist Series: S J Peploe is at Modern Two, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 23 June