Unseen John Bellany artwork showcases ‘admiration’ for WWI nurses

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THE widow of celebrated Scottish artist John Bellany says his “admiration and thanksgiving” for the nursing profession helped inspire him to create a body of work dedicated to the women who treated soldiers on the frontline during the First World War.

Previously unseen paintings and drawings by Bellany, dedicated to those who served in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, are on display at the Scottish Parliament building.

One of the John Bellany paintings on display at the Scottish Parliament

One of the John Bellany paintings on display at the Scottish Parliament

The family of the late East Lothian artist, who passed away in August 2013, has agreed to the loan to Holyrood of a series of works exploring the subject of war, field hospitals, nursing and the experiences of the injured soldiers.

Bellany, who was dogged by health problems for much of his life, created four paintings and 14 drawings inspired by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and and the Edinburgh doctor who founded them, Elsie Inglis, during 2008, but they were never shown.

Inglis led the creation of 14 medical units largely staffed by 1500 women across Europe after an offer of help to Britain’s allies was rebuffed by the War Office, who famously told her: “Go home and sit still.”

The exhibition, which is at Holyrood until 16 April, also deploys archive photographs, film footage and objects on loan from public and private collections to tell the story of the hospitals, which provided nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks and orderlies.

One of the paintings by John Bellany on display at the parliament building

One of the paintings by John Bellany on display at the parliament building

Bellany, who studied at Edinburgh College of Art, became one of Scotland’s leading contemporary artists and was well-known for landscapes and harbour scenes inspired by his native Port Seton. He created some of his most famous work in hospital after a liver transplant in 1988, including portraits of himself, his doctors and his nurses.

Helen Bellany, who opened the exhibition, said her husband he been “overcome with admiration” for the work of Elsie Inglis and the “extraordinary women” who worked in her hospitals after he became aware of their contribution in his final years.

READ MORE: Painter John Bellany’s life remembered in song

She added: “What he saw was sheer courage, commitment, exhaustion in the relentless effort to give that vital comfort and hope and compassion to the desperately ill and dying.

“He was moved to produce a body of work in celebration of those remarkable women and to express the admiration and thanksgiving he himself owed to the nursing profession, and also to express what he knew a whole generation of doomed young men would have felt for the care and comfort they had been given by those nurses at the lowest point of their lives.

“When were young, we weren’t told about any of this. We were told about the First World War, but we didn’t really know about the depths of the suffering and the futility of war. We certainly knew nothing about the Scottish nurses.

“When he discovered them he was totally driven to produce this tribute to women who were phenomenal in their courage and their strength.

“He came very near to death several times. He worked a lot in hospital, he never really stopped. It was like breathing to him. He felt as long as he could draw he was alive. When he couldn’t he was almost sure he was dead.

“This work was all done five years before John died and it was just put aside and nothing happened to it. He’d be so proud to see his work hanging here in the parliament, because it was an issue he was totally inspired by.”

Holyrood’s presiding officer Tricia Marwick said: “We can only imagine the difficulties that the brave women who volunteered to work in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals must have faced on a daily basis. They were at the front during some of the most bloody and brutal campaigns of the First World War.”