W Gordon Smith Award winner Robbie Bushe pays tribute

Robbie Bushe with his winning painting. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Robbie Bushe with his winning painting. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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ARTIST Robbie Bushe, who was this week named inaugural winner of the W Gordon Smith Award, has paid tribute to the late art critic, who wrote an encouraging review of his first exhibition in the early 1990s.

Bushe, 51, a lecturer who co-ordinates the short courses programme at Edinburgh College of Art, was named winner of the £10,000 top prize for his remarkable painting, The Admissions Gate.

The two runners-up, who each receive £2,500, are landscape painter Calum McClure, a past winner of the Jolomo Award, and Samatha Wilson, a recent graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. The winners were annouced by actress Maureen Beattie at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios on Monday, where the exhibition of work by the 50 artists shortlisted for the prize runs until the end of January.

The awards were launched last year in memory of W Gordon Smith, a celebrated playwright, film-maker and Scotland on Sunday’s art critic, who died in 1996, by his widow Jay Gordonsmith and friends.

When Robbie Bushe learned he had won the prize, he immediately dug out the newspaper cuttings of reviews by Smith of his work in the 1990s. He said: “He wrote a wonderful review of my first exhibition as a postgraduate student in 1990, and wrote again about my shows at the Scottish Gallery in 1992 and 1994.

“The 1994 review was slightly more critical, but in a nice way. He was saying I should move on and move away from my student work. It was quite an important dialogue for me, although I never met him. That was one of the reasons I sent in an entry for the competition as soon as I heard about it, I had such an affinity with what he said.”

Smith marked out Bushe as “one to watch” when writing about his exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in 1992 for Scotland on Sunday. He said: “He has wit, can draw, his figurative style has original flair, and there are pleasing harmonies in his subfusc palette. One to watch I think.”

Bushe, whose artist father Fred Bushe founded the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in the Aberdeenshire village of Lumsden, said he enjoyed initial success when he graduated from Edinburgh College of Art at the end of the 1980s.

“I sold quite well, and exhibited in London, but when the economy collapsed in the early 1990s, my work stopped selling, and I moved into teaching,” he said.

He lectured in art at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, in Chichester and at Oxford Brookes University, but has spent recent years rebuilding his painting practice. “I used to be known as a domestic figurative painter, but recently I’ve been developing slightly more esoteric, symbolic work. This is a wonderful vindication that I’m on the right track.”

It also emerged, after the winners had been chosen, that runner-up Calum McClure also has a connection to W Gordon Smith: Smith made a film in the 1970s about his grandfather, the artist David McClure, for the BBC Arts series Scope.

Robin McClure, Calum’s father and ex-director of painting at the Scottish Gallery, remembers meeting him then. “Part of the film was an interview with my dad, and part was filmed in his studio, looking at paintings. I remember coming home from school and finding the house full of cables and cameras. That was my first encounter with Gordon.

“I knew him later, when I worked at the Scottish Gallery, when he used to come in every month to see the exhibitions. He felt that his place was to celebrate and discover exhibitions that he enjoyed. He felt it was a waste of his time to go knocking things.

“He reviewed work by established artists and younger artists having their first exhibition. He was immensely encouraging to a lot of people, particularly younger artists.”

Sandy Moffat, a judge and a friend of Smith’s, said of the shortlist: “I’m sure Gordon would have endorsed the diversity of the work we’ve chosen. Hopefully all 50 artists on the shortlist will be given a step up, encouragement to keep going, that’s what artists really need.”