Art critic, writer and artist
Born: 24 April, 1923, in Glasgow.
Died: 1 December, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 86.
THE death of Cordelia Oliver (ne Patrick) represents a great loss to Scotland's cultural and intellectual life. Over the decades since the end of the Second World War, Oliver's has been a strong, eloquent and forthright voice, commenting without fear or favour on the visual and theatrical arts. She was also a talented, trained professional artist who exhibited with the Royal Scottish Academy and the Society of Scottish Artists as well as a prolific author of books and a contributor to numerous magazines and journals.
Oliver attended Hutcheson's Grammar School in Glasgow before enrolling, in 1940, at Glasgow School of Art. Her decision to train as a visual artist surprised and disappointed the teaching staff at her school, for Oliver was equally talented as a wordsmith and lover of literature. In recent months Oliver has been in close contact with her alma mater over her intention to gift some of her extensive art collection to the art school and to curate an exhibition there.
Writing in the magazine Artwork shortly before her death, Oliver recounted some of her memories of life as an art student during the war years. She wrote: "In the early war years the school had begun to shrink in numbers, staff as well as students being called up for war service. So we juniors could recognise and name most of the older students since we all ate in the same refectory.
"Even in the early war years the school was greatly enlivened by the occasional presence of conscripted former students on leave. And there remained one or two individuals who for one reason or another had never been 'called up,' two of whom, Davy Donaldson and John Miller, became familiar figures around the place before eventually sliding into permanent staff appointments."
The article is written in Oliver's trademark style, which usually placed herself and her opinion firmly at the centre of the piece. Her writing, not without humour, was also informed by personal experience, careful consideration and, often, strong emotion.
As well as being a regular contributor to Artwork, Oliver also wrote for the Scots Magazine, Plays and Players, Plays International and the Herald. For 25 years from the early 1960s, she was also the Guardian's chief art and theatre critic in Scotland. It was in this capacity that, in parallel with the development of her own career, she was also in a position greatly to help and enhance the careers of others. This she did in respect of the arts impresario Richard Demarco, supporting him and Jim Haynes in the early days of the Traverse Theatre, where, in her capacity as art critic with the then Manchester Guardian, she reviewed several early exhibitions.
At certain junctures Oliver's career was intertwined with Demarco's and she offered generous but not uncritical support to the young entrepreneur's burgeoning and increasingly ambitious activities. This helpful stance reached its apogee when, along with her late husband, the photographer George Oliver, she covered Demarco's seminal exhibition, the palindromically titled Strategy: Get Arts, in 1970.
The exhibition showcased the work of numerous artists based in and around Dsseldorf, much of which was being exhibited in the UK for the first time. The artists included Daniel Spoerri, Blinky Palermo, Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. Oliver's coverage in the Guardian was perceptive, generous and open and in particular opened the eyes of the English-speaking world to the genius of Beuys.
Oliver continued to support Demarco's activities and in the following year accompanied him to Romania on one of his famous "arts expeditions", where the work of various artists such as Horea Bernea, Ion Bitzan and Paul Neagu was chosen for an Edinburgh exhibition with accompanying catalogue text by Oliver.
Another Demarco-related event which left a deep impression and substantially changed Oliver's outlook on theatre was a trip she made to Paris in May 1973 to see her first production by Tadeusz Kantor's Cricot 2 theatre company.
Oliver was deeply supportive of Scotland's female artists and one can only suppose part of the reason for this was her perception of the inherent sexism in art colleges and in institutions such as the RSA, which favoured less talented male artists over their female counterparts.
Oliver formed long and enduring friendships with many women artists such as Margot Sandeman, Joan Eardley and the talented embroiderer and teacher Kathleen Mann. Her book on Eardley, published in 1987, is recognised as an important contribution to the still rather limited corpus of criticism about the painter's work.
Oliver's subsequent championing of Eardley's work in magazines and journals is a testimony to her determination to gain proper recognition for her former friend's genius.
In her writing about Eardley, her prose reaches a height of perspicacity and insight rarely achieved by her elsewhere, as in an article published in Artwork in 2007, in which she wrote: "Some of Eardley's finest paintings were made in those last seasons before her death in 1963. Whereas the seascapes demanded boards seven or eight feet in length, the cornfield paintings are contained within smaller, usually squarer limits, although they, too, are painted with a manifest freedom and urgency.
"What they offer is an amazingly precise vision of the scene but with an additional insight into other sensations aroused by the experience – the scent of wildflowers, the hum of bees and other insects, the angry roar of the sea and the silence of a snowbound village."
Her championing of Eardley led, in 1989, to a major exhibition of the artist's work at The University of Edinburgh's Talbot Rice Gallery. In her capacity as a curator and enthusiast, Oliver was also instrumental in organising and co-ordinating exhibitions by some of Scotland's leading artists, including Bet Low, Philip Reeves, Pat Douthwaite, Jessie M King and Winifred Nicolson.
Oliver was an energetic supporter of all the arts and was highly active as an audience member, as well as a critic, enjoying, equally, dance, theatre, music and the visual arts. She was never circumspect about voicing her often controversial opinion on a wide variety of arts-related issues. Her views on Glasgow's Tramway (which was near her home) were aired with passion and intelligence.
Oliver remained active and engaged towards the very end of her life, attending exhibition openings and other events, despite her increasing frailty. The last of these was the preview, at the end of November, of Ian McCulloch's exhibition at Glasgow's Collins Gallery, where her support for the artist and his work was abundantly manifest.