Craigie Aitchison


Born: 13 January, 1926, in Edinburgh.

Died 21 December, 2009, in London, aged 83.

CRAIGIE Aitchison was one of the most-exhibited, commercially successful painters and printmakers in Britain. His colourful still-lifes, nudes, portraits, crucifixions and landscapes are immediately recognisable, works that have acquired a cult status and divided critical opinion.

Helen Lessore, who ran London's Beaux Arts Gallery, gave Aitchison three early important shows, from 1959-64. Viewing his work in the mid-1970s, she remarked in the New Statesman on its clarity and force, "as remote and surprising, as poetic and mysterious, as some 15th-century miniatures in a Book of Hours".

By 1981-82, Aitchison merited a first retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery with a tour. In the Spectator, critic John McEwen felt that his paintings "must surely convince anyone still in need of it that he is one of the very best artists at work in this country today", able to "convey more feeling than does the art of almost all his contemporaries".

Yet when in 1989 the Albemarle Gallery showed Aitchison's pictures, the London Evening Standard's Brian Sewell, then Critic of the Year, wrote of this "amiably potty painter's" pictures that "their drawing is so weak, their substance so meagre, their sense of the sitter's character so shallow, that were they by some 15-year-old in a comprehensive school they would not get him through an O-level examination".

In reply, the Royal Academy of Arts' Keeper and painter Norman Adams responded that Aitchison was "not inept, but a subtle draughtsman and a vibrant and dramatic colourist" whose "very positive designs and colour schemes are highly sophisticated and controlled".

John Ronald Craigie Aitchison was born in Edinburgh in 1926 the son of Craigie Mason Aitchison and was baptised by his grandfather, the Reverend James Aitchison, Presbyterian minister at the Erskine Kirk in Falkirk.

By the time Craigie's father died, in 1941, he was Lord Aitchison, Privy Councillor and King's Counsel. In 1929, he became Lord Advocate for Scotland, the first Labour politician thus appointed, Member of Parliament for Kilmarnock, in 1933 becoming Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland.

Craigie's mother was Charlotte Forbes Aitchison, formerly Jones. Her family estate near Stirling contained the Dunmore Pineapple, now run by the Landmark Trust. Craigie's fondness for the bizarre building nourished his lifelong taste for the eccentric and his father's championing of the downtrodden a sympathy with the underdog.

From 1936, Aitchison boarded at Loretto School, Musselburgh, with his elder brother Raymund, in 1941 enrolling with Basil Paterson & Ainslie, tutors, in Edinburgh. When he left in 1943, to mostly average grades, he added a credit in Latin, enabling him to study law. After conscription and immediate discharge on medical grounds, Aitchison went to the University of Edinburgh, until 1946, studying British history and jurisprudence. Legal studies continued in London at the Middle Temple, but in 1948 he failed more examinations than he passed in British history, public international and Roman law.

In court, Aitchison became more interested in the people than in legal niceties. At home, he had been surrounded by the Scottish Colourists' paintings and reproductions of foreign post-impressionists and their lingering influence and visits to art galleries turned him towards a painting career.

In 1950, he converted a mews house in Church Lane, Edinburgh, into a studio, showing mostly still-lifes in an adjacent flower shop. During the next two years in London, he took lessons from artists Adrian Daintrey and Gerhart Frankl while copying works in public galleries, in 1952 paying to join the Slade School of Fine Art.

Although both Victor Pasmore and John Piper tried to dissuade him from continuing, he increased his Slade attendance from three to six days a week. He fell asleep during "boring" art history lectures and declined to enrol for diploma examinations requiring anatomical and perspective studies.

Aitchison found the Slade Professor William Coldstream a sympathetic and "brilliant" teacher. He also learned much from fellow students Myles Murphy, Tony Pacitti, Euan Uglow and especially Victor Willing.

In 1953, he won a Slade prize for his still life Scissors and Pink String.

In maturity, Aitchison dismissed the primitive or naive painter label attached to him as "rubbish". He hoped the viewer would appreciate the formal structure underlying work that was notable for what was omitted, almost abstract with representational allusions.

Aitchison left the Slade in 1954 with an Italian government scholarship permitting a stay in Rome, returning home through Tuscany and Umbria to Venice, Munich, Amsterdam and Brussels. In 1985, he would acquire a substantial property near Siena.

Italy fostered his fascination with religious imagery. After returning for a while to Scotland in 1956, where he painted landscapes at Tulliallan, Clackmannanshire, Aitchison painted his first crucifixion. He would be included in Chichester Cathedral's The Glass of Vision: Seven Artists in a Christian Context, in 1987 and New Icons: Christian Iconography in Contemporary Art, at the Mead Gallery, Coventry, and tour, in 1989.

In 1997, he was commissioned by the Sainsbury Jerusalem Trust to paint Calvary for Liverpool Cathedral, another Calvary in 1998 for Liverpool Cathedral and in 1999 a millennium Christmas stamp for the Royal Mail. Images of Christ was a 1993 Arts Council touring show.

By then, Aitchison was well established as a London-based artist, having settled there in 1963 with his mother Lady Aitchison, who died in 1970. In 1962, he had begun teaching part-time at Chelsea School of Art.

In 1971, he bought the first of his woolly Bedlington terriers, Wayney, from Crufts. They and his canaries became features of his south London house with its distinctive red and blue dustbins, cosy and chintzy wallpapers, memento and curios. The dogs, house and his personal taste for bright colours in clothing and car – a shocking pink and white Triumph Herald – accentuated Aitchison's eccentric reputation.

As an artist, he was taken seriously. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1978, a full member in 1988 and was appointed Commander of the British Empire in 1999.

Aitchison had many successful shows at leading British public and commercial galleries. In recent years these included solo exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Advanced Graphics, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Waddington Galleries in London. Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison was at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, in 1996, with a monograph by Andrew Gibbon Williams, published by Canongate. In Edinburgh, Ingleby Gallery, in 2003, and Eye 2, in 2005, showed paintings and prints.

Arts Council awards and bursaries in 1965 and 1976, a prize at the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition in 1974, the Jerwood Prize in 1994 and the Nordstern Art Prize in 2000 were among his awards. The Arts Council, Tate Gallery, Scottish Arts Council and public galleries in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Perth acquired his work.

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