Art reviews: James Cowie | Stuart Franklin

TO ADAPT a famous headline about a small earthquake in Chile: “2013, obscure artist’s bicentenary, few celebrate.”

James Cowie (1886-1956)


Stuart Franklin: Photography


Bourne Fine Art, Edinburgh

The obscure artist is Patrick Allan-Fraser, born in Arbroath in 1813. Christened simply Patrick Allan, he studied art in Edinburgh and went on to study in Rome and Paris. As a painter, however, he left little mark, so, as we hardly noticed either Raeburn’s two 250th anniversary in 2006, or the centenary of McTaggart’s death in 2010, why should we remember him?

The answer is that though he did not lack talent, fate decreed that while he had a considerable influence on Scottish art, it was not by his painting. In 1841, he returned to the town of his birth to work on illustrations for Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary. The story is generally thought to be set in Arbroath and Monksbarns, house of the eponymous antiquary, identified with Hospitalfield House on the edge of the town and home of the Fraser family.

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Thus Patrick Allan met Elizabeth Fraser, heir to the house and its estate. In 1843 they were married and he added her name to his own. Together they built up a library and a collection of the work of the artists who were Allan’s friends and contemporaries, Scots like Robert Scott Lauder and John Philip, but also English artists like William Powell Frith.

The couple also developed their house as a remarkable essay in Scots Baronial. They were however childless and, having no heir, decided that the house with its estate and contents should be left for the benefit of young Scottish artists. It was a joint decision, but as she died in 1873 and he lived on till 1890, rather unfairly he tends to get the credit.

The institution established by their bequest has had a slightly chequered history, but for much of the past century it was administered by the four Scottish art schools as a summer school for their graduate students. An artist was appointed as warden and resident teacher and was supplemented in the summer by other visiting artists. Under this regime, for a long time practically every Scottish artist who went on to any distinction, and some who didn’t, spent a happy and fruitful time there. By mixing together the graduates of the different art schools and forming friendships between alumni, these summers at Hospitalfield also gave a kind of social cohesion to the Scottish artistic community that it might not otherwise have had.

One of the most influential resident teachers at Hospitalfield was James Cowie, warden from 1937 to 1948. He succeeded the English sculptor Frank Dobson and was succeeded in turn by Ian Fleming, so he was not alone as a distinguished holder of the office. He did, however, have a distinctive influence on those he taught. The two Roberts, Colquhoun and McBryde, and Joan Eardley were among those who attended the school during his time and on whose work, he left his mark.

Cowie himself is now the subject of a small but intriguing exhibition at Bourne Fine Art and one of the most interesting pictures in the exhibition, Studio Interior, is in fact a remarkable glimpse of life in the studio at Hospitalfield. Two women students are working at easels, one standing, the other seated on a stool. A third girl is posing for them and for a man standing painting at the left who is most likely Cowie himself. You can’t see what he is painting, but beyond him on the wall are what seem to be large copies of a rather sexy Modigliani nude, reversed, and a dancing maenad. Cowie is present in another sense too. One of his most ambitious compositions, The Evening Star, is half visible on an easel to the right, and on a turntable in the foreground is the figure of a dancing faun that appears in several of his paintings.

But almost dead-centre the sly focus of this painting is the generous curve of the bottom of the girl seated on a stool. Wearing yellow and with her back to us she dominates the composition. The curve of her bottom echoes that of the dancing maenad on the wall behind and is picked up again in a set of abstract curves drawn on a blackboard leaning against the podium on which the model is seated. The suggestion that the girl with the ample bottom is actually Joan Eardley adds piquancy to this fascinating picture.

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Cowie was a superb draughtsman, but there was nothing suave or facile about his drawing. As it is seen here in several figure studies and in a beautiful watercolour of a jug and bowl, it is fluent, elegant even. And in his portrait studies it also penetrates to the essence of his subject with uncompromising rigour. There is a drawing of a young girl with dark, curly hair brushed outwards in tight waves. Looking up at us with an intense gaze, she is wearing a jacket, summarily indicated by a few lines. Beneath it, visible at her neck, is a boldly patterned round-necked jumper and the edge of the collar of a spotted shirt. The rhythms of the pattern in the jumper echo the extraordinary rhythms in her hair which are echoed again in the outline of her strongly drawn mouth. The background is sketched in and the drawing is essentially just hair, face and a patch of patterned shirt. The effect is startling, surreal almost in its intensity, but it is achieved entirely by the combination of the vigour of the artist’s drawing with his unbending sense of the right of the person in front of him to be recorded in all their irreducible individuality. (Joan Eardley followed him in this.) This drawing was exhibited in 1932 and the unnamed girl was probably a pupil at Bellshill School near Glasgow where Cowie taught during the early 1930s. The school’s pupils figure in several of his most memorable pictures.

Contrary to the contemporary fashion for spontaneity and improvisation, Cowie thought that a serious painting should be built up from studies reflecting a long process of thought. One consequence of this approach is that he completed relatively few major paintings, but left correspondingly a lot of drawings many of which can be associated with finished pictures.

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One of the most striking works here, for instance, is a pastel portrait of an adolescent girl wearing a red jacket and a blue woolen scarf. Here, as in the drawing of the girl with wavy hair, rather than idealise his sitter, he pays her the greater compliment of recording what makes her individual. She has a distinctive long face and bears some resemblance to one of the girls in Cowie’s painting Falling Leaves. She is also framed by leaves, which also suggest that the pastel may be a study for the painting. Cowie’s Falling Leaves is a wistfully beautiful picture about the transience of youth. Its inspiration in Millais’s painting Autumn Leaves is graciously acknowledged in a woodcut of leaves and a book with its pages open at a reproduction of Millais’s painting.

Also at Bourne Fine Art Stuart Franklin’s photographs are a superb tribute to the Scottish and Norwegian landscapes, linking them visually. Most of his pictures are of rocks, snow and bare trees in wintry black and white, but there are also several larger pictures of the machair on Coll and Oronsay that glow with summer colour. Franklin is a Magnum photographer who has worked all over the world. It was he who took the picture of a man defying a tank near Tiananmen Square. One of the defining images of the late 20th century, it is clear from the superb quality of these landscapes that it was no fluke.
• Both show continue until 18 May