Baird to the bone

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IT’S ALWAYS EXCITING TO COME ACROSS a forgotten artist and that is what the current exhibition at the Fleming Collection in London proposes - the rediscovery of Scottish painter Edward Baird.

A native of Montrose, Baird spent most of his life there, dying at the age of 45 in 1949. But he was never lost, exactly. His work has always been familiar through a small number of very striking pictures that seemed to reflect a highly individual vision, but until this exhibition, which brings together almost everything of his that survives, it was difficult to form a picture of the artist who had produced them.

Baird was a close friend of James McIntosh Patrick, a friendship that started when they were at Glasgow School of Art together. One of his best-known works is the Birth of Venus. Painted as a wedding present for his friend and inspired by Botticelli’s famous painting, it shows a naked girl standing on a beach, stretching languorously against the open sea. Unlike the marvellous generalisation of her great Renaissance predecessor, however, she is a curiously precise image, especially considering it was a wedding present and the model was not Patrick’s future bride, but Baird’s own intended, Ann Fairweather. It was typical of Baird’s habitual procrastination and perfectionism that the picture was a year late for the wedding. Indeed, he did not marry his own fiance for another decade. He would not wed until he was in a position to provide for her, and his art never made him rich.

In the picture the naked girl is a real presence in a fantastic scene, for her figure in the middle distance is dwarfed by an assemblage of oversized objects in the foreground: shells and an orchid, erotically feminine in form, a plaster bust, a boat’s rudder and what seem to be a car mirror and a set of filters for theatre lights. What they all mean is unclear, but their presence is unsettling. Like his older contemporary, James Cowie, working at Hospitalfield in nearby Arbroath, Baird seems to have been experimenting with the deliberately disturbing vision of Surrealism.

But the town of Montrose itself, which he clearly loved, is his favourite subject. Another of his familiar pictures, Unidentified Aircraft, shows the town in wartime. In the foreground a group of figures look up at the sky (though, we now learn, they are actually three images of the same person). They are dramatically cut off by the bottom edge of the picture and so it has a strange, surreal tension, though the tension was real too. During the war Montrose was the target of casual German bombing designed to undermine morale. In this picture, and in an earlier painting of Montrose, the town in the background is piled up like an Italian hill town against snowy fields.

Like McIntosh Patrick, Baird was looking back to Brueghel and the Italian Primitives for inspiration. He did this, it seems, with the conscious intention of creating a distinctive and purposeful modern style of Scottish painting. Baird was a nationalist and Blackwood traces his involvement with MacDiarmid and the early Nationalists during the 1930s. In one of his most striking pictures, called Local Defence Volunteer, but begun as a portrait of a Montrose character and poacher James Pumphy Davidson, he seems to include a homage to MacDiarmid. Davidson is sitting against the sky with a shotgun pointing aggressively upwards (he once took a pot shot at a German raider) and in his hatband is a flower that seems to be a Burnet rose, MacDiarmid’s "little white rose of Scotland that smells so sweet it breaks the heart". Hailed as a patriotic image in wartime - on the strength of this Baird became a war artist - the picture still packs a nationalist punch.

There are some other striking portraits in the exhibition and one or two powerful and unfamiliar pictures. Most remarkable is Distressed Area. An empty view of a boat shed on the Esk in the middle of Montrose, it takes its title from a book by G M Thomson, Scotland: That Distressed Area, a critique of government policies in Scotland during the Depression of the 1930s. But pictorially it also seems to take its ominous, threatening atmosphere from Dali. There is also a wonderful, moody view of the landscape of the Mearns, painted at the end of Baird’s brief life; but, on the whole, the impression from this exhibition is that there is not a great deal more to discover than we already know.

Those few striking, familiar pictures really are a fair summary of Baird’s career. There is a slight tendency in the show to discover more than is really there and to claim that Baird really stood apart from his contemporaries. In a lovely portrait drawing of Ann Fairweather, for instance, the word Ingres appears upside down behind her head.

The commentary offers some wise thoughts on the significance of this as Baird’s homage to the great neoclassical master, but the drawing is on Ingres paper and the word is the watermark in the paper. Baird does not need such over-interpretation. His pictures, though so few, stand on their own.

• Portrait of a Young Scotsman: Edward Baird, 1904-1949, is at the Fleming Collection, 13 Berkeley Street, London W1, until 12 June,