Art review: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde

Self portrait Robert Colquhoun, c 1941. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Self portrait Robert Colquhoun, c 1941. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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IN THE 1940s and 50s, as wartime insecurity evolved into the Cold War, two Scots were among the leading lights of the art world. A new exhibition tells their story.

The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh


The work of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud sells for millions, but their Scottish friends, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, the Two Roberts, are much less highly valued. All were part of the London art scene in the Forties and Fifties and at the time Colquhoun was recognised as a leader among them. But Bacon and Freud lived to enjoy their celebrity, whereas Colquhoun, aged just 47, died 52 years ago and MacBryde died four years later in 1966. Now, however, The Two Roberts, the first major exhibition devoted to them for many years, demonstrates how Colquhoun was the equal of any of his contemporaries. His art encapsulates the bleak and ominous atmosphere of the wartime and postwar years better even than Bacon’s does. MacBryde’s was a gentler, more poetic talent, but not an insignificant one.


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The two Roberts lived together, almost constantly, from their first days at Glasgow School of Art in 1933 until Colquhoun’s death in 1962. Homosexuality was then proscribed by law and they were not demonstratively gay, nor however did they hide it and a drawing by Colquhoun of the unmade double bed in their student digs is an unambiguous witness to how they lived. Unlike Tracy Emin’s later variation on the theme, however, this bed is also beautifully drawn. It was his teacher’s recognition of Colquhoun’s gift as a draughtsman that diverted him from engineering to art school. He was funded by Sir Alexander Walker, proprietor of Johnnie Walker and with tragic irony alcohol played too large a part in his later life and early death.

The Roberts were already inseparable as students and Ian Fleming, the teacher they were closest to, painted them together in a memorable double portrait. After art school, travels in France and Italy were cut short by the threat of war. Then in 1940 they were called up. MacBryde was declared medically unfit, but Colquhoun was enlisted and went through training, but was discharged as unfit early in 1941. A chance meeting with John Tonge, later to play a role in the careers of Sandy Moffat and John Bellany, brought an introduction in London to millionaire Peter Watson, later also Bacon’s patron, and so prompted the Roberts to move there. They were quickly successful with landscapes like Colquhoun’s Church Lench and MacBryde’s Farmhouse painted in the neo-romantic style of Graham Sutherland and John Piper. In Colquhoun’s The Lock Gate, however, two strange figures, etiolated and out-of-scale, and the threatening shadow of an overhanging tree trunk, introduce a sinister note to a picture otherwise in this genre. After that, Colquhoun really only painted figures. Often these are alone like The Goatherd, or The Performer, and confront us with a strange, withdrawn indifference. Colquhoun also frequently painted figures in pairs, like The Dubliners, or Actors on a Stage. Only rarely did he paint more than two figures in a composition. His paired figures, though together, hardly interact. They also often bear a resemblance to the two Roberts themselves, even when one of them is a woman, as is the case in The Lovers and in The Actors, both from 1947.

The faces of Colquhoun’s figures are powerfully expressive. The Whistle Seller’s, for instance, is like a Greek tragic mask, fixed in anguish. They are often inscrutably fragmented, too, or he makes the paint seem to curl in on itself as though animate, it is avoiding our gaze. This is something that Francis Bacon does, too, but seeing it here in pictures like the Whistle Seller, or in Grieving Women or The Fortune Teller, you wonder if it did not start with Colquhoun. These are all paintings, but some of his most impressive works are monotypes, a kind of rich, single impression print on paper which has some of the qualities of a painting. He uses it to great effect in The Irish Women, for instance, which was also the starting point for The Dubliners.


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Frequently Colquhoun accompanies his figures with an animal with a presence like a witch’s familiar. In The Goatherd, this is a goat. In Seated Woman and Cat it is the cat in the title. In The Whistle Seller, another cat stares at us with dispassionate ferocity. A painting by Jankel Adler very like several of these compositions by Colquhoun was included in a recent show of the two Roberts at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. Adler came to Scotland with the Polish Army. Discharged, he moved to London and took a studio in the same building as them in Notting Hill. Adler knew Picasso and had worked alongside Paul Klee. Included in the Nazi Degenerate Art Show, he was a real modern artist and his impact on the work of both the Roberts was immediate. It was probably from Adler who had learnt it from Klee that Colquhoun learnt the technique of monotype.

Though often close to Colquhoun in figure compositions like The Woman and the Tric-trac Game, or Woman with Paper Flowers, MacBryde’s work is generally less fierce than his friend’s, more carefully organised and so less enigmatic. Favouring still life, his tabletops with fruit and musical instruments are reminiscent of Braque or Juan Gris. Indeed he was nicknamed MacBraque, but his use of flat, bright colour lifts him from imitation to genuine originality.

A good many of the pictures by both artists here are in public collections. Bought when they were painted, they testify to the Roberts’ success during the Forties. Public recognition also brought a commission for the sets and costumes for Leonide Massine’s Scottish themed ballet, Donald of the Burthens, and also for a Stratford production of King Lear. Nevertheless, they began to fall out of fashion. Though they spent several years as unlikely but evidently successful child-minders for a friend in the country, their lives became increasingly chaotic. With little money, too much drink and latterly no fixed abode, perhaps their erratic lives were simply too much for the patience of the respectable grandees – Kenneth Clarke, for instance, was an early patron – whose interest had originally brought them success. There were also periods, when MacBryde kept house when they were child minding, for instance, or when Colquhoun was simply incapacitated by depression, when they simply did not paint.

In 1957, however Colquhoun had renewed success with a retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery for which he painted a series or big, light-toned canvasses of real dramatic power. Circus Woman, withdrawn, fierce, yet human, is just one fine example. With fresh invention, and conscious perhaps of the new fashion for abstraction, the space in the picture is created by simple, intersecting planes of flat colour. Monotypes, however, were his principal output in his last years. Indeed he died at five in the morning working until the last minute on a monotype for an exhibition due shortly to open.

Angst, the anxiety, according to the existentialists, that comes from consciousness of life’s ultimate absurdity, was the prevailing ethos of the war and post-war years as wartime insecurity evolved into the the Cold War. The constant sense of imminent nuclear holocaust only lifted with Cuban Missile Crisis. That came just three weeks after Colquhoun’s death in 1962 and perhaps it was tragically apt. No-one had given such potent or such economical expression to the bleak perspective on the human condition of those years, to their angst indeed. In the largest painting in the show, Figures in a Farmyard, it is the contrast between the withdrawn self-awareness of the figures and the bestial ferocity of the pig that gives the picture such power. Portraying the gulf between simple brute existence and the difficult complexity of human self-consciousness, the picture is an Existentialist masterpiece. In Colquhoun’s last monotypes this same thought is expressed with even greater economy, with austerity even: single figures seem eroded by experience as the windblown sand shapes rocks in the desert.

Until 24 May 2015