Drawing room: Tim Cornwell on the trail of artist FCB Cadell

Scotsman writer Tim Cornwell in the drawing room of his home on Oxford Terrace, Edinburgh, where the Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell once lived.
Scotsman writer Tim Cornwell in the drawing room of his home on Oxford Terrace, Edinburgh, where the Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell once lived.
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When Tim Cornwell, The Scotsman’s arts correspondent, began researching the life of Scottish colourist FCB Cadell, the last thing he expected was the trail to lead to his house

Last night, in the tiled hall, I smelled tobacco smoke. It was probably a visitor to the upstairs neighbour, popping out for a cigarette. Or maybe it was Bunty, with his pipe, as ever, jammed jauntily between his teeth. I’m writing this article in the drawing room of the Edinburgh townhouse where the painter FCB Cadell, known to his friends as Bunty, lived on and off in the years up to and during the First World War. This four-storey, early 19th-century building on the fringes of the New Town was the home of his close friend Mrs William Wood. It also happens to be my home, the flat that my wife and I bought ten years ago, before I’d ever heard of Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, or the Scottish Colourists.

Cadell painted the residents of this house on Oxford Terrace, just across the Dean Bridge. You can imagine him upstairs, a pad on his lap, or at an easel – a teacher once complained that to put a pencil in young Bunty Cadell’s hand was “dangerous to lessons”. If a conservationist stripped back the wallpaper, or tested the paint of the front door, they might find other traces; Cadell had the habit of painting the front doors of his houses in outrageous colours, and left behind an impromptu mural or two.

As The Scotsman’s arts correspondent, I’ve written about the Colourists for many years, including FCB “Bunty” Cadell, who lived from 1883 to 1937. In 2007, for example, The Scotsman published my story about Miss Bertia Don Wauchope, the society spinster who posed for Cadell for more than 15 years, often in a black hat, after meeting him in 1911. And two years ago a chance meeting with his oldest living relative piqued my interest further. The fact that his mother wrote from Paris for The Scotsman was among the fascinating details I learned. For a few months I followed Cadell’s trail – only to discover that it led back to my own house.

Cadell, a consummately Edinburgh painter, lived at several addresses in the city; mostly in the New Town, and progressively less salubrious as his finances failed. Oxford Terrace was not known to be among them. But it was to here, I found, that his call-up papers for the First World War were addressed, and it was here, probably, that he grieved for his close friend Ivar Campbell, who was killed in Mesopotamia in early 1916. That information inspired another search, in which Campbell emerged as a more important figure in Cadell’s life than was previously thought, as a poet, writer, and companion to the painter, at a pivotal point in his career.

Today, the National Galleries of Scotland open the first public exhibition devoted to Cadell in 70 years. There are 80 pictures, with exhibits that run from gifted early drawings to favourites such as his interior The Orange Blind (on our cover), or his beach views of Iona.

The Scottish Colourist painters – the term was coined for a 1948 exhibition – were first shown together at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris, in 1924, in a show called Les Peintres de l’Écosse Moderne. They were: Samuel John Peploe, the Edinburgh father of four, and painter of beachscapes and still-lives; John Duncan Fergusson, Paris-based, with an open marriage to a dancer, and best known for his curvaceous 1930s figures and nudes; and George Leslie Hunter, a manic depressive, who was wildly unpredictable in life and art, and subsequently the easiest to fake. He ran off to Berlin with a prostitute, and died after drinking a glass of turps.

And then there was FCB Cadell, remembered in that Edinburgh way as “the gay Colourist”. A bon vivant in a buttoned-down city, he lived with his “loyal manservant” Charles Oliver, wink-wink. He was a kilted dandy who loved hob-nobbing with dukes, and whose witticisms were widely quoted. In Who’s Who his recreations are described as “bed and billiards”.

His signature paintings remain his Iona beachscapes and Edinburgh interiors, regularly featuring “society beauties” as models, seated, and often wearing hats. But he first came to serious attention with shimmering and colourful impressionistic paintings of Venice, in a kind of brighter, dabbier, Scottish version of Monet. His Venice exhibition in Edinburgh, after a patron paid for a visit there in 1910, was a watershed moment in his popularity. It was one of these works, of Florian’s Café in St Mark’s Square, that sold last year for £553,250, his highest price by far.

After the First World War his style shifted towards clear, cold lines, with black, red, and orange interiors, although he continued to produce the popular Iona paintings. His sales slumped amid the recession; he could sell a painting for £30-£40 on a good day, but there weren’t many of them, and close to the end of his life he offered them for £10, framed. He died in penury at 54. Today his paintings can sell for up to £250,000.

So was he a great artist? Enthusiasts rate him as the best of the Colourists. The contemporary art scene might dismiss him as pretty, or facile. But his personal story is captivating. He was the society painter whose journey through early 20th-century Scotland took him from drawing rooms to stately homes, to serving with the Royal Scots and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He touched a lot of Edinburgh lives and places, living in four or five well-known streets, and to this day people debate how his name is pronounced (it’s “Caddle”). His homosexuality, his life through war and recession, and his uneven swings from the high life to increasing poverty and an early death from cancer and cirrhosis of the liver give an undercurrent of tragedy to the ever entertaining Bunty.

Imet Gill Cadell, 89, a former actress, who married Cadell’s nephew John in 1955. He had died, but she told me he had memories of when he was a schoolboy of staying with his uncle both in Edinburgh and Iona. He recalled an alarming domestic row between Cadell and Charles Oliver during which Oliver threatened to jump off the pier; Cadell handed him sixpence to pay at the gate.

The mystery of what happened to Oliver, after Cadell’s death in 1937, when he left the bulk of his small estate – including untold numbers of paintings – to his “most faithful friend” remains.

Gill’s second revelation concerned letters she had seen between Cadell and a fellow officer in the First World War, that seemed to be either missing, or suppressed. “It was a brother officer, writing to Bunty, it was so moving, because it was sort of saying we had to leave all this behind us and get back to the real world,” she said. “It was perfectly clear what he was talking about.”

My passion as an arts journalist, rather than a historian or critic, is often the provenance and personal stories of pictures and their painters, as much as the art itself. This sounded like something out of Pat Barker’s massively popular Regeneration trilogy, where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – soldiers and poets, and in Sassoon’s case indisputably homosexual – meet at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

Gill’s son Patrick looks after the family archive and a tin chest revealed treasures including a bundle of papers tied together with string. There was a short obituary, cut from the Times, of Lieutenant Ivar Campbell, killed fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia in 1916. “Ivar possessed the traditional Campbell beauty at its best, and carried it with real unconsciousness,” it begins. “With outward beauty went a very beautiful soul.”

Wrapped up with it was a rough piece of paper covered in lines of scrawled French, blotted with what might have been tears. Then there was a poem, Mancallan No More, in what looked like Bunty’s hand. “Wail piteously by loch and fen ... skirl pipes by every butt and ben ...,” it began. Bunty often penned comic doggerel, but this was different. The poem was on writing paper and the letterhead was my own address.

Ivar Campbell was seven years younger than Cadell, and related to him through the Campbell side of Bunty’s family. A grandson of the Duke of Argyll, born in 1890, he spent much of his time at Inveraray Castle where Bunty often joined him. Ivar bought paintings at Bunty’s exhibitions, and they went to Iona, then owned by the Duke of Argyll, together.

Educated at Eton and Oxford, he served briefly in the British Embassy in Washington. By all accounts a dreamy young man, he later opened a bookshop in London under an assumed name, and had poetry published in Country Life. Not born for the military, he nonetheless passed his medical for the family regiment. He served on the Western Front, becoming a trench sniper who killed with relish, writing home for a rifle with a telescopic sight. Bunty and other friends saw him off in Edinburgh before he sailed to Basra. When the British attacked a strong Turkish front Ivar, “while gallantly leading his men”, was wounded, and died. He was buried in a concealed grave by the Tigris.

Ivar was also a poet. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum in Stirling has three books, of poetry, prose and war letters privately published shortly after his death. In the frontispiece of the book of verse is an accomplished sketch of a fine-featured young man smoking a pipe, signed by Cadell. One poem, titled Venice, was dedicated to FCBC, among several from the city. “There is no sound along thy dark canals, save once a speeding gondola, the plash of speeding oars,” it began. It was published in Country Life in 1910.

The flowering of Cadell’s art, in Venice, had come in Ivar’s company. Another dreamy poem, St Mark’s Day, Venice, concluded: “And so our love shall be, not sensual, As flesh to flesh, but chaste and mystical: Soul to sweet loving soul in God’s embrace.” The little bundle of papers included black-edged letters to Cadell from friends and family, speaking of his loss and theirs. Ivar’s mourning mother, Lady George Campbell, still getting letters from the front from her dead son, wrote asking to buy Bunty’s portrait of him, and offered Bunty a photograph of Ivar in uniform; he would visit her after the war. His sister wrote that one room in her new London house “is filled with those drawings of yours which used to be Ivar’s and it has been christened ‘the Bunty room’,” offering it as a place to say.

In June 1916, aged 33, Cadell enrolled in the Royal Scots. He had had health problems, including smoker’s lung, but went to a farm in Ayrshire to get fit. “You are in a lonely furrow now, but whether it is yours to bear arms, or not, you are right to make yourself fit,” wrote another mourning member of the Argyll clan. The war saw him produce his popular “Jock and Tommy” cartoony sketches of soldiers.

In his first period at the front, Cadell wrote jaunty letters, with one joking that he was going to bathe in vin ordinaire, as no water was available, and that washing with wine was the best cure for trench foot. “Thanks awfully for the parcel,” he wrote to Ivar’s mother. “Socks awfully useful and ornamental, and food exceedingly welcome in this place – the abomination of desolation.” The nature of his war service is still a puzzle; he joined late, and moved between regiments and ranks, was wounded, but seemed to treat the whole experience as a jolly jape; although perhaps such merry chatter was for Lady George Campbell’s consumption.

Some of Cadell’s correspondence, and his mother’s Scotsman columns, will be shown as part of the new exhibition, along with a piece of mud-spattered material and a button from that sad little bundle of papers. In the weeks before today’s opening, the connections between the painter and my home only grew. With the help of the exhibition’s curator, Alice Strang, I located papers confirming that Cadell painted Mrs William Wood – though the whereabouts of the painting are unknown. It emerged that the Perth Museum and Art Gallery has a portrait of Mrs Wood’s sister-in-law, Gracie Chalmers Wood, dated 1911. She also lived at my address, and Cadell called her his cousin. He came to this family for comfort, it emerges, after a second, grievous loss, of his dear friend SJ Peploe, as late as 1935, two years before his death.

So perhaps I am not mistaken in imagining that something of his presence remains at Oxford Terrace. The scent of tobacco smoke lingers.

• The Scottish Colourist Series: FCB Cadell, today until 18 March 2012, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Modern Two, opening hours 10am-5pm daily, £7 (£5), tel: 0131-624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org