Exhibition review: The Scottish Colourist Series: SJ Peploe

Assistant curator Rachel Smith passes Peploe's The Coffee Pot (c 1905) Picture: Neil Hanna
Assistant curator Rachel Smith passes Peploe's The Coffee Pot (c 1905) Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE SNGMA’s wonderful show of SJ Peploe’s work does justice to the Colourist, mainly known for masterly still-lifes, and proves that despite Continental influences he was a great painter in his own right

The Scottish Colourist Series: SJ Peploe

Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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I was taught that all art came from France. In British art, even Turner and Constable were only any good in so far as they heralded Impressionism. To talk about Scottish art was simply risible. It didn’t exist. That has all changed, I am glad to say.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has embarked on a series of major exhibitions celebrating the Colourists, four Scottish modern masters. We have had Francis Cadell. Now it is Sanuel Peploe’s turn. John Duncan Fergusson is to come. Leslie Hunter was at the City Art Centre this summer and Fergusson was also subject of a major show at the Hunterian last year.

All four artists might appear to fit very neatly into that cliché about French art, and for a long time they were simply explained as kind of provincial backwash to what was happening in France early last century. What the shows so far have demonstrated, however, is that while French art is part of the equation, it is not the whole story. The reason why they were so good and indeed clearly outshone their English contemporaries was talent first of all, but it was also the self-belief that came from the knowledge that as Scottish painters they needed to defer to no-one. They could take what the world offered, learn from it, and make it their own, not as imitators, but as equals.

This wonderful Peploe show demonstrates this very clearly. It also redeems him from cliché. He painted a lot of still-lifes with flowers. They turn up regularly, usually looking cramped in the small and unattractive frames that his dealers favoured, and it is easy to suppose that after the brilliance of his early work, these still-lifes were all he ever did; that he lost his nerve and settled back to supply the market, outshone in modernity by Fergusson and by Cadell in freedom and brilliance. This show puts that right. He was a great and very individual painter.

Born in 1871, Peploe was the oldest of the four Colourists and was a mature and self-confident artist before the end of the 19th century. He was by all accounts a modest, even shy individual, but his painting shows the assurance of a man who knew his own mind. He also had a real gift for friendship as his close relationship with both Fergusson and Cadell – and indeed with his biographer Stanley Cursiter – makes clear.

Peploe was successful. He held his first one-man show in 1903. It was a success and he continued to sell his work without too much difficulty until his death in 1935. He also earned critical recognition in his lifetime and was regarded as the leader of the Colourists, not only by the wider public, but also by the other three painters. The dealer McNeill Reid recommended to Leslie Hunter, for instance, that if he wanted an opinion he could trust he should submit his work to Peploe’s criticism.

If you see the occasional painting by Peploe, you get the impression of a certain variety, but perhaps a lack of direction. Seeing it laid out as you do here, however, you see instead a thoughtful progression; a clear reluctance to stand still matched by an ability to reinvent himself, losing nothing in the essential seriousness of his work as he does so. Thus, learning from Édouard Manet and Frans Hals, he began with darkly painted fluid portraits of people like Old Tom Morris. Then working on a small scale in Barra he captured the very sensations of sun and wind. In Windy Day, Barra, for instance, where the surface seems to be broken up by the whipping wind, he is certainly learning from William McTaggart. But it was Manet again who then turned him to still life. It was to become one of the principal vehicles of his art and, in turn, through him of Scottish art more widely. The still-lifes Peploe painted in the first years of the last century would have been enough for most people. They are brilliant, lusciously painted and astonishingly fluent, yet he never puts a brush stroke wrong. Nor did this sureness of touch ever desert him. In 1905 he took Raeburn’s studio in York Place. The pictures he painted there are spontaneous and full of light. The White Dress, for instance, is a masterly account of the summariness of our vision. Raeburn would have recognised his successor.

Then Peploe joined Fergusson in Paris. There he added to his own mature vocabulary the new freedom of colour offered by the Fauves. The result is a series of vivid paintings in a high colour key such as those he painted at Royan in 1910, or the frankly Fauve portrait of his wife Margaret with a bright green shadow on her face. He learned from the Cubists too. A still life with flowers and fruit is built up from faceted blocks of colour with complete assurance. Equally important to him, however, were major exhibitions of Cézanne in 1907 and of Van Gogh in 1909.

One still-life from this time, for instance, is a blaze of colour, setting pink, yellow and red flowers against a yellow ground painted with Van Gogh’s energetic rhythm. Perhaps most startling, however, are pictures that Peploe painted bringing this cubist approach to the landscape of the Highlands. There is logic here still, however, as he absorbs the fragmented Cubist structure into his own approach to composition. What followed in the years after the war was a series of truly grand still-lifes. Cézanne is clearly his inspiration as he arranges fruit, jugs, crocks, and in one case a plaster torso of Venus against carefully crumpled cloths.

He learns from Cézanne, certainly, but he does not merely imitate him. Rather he reaches by his own route the fundamental achievement of Cézanne: to find stability in the flux of experience without any diminution of its energy. Leaving his surfaces unvarnished, and indeed painting on an absorbent ground, Peploe also maximises the effect of the saturated colours that he uses. Oranges in a white bowl or pink tulips snaking across a red ground sing out in the architecture of his painting like choristers in a cathedral. As the two men worked side by side in the 1920s, Cadell made this musical analogy explicit and the dialogue between the two painters was close and constant. Later, however, Peploe reduced his colour and simplified his compositions to paint white lilies, or such homely objects as a brown teapot, or a loaf of bread in a series of still lifes that are more restrained, but in which he achieves a monumental sense of the materiality of things akin to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Peploe’s landscapes developed alongside his still-life. He painted in the South of France and in various places around Scotland, but especially on Iona, side-by-side with Cadell. He set the architecture of rocks and mountains against the vivid blue of the sea and found his own equivalent to Cézanne’s Mt St Victoire in the peak of Ben More visible across the Sound of Mull, and returned to it again and again. In his latest work, in a picture of trees at Boat of Garten, for instance, the shadows deepen, while in Blue Day, Iona, a painting of his favourite view of Ben More, there is a kind of turbulence and a new, more sombre expressive power. He was reinventing himself even at the end and as he did so, he was opening the way for a younger generation of Scottish artists.

It is not that all art comes from France, as I was once taught, but all great art comes from dialogue, dialogue between peers, no matter where they may be, and across the generations.

• Until 23 June 2013