John Bellany: The resurrection man

Artist John Bellany at his studio and home in Saffron Walden, Essex. Picture Robert Perry
Artist John Bellany at his studio and home in Saffron Walden, Essex. Picture Robert Perry
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LIVER failure. pneumonia. a major heart attack on the way to an exhibition. artist john bellany has seen them all off to celebrate his 70th birthday and a major retrospective of his work

The sign on the door to John Bellany’s studio reads: “I love Grandad”. A child’s handwriting, every letter a different colour. Behind it, one of Scotland’s most revered living artists is putting on his shoes – nice, tan suede ones bought on his recent stay in Italy. Physically frail he may be, but John Bellany has no intention of meeting his guests improperly shod.

Bellany has been always a big presence, broodingly intense or boomingly ebullient depending on his mood. At 70, and fighting a formidable list of health problems, he is diminished but determined. Pain from a lingering bout of shingles carves lines into his face, but his handshake is firm, his expression resolute.

His family are watchful. His wife, Helen stands by his chair, a protective hand on his shoulder. His son, Paul, hovers in the background. All three of his children (with his eight grandchildren) live within a few minutes’ drive of the Bellanys’ home near Saffron Walden, Essex. There is a lot of love around. This is a family which has been to the brink, and come back closer.

The studio is a revelation. One might have thought that Bellany’s ill health would have curbed his output. Not so. Canvases are stacked up against every wall. Among the paintings of harbours, a landscape of the Thames, a portrait of a grandson, are a new collection of figurative works, a mature return to the solemn-eyed mythological figures of earlier days. Bellany works here, in his paint-spattered chair, every day. Only on the worst days is he kept from it, and those are dark days indeed.

This month, he will be celebrated by a major retrospective in the Scottish National Gallery, John Bellany: A Passion for Life. “What an honour. And they’ve given me nine huge rooms to fill. I’m over the moon, I really am.” He is also, he admits, a little surprised that he is here to see it. “Little did I think when I was lying in hospital with liver failure, that I would be sitting here talking to you at the age of 70.”

“The number of times doctors have said to my mum he’s got a small chance of surviving, I’ve run out of fingers on both hands,” Bellany’s son Paul tells me later. He is a film-maker and screenwriter, whose documentary about the family, Fire in the Blood, will be screened on BBC Scotland a week before the exhibition opens. But John Bellany is resurrection man. Liver failure. Pneumonia. A major heart attack on the way to an exhibition in Glasgow in 2005: he’s seen them all off.

Bellany points out a picture he has just finished. It’s a large triptych called The Star of Hope (the name of the boat in the picture). In the central panel is Bellany himself – younger, gaunt, red-haired – in the midst of a family group. He rarely speaks about individual pictures, but here he makes an exception. “It’s like a huge voyage. I’ve done several voyages. This is one of the culmination points of the voyages. The middle bit is in the netherworld, and the side bits are a lyrical version of The Cotter’s Saturday Night by Burns. The Star of Hope is always at the forefront of my mind.”

Today, John Bellany wants to tell me his story. Psychologists would say that we all tell ourselves stories about our lives, it’s one of the ways we make sense of things. “We’ll do a kind of chronological ramble through the thing,” he says, a finger in the page of a catalogue biography in case he forgets any key facts.

John Bellany was born in the East Lothian fishing village of Port Seton in 1942. He describes his childhood in the close-knit community as “idyllic”, “so joyful and so full of life in all its turmoils and all its wonders”. This is the world he has always painted: the boats, harbours and voyages, the fish guts, hard graft, hard drinking, hard religion. His first drawing, a boat, done in Eyemouth at the age of four, will be in the retrospective. “It was irresistible for an artist – I’m saying I’m an artist at the age of four!” he chuckles.

But, in truth, he was never anything else. At Edinburgh College of Art in the 1960s he teamed up with Sandy Moffat (who would go on to be head of painting at Glasgow School of Art) and the poet Alan Bold. “We christened ourselves the Big Three – which now seems embarrassingly bad to call yourself that, but that’s what we thought we were.” More chuckling.

“By the end of our second year, I was thinking ‘This guy’s special, he’s definitely going to do something’,” says Sandy Moffat. “I think everyone thought that. It was always an adventure being in the company of John Bellany. He wanted to pack into a weekend what most people would pack into a lifetime, every second counted. He was the living embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, I think that was ingrained in Port Seton. John could never tolerate a slacker.”

Bellany had a self-belief which enabled him to disregard fashion – at the time, it was for abstract expressionism – and set his sights on the Old Masters, and the Northern European symbolists. “I put myself up against the best,” he says. “I think if you’ve got any talent, you’ve got to choose the most difficult person to learn from, because that’s the only way you’re going to get better at being you. There’s that wonderful quote from MacDiarmid: ‘To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’/ Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en.’ In every studio I have, that’s on the wall. That’s what I’ve lived by.

“I’ve never been a great fan of the dedicated follower of fashion attitude to art. The thing about being an artist is, your aim is not to be popular for the next six months, you’re thinking back to people like Titian and Bellini.” And he takes a swipe at today’s art schools, with their emphasis on Creative Industries. “When I was a student, people were commercial artists and they worked in an office. Now the commercial artists are running the art schools.”

In the summers of their second, third and fourth years, Moffat and Bellany were tying their paintings to the railings outside the RSA (ironically, the venue for his retrospective) and handing out pamphlets against the organisation, which they saw as stagnant and all-powerful. That must have taken brass neck, I suggest. “No!” he comes back quick as a flash. “It (our work) was much better than what was inside!”

Bellany won every award and scholarship going and became the first Scottish student for 14 years to be accepted for the Royal College of Art in London. While there, he married Helen, who had been a fellow student at ECA, and their first child, Jonathan, was born. “So there we were with about eight pence ha’penny. I was a Mr Micawber really, I said ‘Something will always turn up’, and it always did. We just got by.”

In his post-RCA years, Bellany was “taking on the world”. He was offered exhibitions, commissions, teaching posts. When he talks about this period, he barely mentions his family; they were becoming increasingly peripheral. He and Helen split up in 1973 when their younger children, Paul and Anya, were little more than infants. He was also drinking heavily. In 1979 he married Juliet Lister, a sculptor, who suffered from manic depression.

The way he tells the story today is revealing. “Because of all the trials and tribulations of life, I had made a mistake getting a divorce from Helen. I was drinking too much. So what happened was, Juliet was in one hospital, very ill (she took her own life the following year), and I was rushed to St Thomas’s Hospital in London with liver failure.” Doctors told him he was about an hour from death.

When he was discharged, Helen made a choice: she would take care of him. “And my life just totally changed,” he says. “She did a Florence Nightingale on me, and that was it. Helen is the best wife in the world. She was an artist herself, and she gave up her painting, she said you can’t have two artists in the one house. She has supported me all her life long, even when we were apart.”

Now she is his Florence Nightingale again, and Bellany is a tempestuous patient. Helen laughs softly when she talks about it. “He gets so angry, he’ll shout and shout. It doesn’t work on me, I just laugh. He’ll be so grumpy and then he’ll come upstairs and say ‘I’m so sorry, I love you so much’. I can’t help it, I just love him to bits. And I could strangle him sometimes.”

They remarried in 1987. But Bellany was living on borrowed time. Though only in his mid forties, his one hope was a liver transplant. The following year, he was offered the chance to undergo pioneering surgery at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge. He is now the country’s longest surviving liver transplant patient. “It’s amazing, it’s never given me any trouble,” he says. “I’ve been through thick and thin with three heart attacks, two strokes, one cardiac arrest, but the liver has never moved.”

When he came round after the 11-hour operation, his first request was for pencils and paper. In the small hours of the darkest nights in his hospital room, he painted through the pain. “If he couldn’t draw he somehow hadn’t survived, he was in the the netherland between earth and here,” says Paul. “The patient in the next bed might be desperate to live for his grandson’s wedding or something, we always knew that doesn’t come into it for him. What comes into it is whether he can paint or draw. Drawing and painting is his life. The minute he stops drawing or painting, he won’t be around for long.”

Bellany emerged after the transplant a new man. He had a second chance at life, and he grabbed it with a kind of relentless joy. The tortured, wild paintings of the years before his collapse gave way to more serene compositions and sunnier colours. What changed? I ask him. “My life. My life changed. My art very much reflects my life. That’s inevitable. Same with Picasso. I think it’s the same with all great art.”

And what does it reflect now? Perhaps that some of the shadows have returned, with the constant presence of pain, the frustration of ill health. These days Bellany ventures out little, apart from on all too frequent hospital visits. As it always has been, the struggle is played out in the paintings. While he was always prolific, his art is now, once again, a kind of a lifeline.

Having been astonished at the studio, I’m astonished all over again in the upstairs lounge, where Bellany sits in the evenings, not resting but painting watercolours. A board, the exact size of a large sheet of paper balances across the arms of his armchair. Last night’s picture – a harbour scene – has been placed carefully on top of a pile of others. There is a bright Anglepoise lamp. In 2010, he was told that his sight was failing due to macular degeneration. Yet the effects vary from day to day. Sometimes the colours aren’t quite right, Helen says, but he always knows, he weeds them out.

“The painting keeps everything at bay,” Helen says. “He’s in a lot of pain. He’s always been like that, throughout his whole life. He just needs to paint, he gets edgy if he’s not painting, so,” she laughs softly, “we make sure he keeps painting!”

But there are dark days. “He suffers from depression from time to time,” Paul tells me. “I think he’s still tortured by his Calvinist upbringing. Particularly if he can’t get up and go down to the studio and paint, that’s when the demons appear more readily. He doesn’t go into great detail, certainly not to me, but I know the demons follow him. When you’ve had the life he’s had, if you’ve still got that ingrained, the fear that you’re going to end up in hell. They went to church three times on a Sunday. We didn’t go to church at all. I think it scared him.”

Perhaps this plays a part in shaping the new figurative works. Sandy Moffat says: “The idea that I get from some people that his painting is falling off, I can’t see it. Last time I was in the studio, I was seeing a lot of new developments, many good paintings. I think he wants to revisit some of these early allegories, myths, ideas, bringing new knowledge to these things. They’re not the same, they’re a different kind of meaning and experience.

“When we were students, Picasso was in his seventies and eighties and everyone had written him off. But that late work has been completely re-evaluated, now it’s thought to be fantastic. Like a lot of older painters (in Bellany’s work now) there is an economy of means. It’s like there’s no time to lose. Once the idea is on the canvas, there’s no point in trying to tidy it up and prettify it. It’s like late Titian, sometimes he doesn’t finish them – so what?”

Bellany’s work has always dealt with the big questions. He has been confronting mortality ever since he was an undergraduate. Now, no one is talking much about the future. What matters more is that the fire is still in the blood, and in the darkest nights, there is the Star of Hope.

John Bellany: A Passion for Life is at the Scottish National Gallery at the Mound from 17 November to 27 January, £7/£5. Paul Bellany’s film, Fire in the Blood, will be shown on BBC2 Scotland tonight, 9:45pm.