Interview: John Bellany, artist

IN THE third-floor New Town apartment that is overflowing with his artwork, John Bellany picks out those he considers his greatest. Leafing through an illustrated biography from 2005, he points out a portrait of his grandfather, painted when he was 15, which carries astonishing maturity and character.

• John Bellany

Then there is, inevitably, Allegory, the vast triptych painted in oil on three boards, with their giant splayed carcasses of crucified fish and scenes of labouring fishermen in Eyemouth or Port Seton.

Allegory – 7ft-high and 13ft across – was first shown on the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy building on Edinburgh's Mound in 1964, in an act of rebellion by Bellany and his friend and fellow student Sandy Moffat that is judged to have changed the course of Scottish art.

Death has always haunted the vision of Bellany, from fishermen's funerals in the East Lothian coastal community of Port Seton to a pivotal visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in the late 1960s, or the paintings he poured out in 2005 in fellow feeling for the tsunami victims in Asia.

Now the artist himself is living on borrowed time. Bellany is a survivor; he came through a liver transplant in 1988 and a double heart attack in 2005. But when we meet for two lengthy interviews in his Edinburgh flat, he is clearly frail and has been housebound for eight months after his latest lengthy fight with pneumonia.

His wife, Helen, admits there is a growing sense among family and friends that Bellany, after the "brilliant " new lease of life given by a liver transplant more than 20 years ago, is living on borrowed time. But amid the awareness that he has grown frailer, he and his family appear to be facing it much as they have his other crises – with a love of life's unfolding adventure. Last week, on one of his increasingly frequent hospital visits, Bellany was given the potentially devastating diagnosis that he's losing his sight to macular degeneration, a loss of central vision that can make it difficult or impossible to read or recognise faces. "From last week's diagnosis, it is ghastly, " says Helen. "Sometimes he can't see my face, sometimes he can't see the television screen."

Bellany underwent a cataract operation last October but it seemed to make little difference. People with macular degeneration keep their peripheral vision. Helen adds, "He is managing to paint, but not always, it depends on the light. If anybody can paint when they are going blind it will be John." Friends have told him that Beethoven went completely deaf and continued to compose. Bellany's first reaction to the diagnosis was that "it is not life-threatening".

"His health has been declining really very quickly," says Helen, despite the fact that he has been teetotal since before the liver transplant. "I'm the kind of person who will encourage him to keep going. Everything other thing what's wrong with him is life-threatening, but we will continue and life goes on and we'll still do great things.

"He has been all sorts of things to me. We've had our ups and downs. He can be as fierce as a roary lion, then creeping up the stairs to apologise. He can be exasperating and exhausting and embarrassing, but he's just an amazing person, he's so exhilarating and inspiring, and he makes me laugh. And he makes me feel loved."

Frequently in and out of hospital, Bellany's travel and socialising, even appearances at his own openings, have been scaled back and put on hold. At the same time, his hospital stays and his doctors and nurses have become inspiration for some of his best recent work, as the compulsive artist just keeps on painting.

This April, as Bellany nears his 68th birthday, his life's work will once again come under the spotlight. In London, his long-time gallery, Beaux Arts, is staging an exhibition spanning five decades of his art.

BBC2, meanwhile, is airing a documentary made by the artist's youngest son, filmmaker Paul Bellany, who left his post as visual artist on the Harry Potter films to make John Bellany, Fire in the Blood. Edited from more than 100 hours of footage, it promises "an intimate portrait of a family imploding as they try to cope with the father's alcoholism, a family disintegrating, experiencing their pain and emerging back together".

Bellany's moods can still swing from gentleness to anger, and his sons may have experienced some of that aggression, says his daughter Anya, the mother of four of his grandchildren. But she remembers him as a gentle drinker. "He just always had a cup with Barcardi, when he woke up in the morning, but he wasn't particularly drunk, falling over the place. But then in the evenings the artists would come round and they would always get quite merry."

Anya was about three when her parents split, her mother, Helen, left lonely in the move to London. After their separation, Bellany's alcoholism worsened. Her father was always enormously unpredictable, with spur of the moment trips, "funny, off-the-wall" stuff. But sometimes he would shout. "He was, and really still is, unpredictable."

The washing-up piled up and he would pay his children to do it at the weekends. "I think Paul and Jonathan maybe experienced a bit of aggression and things," says Anya. "Paul came back once and he was crying to mum and really worried about Dad. Mum said, 'Why don't you write him a letter.' In the end, I was the one who wrote this horrible letter, 'We won't come and see you if you don't stop drinking.'" Anya was aged about ten at the time. "It didn't have any effect whatsoever," she says.

Bellany was married to Juliet, his second wife, at the time, and she had a drink problem as well as manic depression, Anya believes. It was during one of Juliet's frequent hospitalisations that Bellany proposed that he, Helen and their children go to France on a day trip for Anya's 14th birthday. "It was the weirdest thing, because they had never done anything together," says Anya. It was on that trip that Helen noticed his swollen ankles and yellow skin, and when doctors diagnosed his worsening liver troubles Helen began to care for him.

"He's more mellow than he has ever been, gentler," says Anya. "I think he's looking over his life, wanting to make everything right for everybody. He is such a generous man – I've never met anyone so generous."

Bellany remarried Helen, whom he first met at Edinburgh College of Art and who is the mother of his three children – Jonathan, Paul and Anya – after Juliet committed suicide, in 1985. It was Helen who finally persuaded him to stop drinking. This winter, they returned with the family to Dieppe, where the couple had their first and second honeymoons; his latest Dieppe paintings are filling his Edinburgh studio.

Just how important is Bellany to the history of Scottish art? If you took one of his most recent pictures, Macduff Harbour – The Homecoming, used by First Minister Alex Salmond as his Christmas card, the answer might be "not very". For all its merits – the donated picture raised 10,000 at a charity auction – the image of a cheerily red boat returning to the dockside amid turbulently coloured skies is easy viewing rather than profound.

In 2005, Bellany was the target of a searing critique by the London Evening Standard's Brian Sewell. His review of the Royal Academy's summer exhibition dismissed the "inevitable rubbish of ... a bad painter worsening and weakening by the year, but who once, long ago in the 1960s, painted such pictures as to make us think him a painter with Rembrandt". But the "magnificent force" of Bellany's work and his challenge to the art establishment was "swiftly drowned" in alcohol, Sewell lamented.

Bellany's legacy definitely didn't end in the 1960s. Where David Bowie was once his best-known collector, Damien Hirst has been quietly buying a series of his paintings from the 1970s. It is perhaps ironic for an artist, a rebel himself, but who is caustic about the "dedicated followers of fashion".

Hirst's purchases may reflect that artist's very obvious fascination with death. One of his advisers watches Bellany's exhibitions for older paintings. He has bought works such as Celtic Supper, with cat and bird-headed diners at a table spread with a fish head; and Lobster Fetish, with a lobster feeding on a woman's torso. Another is Ominous Presence. Then there is My Grandmother (1971), of a white-dressed figure with spectres hanging over her; almost uniquely in Bellany's work, she wears the ghost of a smile. "I don't think Hirst is a daft guy," says Bellany. "He knows the early ones which are solid, and he knows they are going to last for ever. He has had them for a long time. His dining room has got nothing but Bellanys in it."

The coming Beaux Arts show, entitled Love in the Abyss, features Bellany works from five decades. The earliest is probably Lost Soul (1968). The dishevelled and gnarled figure of a woman clasping a bottle seems to float on an island of her own, on a dark green sea, while black-winged birds fill the sky.

Many experts treasure the wildness of Bellany's work from the 1980s, when his personal life crashed into tragic chaos. A fellow Scottish painter, Peter Howson, who regards Bellany as his greatest early inspiration, singles out the etchings he did while in hospital for his transplant operation in 1988. Friend and fellow artist Sandy Moffat flags up Bellany's most recent work, saying people should not overlook the Italian landscapes from around his second home in Barga, which have taken him into new ground.

Bellany can spin a yarn like an old fisherman, which is probably not surprising, as his family fished for generations. He vividly recalls how, as a child of eight, he kissed the cold lips of his dead grandmother in her coffin.

Funerals in Port Seton, the East Lothian fishing village where he spent his early childhood, were sprawling affairs. Mourning could last half the week, from Wednesday to Friday, when the boats came in, and the procession, mostly men, would string out a mile to Prestonpans Cemetery. "There was a thing called a kisting. They were put into the kist, or coffin (in Scots it is a mort kist] and the lid was opened. I thought a kisting meant something to do with kissing people. When I kissed her it was like kissing an ice-cream, it was cold as anything, and I jumped back. My uncle Bill, who was holding me just in case, got a bit of a fright. He went, 'Nah, nah, she's dead son, you'll have to kiss her with more gusto than that.'

"I had to do it again. They went, 'That's well done, that's fine, you've given her a big, beautiful kiss.' Then they put the lid down ... That has always haunted me. I did the same for my grandfather. It wasn't so bad when I knew what was coming."

A fatalistic fascination with, and fear of, death was a constant presence in Bellany's childhood, and would become a life-long theme. His grandfather was born on the day of the Eyemouth disaster; his father carried out what he describes as a near-suicidal service in the Firth of Forth in the Second World War, where the fishing boats set off mines at sea before they hit larger ships.

Death was never far away in a Scottish fishing community: the drowning of a fellow schoolboy, who slipped off the harbour wall, and the fruitless efforts to rescue him were witnessed by the whole community. A cheery light may have crept into Bellany's later work, but the spectre of mortality has never been far from his painting.

In later life, it focused on the painter himself. He said his last goodbyes before his liver transplant operation in 1988. In 2005, on his way to the opening of a major exhibition of his paintings at the Mitchell Gallery in Glasgow, he collapsed at a traffic island with a double heart attack. He later told of how he woke up in hospital eerily convinced that he had actually walked into his own opening, to tell people there that John Bellany was on his way and would be arriving soon. More recently, Bellany fought off a prolonged bout of pneumonia, one that has left him weakened, say friends.

The old fire is still burning in him, however. His studio room in the apartment is filled with canvases of Dieppe. "I paint the hours from eight to eight, except when I'm ill," he says. He remains compulsively productive – between bouts of ill health, he has churned out paintings in recent years for one exhibition after another.

"A lot of time I'm in hospital," he says. "That's my little drive in the countryside, from Saffron Walden (his Essex home] to Ward C9 in Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge. Sometimes I'm in for four weeks, sometimes I'm in for four days, sometimes just two days, but it's, 'Here he comes again,' and I come hobbling in. I know all the nurses. Something's going wrong with my heart or liver. Sometimes I call up the ambulance man. Call it a fright, once in a while it has been deadly serious; I've learned to live with that. It's a chore healthwise, but it's also very nice because every doctor under the sun, they all come running and I'm looked after like an emperor or a king. I'm still alive, thank goodness."

Bellany was, above all, a fisherman's son, who won first prize in a children's art competition run by the BBC. His father's creativity found its expression in making model boats; but Bellany knew he was not heading to sea. The desire to draw and paint, he says, was simply "too strong". When he went to Edinburgh College of Art, he became the first in his family to go to college of any kind.

His work has made himself and his family wealthy; his three children's homes are filled with his paintings. None of his family followed him into an artistic career, but he is avidly watching his grandchildren's early artwork. "We help with every grandchild we've got. I do all their schooling stuff, and all their footballs, things that you think cost nothing until you start," he says.

It was in October 1960, walking through the Edinburgh College of Art's entrance hall for the first time, that he and Moffat met and began a 50-year friendship. Together they would inspire a new generation of figurative artists in Scotland, including Howson, Ken Currie and Steven Campbell.

Four years after that first encounter, Moffat and Bellany cheekily got a street-vendor's license from Edinburgh City Council to show their work on the railings outside the National Gallery during the 1964 Edinburgh Festival. That outdoor show and another the following year were a watershed for Scottish art in two ways: they proved that it existed, and they showed the way for a radical new direction. The works included Allegory, later acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Fishermen in the Snow, and other stunning tableaux now mostly in public collections.

"We were rebellious characters," remembers Moffat. "That was the period when our generation did make a stand. There was very little representation of Scottish art at the festival ... (we thought] if we can't get in the official festival, we'll put it into the streets. Scottish art didn't really exist. It existed in the studios of Edinburgh College of Art, but it didn't exist in the arts establishment, which was completely Anglicised, I believe. There has been an enormous sea-change. It's almost impossible to measure, but I think we had a hand in the beginning of that, the turn of the tide."

The works were hammered together on Rose Street before they put them up on the railings; the nail holes can still be seen. "They were mighty things, we could hardly carry them," says Moffat. "They were so big, they had to be painted in parts. You are talking about his early masterpieces ... they are priceless. It meant Port Seton, it meant fishermen, it meant working people – that had never been painted before. People had painted fishing boats, but nobody had ever painted about the life of people who did the fishing. That was John's fantastic contribution.

"His place in Scottish art is defined by the Port Seton thing. That's really his life's work, the way he has mythologised the life of the fisherman. The fears, the spirit, the whole thing, the way he found the special imagery, that had never been done before, to say all those things – that puts him into the history books forever."

Keith Hartley, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, agrees. "What he was doing in the mid-1960s in many ways changed the course of Scottish painting. It was like a manifesto: I don't want to do paintings for Edinburgh drawing rooms, I want to do something which moves people, about ordinary people's lives. It was very much a protest."

Bellany singles out his 1967 drawing My Grandmother, a characterful portrait in orange crayon, as the greatest he ever did; he gave it to the Tate.

Where the Scottish Colourists had drawn their inspiration from France and the Impressionists, Bellany's work immediately spoke to people of the dramatic and forceful influence of Max Beckman, in the German Expressionist tradition. His own art collection now, however, includes works by all four Scottish Colourists, he says. In the 1960s, when he made his protest, they were little-known; their great revival in popularity and in the auction houses began to take off in the 1980s. "They came late into my sights," he says. "They are huge figures."

Both Hartley and Moffat, while they stress the enormous impact of Bellany's work in the 1960s, praise his paintings from the 1970s and 1980s, when his personal life had its most traumatic period. In 1985, Juliet killed herself and his father also died. Meanwhile Helen, on a trip to Dieppe, realised that the yellow jaundice of Bellany's skin indicated that his liver failure was reaching a crisis. "This would be the parting of the ways," she determined, "for him and his best friend, the booze."

"The period in the late-1970s, he was going through hell, they were quite wild, absolutely incredible, to me these stand out as exceptional pictures," says Moffat. "He was really on the edge, really courting danger in his painting." Hartley talks about "fantastically spirited, wild paintings" that Bellany was producing through the 1980s.

Talking to Bellany even now, one has the constant sense of someone for whom the elemental forces of life and death always loomed large. As a boy playing football in the back yard, the ball was drawn "like a magnet" over the wall and into the cemetery, to be collected from among the tumbled and fallen gravestones. "Now it has been all poshed up, it's not the same," he says.

Or take his work Self-Portrait with Razor Shell, acquired for the Scottish Arts Council collection and which hung behind the desk of secretary of state for Scotland Lord James Douglas Hamilton. It shows a black-capped figure of the artist clutching a giant razor shell, with a mournful cat and dog and deathly figures on the borders. "That was painted in a strange situation," Bellany recalls. "I'd had a nervous breakdown, and I had to get out of London and stay in Port Seton, where my mum and dad were. As I was getting better, I used to have a walk down on to the links, and the Firth of Forth was straight ahead. I started collecting shells, and one day I was having a bad day and I picked up this razor shell, and I was just feeling, 'Will I end it all or will I not?' I did Self-Portrait with a Razor Shell, and I thought, 'Whatever happens, I'm not ready to go yet, there are too many paintings yet to paint.'"

Bellany's frequent treatments at hospitals, mostly in Cambridge, near his English home, have become his latest inspiration. Jean-Francois Borel, who invented cyclosporine, the drug that suppresses the body's immune system from attacking transplanted organs, was a visitor to Bellany's hospital bed. "I gave him a few words of wonder, a few tips about the way he held his brush. We became great pals," says Bellany. "He's now retired and he paints every day." The former head of Bellany's transplant unit, Sir Roy Calne, was another part-time artist who took tips from him.

Bellany has recently presented two major paintings to Addenbrooke's Hospital, one of Port Seton and one of an Italian landscape. They already have a painting he completed of Helen sitting by his bedside, with a painting by Sydney Nolan, the Australian artist who became a friend, behind her. The self-portraits that filled the walls of his hospital room are vibrant and harrowing.

Bellany's 1988 hospital etchings are "in the class of Michelangelo", according to Howson. "It looks like his hands were guided by a force greater than himself," he says.

As for Bellany himself, is there anything more he wants to achieve? He has "hundreds of ambitions", he says. But on a rare trip out of the house, he went to London recently to see the Real Van Gogh, at the Royal Academy, which centred on the artist and his letters. Bellany dreams of "doing a show on the level of that", he says. "It was just walking into a stupendous, mouth-watering view of what an artist can do. It is all, every single painting, worth 40 blasts on the trumpet. Nothing fake. Nothing rubbish."

Bellany's frequent brushes with ill-health and his artistic fascination with death do not extend to growing gloomy about either. "It is quite a thought," he says about his eyesight. "I'm going into hospital tomorrow, and I'll see what they can do. I don't think it's as bad as it sounds. Maybe I've been painting too much and worn my eyes out.

"I can peruse my life – I think anybody does when they are near 70. I just have to follow my instincts. My work has changed, it has developed over the years. I've still got the energy. I still have that fire in the belly. I'm so fortunate," he says. "I can't grumble about anything. Anything that has happened to me has been made by myself. I've just been the luckiest man in the world." p

John Bellany, Fire in the Blood is on BBC2 on 4 April; John Bellany: Love in the Abyss is at Beaux Arts, Cork Street, London, from 14 April to 15 May

Bellany's ten favourites

Portrait of My Grandfather, 1957 (third from left)

Allegory, 1964 (triptych, above)

Fishermen in the Snow, 1965

Pourquoi?, 1967

The Fright, 1968 (second from left)

My Grandmother, 1967 (far left)

Skate Fetish, 1973 (left)

The Presentation of Time (Homage to Rubens), 1987

A Long Night's Journey into Day, 1987

Sabbath Vigil, 1990

#149 This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday on March 21, 2010