Born: 11 July, 1969, in Middlesbrough. Died: 11 October, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 40.
THIS most talented and incisive artist maintained her style and her indomitable spirit right to the end of her all too short life. Abigail McLellan travelled to London from Scotland in March to attend the opening of her exhibition at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. Despite being in a wheelchair, her smile and gracious manner captivated everyone: she was not going to allow multiple sclerosis to ruin such an important evening.
Her mobility had already greatly impaired her movement, and her speech was marred, but her sheer enthusiasm for her pictures and painting shone through. McLellan had a boundless energy and brought to her art – both portraits and still-lifes – a commitment and a zest for colour and shapes that was all-embracing. Typically, she was in her studio working until the day she went into hospital for her final visit. She presumed she would be back very soon.
Abigail McLellan was the youngest of three daughters of an ICI engineer. In 1981, the family moved to Dumfries and six years later she enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art, where a fellow student was the painter Alasdair Wallace, who became her partner and whom she later married. She graduated in 1991 with an honours degree in Fine Art and based herself at the Wasps Studio in Glasgow. She principally exhibited at the prestigious Rebecca Hossack Gallery and the Glasgow Print Studio, and two of her canvases hang at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries. In 1989, McLellan featured at the Scottish and Newcastle Young Artists Exhibition.
Initially, her work had a bold, rather uncompromising feel about it: her canvases had a realism and dynamism that were striking. But as she progressed through art school, she became interested in the use of colours. There was also a calmer side to her work and in her charming series of single-stemmed flowers, there is a sense of Japanoisserie. McLellan was also much influenced by Craigie Aitchison, whose bold use of bright colours encouraged her to follow his invigorating style.
She evolved a system that entailed much groundwork for some of her works. It was a detailed process that required her building up layers of paint on a canvas of translucent, quick-drying acrylic paint. This gave the picture a conspicuous vibrancy all of its own. The subjects were then set on these luminous backgrounds – flowers, branches, sea-fans – and stood out magnificently. The delightful collection of detailed coral sea-fans was shown in London, with one being bought by the Robert Fleming Collection.
There was also a delicacy and charm about her prints, such as Moth Orchid. The swirl of the browny background places the plant at the centre of the print, creating a calm and reassuring presence.
In the Nineties, McLellan became acknowledged as portrait painter, displaying real originality. She was selected to exhibit at three of the annual BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery in London: her first portrait, in 1995, of Louise McAtee was used for the exhibition's publicity. Her portraits were vibrant and telling: Young Woman Sitting, from 1997, has a depth and yet a simplicity about it that is striking.
McLellan received a runners-up award in the Morrison Prize at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1997 for Emma and also exhibited a work called Red and White Self Portrait in the Morrison exhibition of 1991.
Her interest in oriental art was furthered when she won a bursary in 1998 to visit Japan. It was there, while walking along the Nakasendo Way with Wallace, that she began to fall over for no apparent reason. On her return to Scotland, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
While her lifestyle was much impaired, her desire to carry on working provided a definite focus to her life. Her courage – not to say stubbornness – was remarkable.
Her studio was up four flights of stairs and she struggled up them for as long as possible: her crutches banging away in one hand while she pulled herself ever upwards with the banister. Only latterly did she resort to using the lift. As fresh domestic problems presented themselves, McLellan sought new ways to conquer the latest challenge. Ever the practical woman, she bought a Pashley tricycle, then a sleek recumbent trike and finally an electric wheelchair. Her art remained a paramount force in her life and she would sit in her studio in a wheelchair and work.
Wallace provided much help, encouragement and support, and was keen that McLellan develop her interest in the use of stencils and creating a series of bronze-cast sculptures of sea-fans.
She married Alasdair Wallace earlier this year, and he survives her.