Aberdeen artist Dan Stephen once predicted that his hometown would kill him if he let it and vowed never to return if he escaped.
He was in despair over the city’s lack of interest in and patronage of local artists, an attitude he described as “philistine”. His talents had already been recognised by the Royal Academy in London where his large-scale works had been exhibited. After that, however, the commissions dried up. No-one in Aberdeen seemed to want to buy his paintings – or indeed even to put them on display.
The city’s new buildings were stark and sterile inside, he observed, and “for the artist the city is as inert and bleak as ever”.
In the event, he did leave Aberdeen. After redevelopment forced him out of the Back Wynd studio, where he had worked for three decades, he subsequently moved to Perth. There he continued to paint until he was almost 90 and to this day his works hang proudly in various public buildings there. If he did ever return to Aberdeen, he seldom spoke about it, although he was always as passionate and articulate talking about his craft.
Born in the Granite City’s Woodside area, he was educated at Aberdeen’s Central Secondary School, taking jobs as an office clerk and labourer before attending Gray’s School of Art in the city in 1940. He graduated five years later, having become interested in the works of the great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael through his tutor, Robert Sivell, the school’s head of drawing and painting.
That interest sparked his love of mural painting but, after completing a teaching qualification following graduation in 1945, his first job was as a medical illustrator, drawing corpses in Aberdeen University’s medical department for a medical textbook.
He was able to give up that gruesome task when he won first prize in a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship competition. As a result, he spent a month in London in 1946 and three months in Italy the following year, when he studied the celebrated Italian painters while also witnessing the Second World War’s legacy of destruction.
Several years later, that devastation would be the source of inspiration for his painting Reconstruction, which was shown at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in London in 1957. The massive 12ft 9in by 7ft 6in work, the largest canvas in the show, was produced entirely from his memory and imagination, and featured a bombed-out ruin, an occupied home plus a building under construction along with a tree in spring leaf, locals going about their daily business – and a price tag of £1,250.
After his trip to Italy, Stephen spent three years in London, thumbing a lift there from Aberdeen in a fish lorry and sharing an artist’s studio, where he painted in the early hours of the morning after a day working at a variety of jobs.
By the early 1950s, he was back in his studio in Back Wynd, Aberdeen – the former manse for the ministers of St Nicholas Kirk – which he shared with artists including Bill Baxter and Eric Auld. He also had to teach to boost his income and at one point was teaching at a school outside Aberdeen in Kemnay.
When Reconstruction was shown in London, he was establishing his credentials and, to promote themselves further at home, he and some fellow Aberdonian artists set up an annual outdoor exhibition in the city. They also come up with the idea of a “lending library” of art so that the public, for a small fee, could borrow their work.
The summer of 1961 saw him back at the Royal Academy with his work The Painter’s Studio, which was described by one critic as a “rare and refreshing piece of sheer excitement in a desert of dull convention” and which was subsequently sold to Rochdale Art Gallery.
In 1967, during a protest over the Vietnam War, one of his paintings, of an air raid in Vietnam, was displayed as a banner in a silent vigil at Aberdeen War Memorial.
Throughout his career, Stephen sold paintings to a variety of outlets: some wartime paintings to Norwich Gallery; his work Chelsea Embankment went to a private gallery in Glasgow, and he was particularly pleased that his painting, Regions of the Psyche, based on the work of the psychologist Carl Jung, was bought by a past president of the Jung Institute in Zurich, where it was displayed. This, though, was the exception rather than the rule. In 1970, he hit out at what he perceived as the severe neglect of sculptors and painters by local patrons.
Four years earlier, Aberdeen had been stunned when five men were killed in the collapse of a partially constructed zoology building at Aberdeen University. Stephen had passed the disaster site that day and later, from memory and press photographs, reconstructed the scene of a doctor and fireman comforting a dying victim.
But he failed to find a buyer for the 9ft 9in by 6ft 9in mural Death of a Workman. It and other large canvases were offered to various organisations, including the university and local authority, but could find no permanent home. Stephen described the lack of interest by the city in the work of its artists as “criminal”. The following year his largest piece yet, La Vie Contemporaire, was exhibited in France at the Palais des Arts during the International Fair of Marseilles: a further example of success abroad that eluded him at home.
He moved to Perth in the mid-1970s, having appealed for help to find homes for some of his larger works from his Back Wynd studio. Death of a Workman eventually went to the Workers’ Educational Association in Aberdeen and he donated Reconstruction to the people of Perth, where the council put it on permanent display in the AK Bell Library’s foyer.
Some of his works hang at Perth Royal Infirmary and he gifted a large abstract of a French beach scene to Loch Leven Health Centre, Kinross, where it graces the waiting room wall. His last work, the 30ft x 12ft Millennium Mural, hangs in Perth High School Assembly Hall.
Stephen, who finally retired aged 89, also produced architectural models and invented a new art form he called Optikon, a device incorporating a large screen that produced continuous moving images, similar to a permanently moving kaleidoscope.
An intellectual with firm views on art, philosophy, politics and world affairs, he also had a strong sense of self-belief, which sustained his career, and a profound hope that his artistic legacy would not be hidden in private collections but enjoyed by the public.