Obituary: David Michie, artist and teacher

Born: 30 November, 1928, in St Raphael, France. Died: 24 August, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 86

David Michie: Son of Anne Redpath who had his own successful career as artist. Picture: Julie Bull

David Alan Redpath Michie was one of a distinguished group of painters and friends who perhaps did not quite constitute a school, but whose work nevertheless shared a close affinity. All students at Edinburgh College of Art in the late forties and early fifties, they were students and artistic heirs of William Gillies who was head of painting at the college at the time. Gillies taught by example, not precept. He showed an almost monastic dedication to his art, a commitment to the idea that painting should be rooted in the perceived world, though not bound to it slavishly, but also kept a critical eye on the ebbs and flows of fashion in contemporary art. Like all of this group, David Michie remained loyal to these principles, except perhaps the monasticism. He was, however, a little older than the others. He also had the advantage, or perhaps it was really a disadvantage, of coming from a family of artists.

The third son of James Beattie Michie, an architect and painter, and the painter Anne Redpath, he was born at St Raphael in the south of France on 30 November, 1928. His father had a position there as private architect to Charles Thomson, a wealthy American, and the Michie family lived in the boathouse of his villa, the Chateau Gloria. Paintings David did of this childhood home on a return visit a few years ago seemed to be filled with the distant sunshine of those childish years. Certainly it was a happy time, but after Charles Thomson suffered losses in the Crash of 1929, the decline in his fortunes eventually brought an end to the family’s life there and in 1934 David returned with his mother and brothers to Hawick, his mother’s home town.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The transition was initially bumpy and when at the age of six he started school at Hawick Academy, he returned from his first day to tell his mother that all the other pupils were Italian. In the South of France, Italian was his idea of a foreign language and so he deduced that was the incomprehensible tongue of his Scottish fellow pupils. He enjoyed school however and also his life in Hawick. He became a keen Boy Scout and it was through Scouting that he met his future wife, Eileen Michie.

In 1946, he went from school to Edinburgh College of Art, but his time there was interrupted when he was called up, following the introduction of National Service in 1948, to serve two years in the Signals Corps, mostly in Wales.

This interruption meant that, though he was older than them, he finished college in the same year as John Houston and David McCLure, who remained close friends. Awarded a travelling scholarship by the college in 1954, he went to Italy with John Houston. They travelled around but also stayed for a memorable period in the hill-top town of Anticoli. It was a time that David looked back to with fondness for the rest of his life. They were joined in Italy by Elizabeth Blackadder, who was to marry John Houston shortly afterwards. David himself had married Eileen in March 1951. She had studied biochemistry at St Andrews University. Their first child, Alison, was born in 1953, their second, Lindsey in 1955.

Returning to Scotland, David enrolled in the teacher-training course at Moray House. He then taught at James Clarke’s School in Edinburgh, but also part-time at Edinburgh College of Art, before taking a post teaching painting at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen in 1957. In 1961, he returned to Edinburgh College of Art as a lecturer in the school of drawing and painting. Gillies had recently been appointed principal and Robin Philipson had succeeded him as head of the school.

In 1968, David became depute head of painting and he also served as vice-principal of the college from 1974-77. In 1982, he succeeded Robin Philipson as head of the school of drawing and painting, a position he held till he retired from the college in 1990.

He certainly gave dedicated service to the college. He took his responsibilities seriously and carried them out conscientiously, but it was a time when the administrative burdens of a senior position were growing exponentially. There can be no doubt that his painting suffered in consequence. He had exhibited both in Edinburgh at the Scottish Gallery and in London at the Mercury Gallery throughout these years, but his work certainly blossomed after he retired. He exhibited regularly thereafter and although he was cruelly set back by his wife’s death in 2003, he marked his 80th birthday with a major exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in 2008.

In 2012, the Scottish Gallery also held an exhibition of the Michie family, which included David himself, his mother and father and his brother Alastair, who was a successful artist and illustrator.

Because of the delay in Anne Redpath’s career, which did not really take off till the 1950s, David was in the position of launching his own career at the same time as his mother launched hers to great acclaim. It cannot have been easy. His work, often inspired by travel, succeeded in being quite independent of hers, however. It was always colourful and light in touch. Even in the Fifties, when the painting of his close friends was often sombre, his own, though it could be dark in tone, was usually lightened in mood by flashes of bright colour. Later, this same lightness of touch was often expressed in humorous observation of human behaviour. This was not caricature exactly, more a way of making witty visual remarks. Of all his contemporaries, he was perhaps closest to Elizabeth Blackadder in the free and open way in which he composed his pictures, but his lightness of mood and of touch were always his own. He took a great interest in what was around him and this always informed his painting.

His daughters, Alison and Lindsey, write of him: “His passions in life were painting, people, gardening, cooking, jazz and rugby and he took great pleasure in talking about all of those subjects with knowledge and at great length!”

David Michie was elected SSA in 1955, ARSA in 1964, RSA in 1972, and RGI in 1983. He was Emeritus Professor of Heriot Watt University and was made an OBE 1997.

His work is represented in many public collections including the National Gallery of Scotland, the Fleming Collection, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Edinburgh City Art Centre and Glasgow Museums.