Obituary: Edi Swan, artist, teacher, set designer, potter, author, public speaker and champion of the arts

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Edi Swan, scenic artist, art teacher and technical director. Born: 2 August, 1935 in Footdee, Aberdeen. Died 2 December, 2019 in Ellon, aged 84

Aberdeen’s picturesque fishing village of Footdee has developed quite a reputation in recent years as a draw for artists but perhaps few so versatile as one of its own sons, Edi Swan.

Born in the colourful community that hugs the shore at the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour, he grew up running free and barefoot all summer, diving off the pier with the North Sea as the backdrop that has inspired countless creatives.

He followed his cousin Bill Baxter, one of the influential ABBO group of painters, into art school and was still a student when a chance request for a replacement scene painter provided the catalyst for a 50-year association with the city’s celebrated His Majesty’s Theatre.

Throughout that time he was a set designer, full-time teacher, jobbing artist, potter, interior designer, author, public speaker, champion of arts in the curriculum and campaigner for the retention and renovation of Aberdeen’s Tivoli Theatre. This enthusiasm for a diverse range of artistic endeavours brought him into the realm of everyone from the Women’s Rural Institute (WRI) to Charlton Heston and the Rolling Stones.

One of six children to a trawler owner’s daughter and a commercial clerk, his childhood in Fittie, as it is known locally, was idyllic until the Second World War. With the harbour a target for bombers the whole area was cordoned off and the children needed a special pass to get to St Clement’s Street School. Several lost a parent when Hall Russell shipyard and the nearby Neptune Bar were bombed in July 1940.

After the war the family moved to a new home on the outskirts of the city and he attended the Central School. He was a 20-year-old student at Aberdeen’s Gray’s School of Art when he married his wife Sheila and was still studying when their first daughter arrived the following year – an event that saw the whole art school close for the afternoon to celebrate.

His future in the theatre was sealed in his third year when repertory company the Whatmore Players appealed for a scene painter after their own artist broke her arm. The art school head gave Swan his blessing and the move inadvertently led to a twist in his name: he’d been christened Edward but when chief scenic artist Ani Jasper noted down his name for the programme credits she adopted her own style and immortalised him as ‘Edi’.

He soon became involved in Aberdeen’s hugely popular Student Show and was in charge of set design for more than a decade. Passionate about that particular theatre skill, he created sets for many stars including Andy Stewart and Scotland the What, plus amateur companies, school and church drama groups, and particularly liked to utilise His Majesty’s revolving stage. He was also involved in Aberdeen Puppet Players, creating puppets, posters and programmes.

Meanwhile he was also teaching full-time. Having been exempted from national service due to the shortage of art teachers, he started at Aberdeen’s Torry Academy before moving on to Peterhead and Turriff Academies. By the mid-1960s he was head of art at Ellon Academy and he and Sheila now had two daughters and a son.

As the family grew so did their home and Swan developed another skill – housebuilder – almost single-handedly, erecting a living room and garage at one property.

Promotion at work saw him become assistant head teacher at Ellon in 1975 and two years later he was appointed to the Munn Committee on restructuring the S3 and S4 curriculum, when he made the case for an emphasis on the creative arts.

His Majesty’s Theatre continued to feature large in his life and, when the theatre director overhead him joke about applying for the retiring stage manager’s job, he promptly offered him the new role of technical director. It put him in charge of everything behind the curtain as well as overseeing significant renovations which were celebrated at a gala re-opening with Prince Charles in 1982.

During the revamp Swan recorded and, with the help of an art school expert, restored the building’s dozens of stained glass panels, hand-painting, firing and fitting each to match the original design.

In 1986 he completed a diploma in management studies, earning top prize amongst his peers for his thesis on Communication as a Management Skill in the Theatre Industry.

Well-known in theatrical circles for his skill behind the scenes, he was also very much a public face of the institution. He enjoyed welcoming audiences front-of-house in his dinner suit and developed the Dress Circle bar as a gallery space, introduced the concept of theatre artist in residence, instigated backstage tours, created the Theatre Club and reputedly had many encounters with Jake, the theatre’s friendly headless ghost.

He worked with stars such as Charlton Heston, to whom he presented a caricature of the American in full Highland dress, at a party following his appearance in A Man for All Seasons. Swan also put his artistic skills to good use when the Rolling Stones kicked off their UK tour at Aberdeen’s Capitol, painting a huge banner for the venue advertising the group’s appearance.

He also created murals for public buildings, painted watercolours, did interior design for a local golf club and an historic coaching inn and produced the logo that Ellon’s Ythan Bakery still sports on its paper bags today.

In retirement, following a triple bypass in 1992, he became honorary theatre activist, wrote a History of His Majesty’s and a history of Aberdeen Music Hall and devoted a great deal of time to saving the future of the city’s Tivoli theatre. Swan, who spent years travelling to WRI meetings giving talks on HMT, was made a Burgess of the Guild of the City of Aberdeen for his contribution to cultural life.

Never star struck he regarded his teaching and theatre careers as equally important and those in theatrical world as simply fellow professionals.

Predeceased by his wife, he is survived by their children Susan, Fiona and Gary and extended family.

ALISON SHAW