Elizabeth Reid, artist. Born: 4 March 1940 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 July 2019 at La Marne, Barlieu, France, aged 79.
Simplicity is often misunderstood. The paintings of Elizabeth Reid are distinguished by a quality of simplicity. That does not mean that they were simple to produce, or that the artist’s path was an easy one. But Elizabeth pursued her art with determination throughout her life, leaving a legacy of fine landscape paintings which continue to bring pleasure to many.
Elizabeth – Betty to all who knew her – was born in Leith, where her father owned a tobacconist. Her early memories were of shelves of colourful cigarette packets with names such as Black Cat and Passing Cloud, and Sunday walks around Leith docks.
In 1947, the family moved to East Lothian where her father inherited a smallholding, and Elizabeth went to school in Haddington. The cottage windows looked on to the Lammermuir Hills, a peaceful yet dramatic landscape to which she would return again and again in her art. Later in life, she would always describe her paintings as “windows”.
The family moved back to Edinburgh in 1954, and Elizabeth left school the following year. She was already keen on art, but was little encouraged, and instead found work as an apprentice dressmaker at Jenners department store, taking night classes at Edinburgh College of Art in composition, still life and antique drawing, which enabled her to put together a portfolio.
In 1957, she was accepted into Edinburgh College of Art as a full-time student, and spent the next four years in the painting department studying under artists such as William Gillies and Robin Philipson, important and influential figures in Scottish landscape painting. When she left college, she became a teacher, and enjoyed giving her pupils the encouragement she had not received herself, but her hope was always to paint full-time.
This she did in 1971, after a move back to the Borders. She used an isolated shepherd’s cottage between Moorfoot and the Lammermuir Hills as her studio, and the open vistas of the area inspired the work she made for her first solo exhibition, held during the Edinburgh International Festival in 1971.
Elizabeth organised the exhibition herself, renting a space near the Royal Mile, framing her own paintings and manning the show herself. The actor Robin Ellis, who would find fame a few years later in the original BBC series Poldark, was appearing in a show nearby and was a frequent visitor. The show was well reviewed and paintings were sold to visitors from all over the world, some of who would continue to collect Elizabeth’s work for the rest of her career.
With her first husband John Milligan, who became the first full-time administrator of the Edinburgh Fringe in 1970, she enjoyed a time at the heart of the Edinburgh’s arts scene. The artist John Byrne and musician Gerry Rafferty were friends. She often recalled a conversation in which she said to Rafferty: “I wish I had your talent,” to which he promptly responded: “I wish I had yours.”
After her marriage ended, Elizabeth continued to organise her own exhibitions in Edinburgh, often at festival time. Her work provided her first introduction to her second husband, John Benfield, a London-based graphic designer who was visiting a friend in the city. When they met, he said, it was “love at first sight”.
Elizabeth and John married in 1979 and settled in Wales on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. For Elizabeth, Wales presented a landscape very different from the open lands and big skies of the Borders, but she rose to the challenge and the scope of her work broadened as a result. She continued to organise her own exhibitions in Edinburgh, packing the car with paintings for the journey north every summer, and her work found new audiences too, in South Wales, Bristol and Newbury.
John and Elizabeth spent 17 years in Wales, but Elizabeth was keen to return to Scotland and in 1994 they moved to a house at Longformacus in the Lammermuir Hills. They spent their winters there, where they quickly became a part of village life, and their summers in the Cevennes, where John had acquired a house some years previously. Her paintings reflected the moods of both places: thick snow in the Borders, sun-bleached hillsides in France.
By then, Elizabeth had been persuaded by her friends and collectors that she should work with a gallery, and she had begun a partnership with the Torrance Gallery in Edinburgh’s Dundas Street, where she would exhibit for the rest of her career. She regularly had work included in exhibitions at the Royal Scottish Academy and Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, and found new opportunities to place her work in galleries throughout Scotland.
In 2001, the Torrance Gallery hosted an exhibition celebrating 30 years of Elizabeth’s painting, A Painter Passing Through, and in 2005 she was invited to exhibit at the Purcell Gallery in London. Her work was purchased by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, and by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which also holds work by Gillies and Philipson, her mentors at Edinburgh College of Art. She was also pleased that three of her paintings were purchased by the charity Paintings in Hospitals.
The Scotsman art critic Richard Jaques said of her work: “Reid has a very personal vision which manages to convert the complexities of the natural world into stunningly simple images… Added to this is the skill and daring in catching in her paintings the shifting light and contrasts of brightness that one witnesses daily in the country but that one seldom sees set down with such conviction and authority.”
In 2007, Elizabeth and John decided to move permanently to France, settling in La Verrerie de Boucard in the Berry region, close to Sancerre, and only 20 miles from the town of Aubigny-sur-Nere, long associated with the Stuarts and twinned with Haddington, where Elizabeth went to school.
In later life, Elizabeth was troubled by arthritis, which caused her to lose the use of two fingers in her painting hand, and for the last six years of her life she was a wheelchair user. Painting became harder, but her determination to paint and ambition for her work were undimmed and the soft landscapes of central France continued to inspire her. Her spirit and sense of humour remained unbowed, and she always made sure she made her stressed out doctor laugh.
In 2017, she was honoured with an exhibition in the Chateau des Stuarts, Aubigny-sur-Nere, which included work stretching back to 1971, and in 2018, she achieved another ambition, her first show in Paris at the Galerie New Image. The determined young woman, the daughter of a Leith tobacconist, had fulfilled her dream and become a popular and acclaimed painter whose work continues to bring joy.
Her husband John Benfield said: “A lot of people didn’t understand her work, it was so simple.” She said of it herself: “Through my paintings, I hope to encourage people to stop, look and listen to the natural beauty all around.” It is as simple – and as complicated – as that.