Obituary: George Devlin, painter

BORN: 8 September 1937, in Glasgow. Died: 26 May, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 76.

George Devlin. Picture: Contributed
George Devlin. Picture: Contributed

George Devlin should be ranked as one of the best British landscape painters of the modern era. His approach to painting landscape was established by the Impressionists in the 1880s: to sit in front of the subject, en plein aire, and work until the picture was essentially complete. In the studio a critical eye would bring him back to the canvas to make a few adjustments, the same rigorous examination he would give to a still life subject or a portrait, but the essentials of the landscape that made it belong to the day it was made were always preserved.

He approached his subject with a sense of wonder and his ability to make it permanent in oil paint and his gift was generously shared.

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Devlin studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1955-60, attracting the awards that recognised a precocious talent. He finished his art education with travel, working in Greece and Italy, later crossing the Sahara and working in West Africa.

His time in Burkina Faso somehow popped up on a CIA database and prompted some probing questions when he applied for a visa to visit the United States in 2010.

He won a major Scottish Arts Council award in 1968 and then relocated to France the next year, running a painting school in Vetheuil in the Val d’Oise, a beautiful area where Monet and Joan Mitchell chose to work. Back in Glasgow in the early Seventies, he presented a series of television programmes on Scottish art for STV and became involved with Scottish Ballet, where he designed sets and costumes.

In 1969 his exhibition career was established with the first of many exhibitions with The Scottish Gallery. This was a significant occasion for the artist, who recalled how in Edinburgh Robin Philipson nominated him for membership of the RSW and Anne Redpath took him for tea.

Devlin always looked outward, not inward and this is reflected in his many painting trips and exhibitions around the world, to Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, India and South Africa. Neither was England a closed market for Devlin: he began regular shows with the Portland Gallery in London from 1991, Encouraged by painter friends like Ken Howard RA, he became a member of several prestigious exhibiting bodies in the south.

His experience led to a wealth of anecdotes, unlimited acquaintances and numerous strong friendships, not least from the early Nineties at Vetheuil (always a favourite painting destination) where he was eventually given civic honours and where a book was published celebrating his work and the connection.

It was here that the French were introduced to Parliamo Glasgow as George’s enthusiasm overcame any possible cultural differences.

His most recent exhibition at the Scottish Gallery was a year ago and the introduction to the catalogue drew attention to a motion that had been lodged in the Scottish Parliament on 8 February that year by Patricia Fergusson MSP of Maryhill and been supported across the political divide to the effect that “George Devlin is marvellous”.

The motion made note of his recent retrospective at the Glasgow Art Club, his deserved reputation, the variety of his achievements and awards, his significant contribution to Scottish art celebrated at home and abroad on the 50th anniversary of his membership of the club and 75th birthday.

All accolades were richly deserved and by then immortality seemed to be a further attribute for the CV because George was a cancer survivor from his first diagnosis in 2002.

His courage has been extraordinary: in April 2005, writing in the foreword to his exhibition of new work at the Scottish Gallery, I saw no dimming of the light but an urgency to extract the most from the moment and make it permanent – no more than the artist’s true vocation.

The shadow passed and last year before his latest show I made my usual studio visit. These were always a pleasure. The walls were hung three deep with unframed canvasses, still wet, with drier works stacked against the wall and a forest of easels displaying more. As George worked off a little of his boundless nervous energy with a palette knife, I went round with a sheet of stickers selecting the show, struggling to find anything to leave out. George was at once the consummate professional (this side of the business ably supported by his wife Marie) and full of boyish enthusiasm.

He was always interested in what you had to say, although what he had to say was invariably more interesting and certainly better put.

He will be deeply missed as a man but we have as a legacy his paintings, each imbued with a balance of intuition and consideration, each displaying the energetic mark-making, brilliant colour and assured drawing with the brush which are Devlin’s trademarks.

Each is a window onto a different experience made permanent by a painter and philosopher we are privileged to have known.

He is survived by his wife Marie and daughter Nuala.