Obituary: Isobel Gordon; artist who played a major role in shaping how art should be taught in Scotland

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Born: 16 November, 1919, in Aberdeen. Died: 13 March, 2012 in Ellon, aged 92

ISOBEL Gordon was an inspirational art educator with a grace and style more reminiscent of Italian renaissance than North-east Scotland.

Isobel Gordon was an inspirational art educator with a grace and style more reminiscent of Italian renaissance than North-east Scotland.

Always immaculately turned out, with not a hair out of place, her spotless smock and neatly regimented jars of paints were an indication not only of her own sense of discipline but also of the fastidious organisation which she brought to schools from Dunoon to Perth and Aberdeen. And her skills – as an artist in her own right and as a teacher with outstanding exam results – did not go unnoticed by the Scottish Education Department. Consequently, she was one of only two women on its working party to determine the best methods of teaching art in secondary schools, a contribution that undoubtedly benefited countless aspiring young artists across the country.

The daughter of master grocer John Gordon and his wife Jessie, she was born at home in University Road in Old Aberdeen where her artistic interests were fostered by her father, a well-read, self-educated man. Though he died when she was six, she also shared his love of music – he was a fiddler, she a talented violinist – which latterly overtook her passion for painting.

After attending the local primary school, she finished her education at Aberdeen High School for Girls before studying at Gray’s School of Art between 1936 and 1940, where her contemporaries included Alberto Morrocco. There Miss Gordon quickly made her mark: in 1937 she was awarded the Founder’s Prize of £2/10s, followed the next year by the Alexander Barker Prize. It was only years after her graduation that she learned she had been the best pupil in her year, the accolade somehow having been subsumed by the arrival of war.

Jobs were scarce in Aberdeen during the Second World War and after training as a teacher at Aberdeen College of Education, she left her home city to embark on the career that would dominate her working life.

Her first teaching post was at the historic Dunoon Grammar School on the Firth of Clyde, an area then buzzing with naval activity. She then spent a short spell teaching in Oban before taking up an appointment teaching art at Perth Academy. It was a post that she particularly enjoyed – she loved the school, the pupils and the area.

Eventually, she was able to return to Aberdeen where she became principal teacher of art at Albyn School for Girls. In 1968, she was invited by the Secretary of State to join the Scottish Education Department’s working party on art in secondary schools. Its remit was to consider the position of art “in providing a continuing experience in creative expression through the visual arts and in fostering a sense of responsibility towards the creation of a visually satisfying environment”.

With her knowledge and experience, coupled with an ability to give her pupils a real insight into the meaning and purpose of art, it was a role that suited her perfectly.

Meanwhile, her dedication to her post at Albyn and the high standards she achieved there prompted one art supervisor to write to her headmistress in praise of her work, emphasising how fortunate the school was to have such a gifted teacher. Having been impressed by a lively and interesting exhibition of pupils’ work, he said the “scale, good taste, imaginative approach and variety” made a very favourable impression on Her Majesty’s Inspector Art. Later, she lent that same keen eye to an art exhibition at Kingseat Hospital outside Aberdeen, where she became a volunteer in the 1980s.

Other interests included music – she played violin in chamber groups in Perth and Dundee – and Old Aberdeen Heritage Society of which she was a member.

Only four years ago, her work featured in an exhibition at Gray’s School of Art entitled Isobel Gordon: A 1930s Art Education. But though she was unquestionably an accomplished artist, her real legacy, as one of her former pupils observed, was her ability to communicate her emotional response to paintings: she loved to debate artistic merit and did so forthrightly, ferociously upholding her views.

Not one to compromise, she was a woman who viewed the world through the prism of her own experience, secure in her conviction that her way was the correct way in any dealings.

She was also a stickler for detail, especially in her love of creating things of beauty, whether it was in the studio, the classroom or in her garden. She put this into practice at her home at picturesque Cottown of Balgownie by the River Don, where her expansive knowledge of precisely how and when each plant should be pruned resulted in a stunning space alive with colour.

Latterly, she lived at Ellon and was still in contact with some of her former pupils, many of whom went on to make a career in art, her unique influence continuing to stimulate and inspire down the generations.

She is survived by her younger sister Margaret.

ALISON SHAW