Obituary: Jack Firth RSW, artist and teacher

Share this article

Jack Firth RSW, artist and teacher. Born: 21 May, 1917 in Edinburgh. Died: 27 September, 2010 in Edinburgh, aged 93.

Jack Firth had two distinguished careers: firstly as an educationalist and school teacher connected with the Edinburgh College of Art and lastly at the department of art for Lothian Region. And secondly he was a gifted artist who painted throughout his life but, when he retired in 1982, concentrated on watercolours and exhibited widely.

Firth was a popular lecturer and gave talks on art to children and adults throughout Scotland for the Scottish Arts Council. He painted mostly in a traditional style and had a fine way of capturing the coastlines of Scotland and the countryside of France.

There was a beguiling individuality and vitality about his watercolours, and they were given an extra zest with his keen sense of colour.

Firth did few portraits, but one was particularly notable: that of Sir Robin Philipson, a close friend, in his studio at work. The picture now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Firth was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) in 1961 and twice served as its vice-president.

John Beaton Firth - always affectionately called Jack - attended George Heriot's School and then studied at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1935 to 1939 under William Gilles, John Maxwell and William MacTaggart.

During the Second World War he saw service with, and was commissioned in, the Royal Artillery before spending the last year of the war in the Royal Army Education Corps acting as an education officer for Headquarters BAOR in Germany.

Firth then returned to Edinburgh to teach in schools from 1946 to 1963, first at Broughton High School and then Forrester High School. At the latter he was head of the art department.

He was a much respected part-time lecturer in drawing at Edinburgh College of Art from 1955 to 1970. In 1963 he was appointed art adviser to Edinburgh Education Department of Lothian Region. Firth was involved in many aspects of arts education in the capital and was instrumental in forming a fine collection of paintings for the schools' collection throughout the region.

He exhibited widely; in fact his first show was in 1949 at Brown's the Book Shop in Edinburgh's George Street.

Since then his work has been seen in the annual exhibitions, among others at the Royal Scottish Academy, the Scottish Gallery, the Torrance Gallery (three solo Festival exhibitions in the 1980s), the Open Eye Gallery (four solo exhibitions in the 1990s) and he contributed to Scottish Artists in France, a travelling exhibition organised by the Scottish Arts Council in 1980.Retrospectives have been held at the Scottish Arts Club, and one is planned for early next year at Edinburgh's Open Eye Gallery.

Firth's work has also been bought by public institutions (such as Aberdeen Art Gallery, the Bank of Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow City Art collections) and several private individuals.

Much of his work was done in Scotland - he painted from the Borders to the far north - but he had a special affection for the coastline around Ullapool and the Morayshire countryside.

He often visited France and took delight in capturing the changing light on the statues and carvings of Chartres Cathedral.

His painting Chartres Blue depicts the dawn light bursting majestically into a medieval cloister.

His paintings of Scotland captured the rugged nature of the coastline and contrasted with the more calming aspect of the nearby fishing village.

Firth was also an author and published, in 1979, a well-received book entitled Scottish Watercolour Painting.

He lived for 50 years in the same house in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, and was much involved in various aspects of the arts in Scotland. He was a member of the Society of Scottish Artists and served on many committees concerned with the arts.

He was also the resident artist at the Edinburgh Zoo and, from 1950 to 1963 he was a member of Edinburgh Film Festival Council.

Guy Peploe, managing director of the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, remembers him with much affection. "Jack Firth was a fine watercolourist who perhaps sacrificed his own professional career as a painter to devote himself to other professional responsibilities and indeed the support and advocacy of many of his fellow professionals.

"His archives on Scottish painters were extensive and his knowledge of William Gillies and Robin Philipson in particular were unparalleled. We at the Scottish Gallery were many times grateful for his extraordinary recall and insight.

"Jack's paintings had a clarity and honesty which made him a master in the medium of watercolour, which continued to develop in Scotland through the annual exhibitions of the RSW while in England, perhaps, watercolour became the preferred medium of the amateur."

Jack Firth married Chris Trotter in 1943 in Plymouth, where they were serving during the war. She died last year and he is survived by their two daughters.