Obituary: John McLean, artist, leading abstract painter, print-maker, stained glass designer, lecturer and writer

John McLean, artist. Born: 10 January 1939 in Liverpool. Died 12 June 2019

John McLean (Picture: The Fine Art Society in Edinburgh)
John McLean (Picture: The Fine Art Society in Edinburgh)

John McLean was one of the leading abstract painters of his generation. He was, too, very much a painter and his art got to the heart of what abstraction really means: painting is as autonomous as music. It needs no buttress of external reference. His image might be just a sequence of coloured shapes like enlarged dabs of the brush, blobs, spirals, or shuffling rectangles. With variations of hue, subtle changes of depth, density, texture and ground, they were his orchestra. He could be symphonic when given the chance, but was more often, like Schubert, the master of chamber music and song, and indeed at times the canvas can sing with the poignant beauty of a lovely, unaccompanied voice.

John was born in Liverpool, but was brought up in Kirriemuir while his father, Talbert McLean, was in the army, and then in Arbroath. There Talbert taught art in Arbroath Academy where John went to school. Arbroath was a pretty unpromising place, although later for his friends in John’s vivid imagination its streets were populated with mythic characters and echoed with bawdy songs. He also spent summers in a very different school working with the gillies and stalkers in Glen Esk.

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There was however also artistic encouragement. A little coterie of devoted former pupils turned artists formed around Talbert, including Kenneth Roberts, Richard Hunter and Bill Montgomery whose wife, Nora, John also remembered with particular gratitude. The spirit of James Cowie, former warden at Hospitalfield, still hovered in Arbroath too. His discipline and visual integrity certainly touched Talbert and through Talbert, John. Talbert’s uncompromising abstract paintings found little favour with the Scottish establishment, however. This not only discouraged him, but helped shape the decision that took his son to St Andrews to study English rather than to art school. By temperament an artist, in the end he rebelled. He was a good student, but in mute protest stubbornly refused to sit his finals. After a stint with D.C. Thomson, in 1963 he went to the Courtauld Institute in London, graduating in 1966. In 1964 he married fellow St Andrews student Janet Norman. They were John and Jan, a unit, ever after.

At the Courtauld, tutor John Golding’s friendship and his successful career as both artist and art historian offered encouragement. The Courtauld also fostered John’s love of good architecture and in later life he became a passionate champion of the Barbican where he and Jan had their home.

After graduating, John taught art history at University College London and later at Chelsea School of Art, but he never stopped painting and soon began to exhibit. He had been painting beautiful, rather sombre, social realist pictures, but the first work he showed in London was hard-edged abstraction, nodding to Op Art, but really already preoccupied with colour and its interactions. Inspired to a looser style by the Abstract Expressionists, but also by the dynamic unity of figure and ground in some oriental ceramics, he began to paint with splashes and runs and to push paint around with a squeegee. In 1972, for a commission for Edinburgh University’s new halls of residence he worked on a large scale with beautiful results.

Also in 1972 he met the critic Clement Greenberg in New York. This opened up a direct and fruitful conversation with North American abstract painters, personally with Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, but also with the work of the late Morris Louis and, also recently deceased, the Canadian Jack Bush. For a while softly striped paintings acknowledged Louis’s example, but Bush’s lyrical colour and dancing, free-form motifs proved a more lasting inspiration.

In 1980, he met the Canadian abstract painter William Perehudoff and the following year and in several subsequent years was invited to Emma Lake summer school in Saskatchewan. Abstract painting was way out of fashion at home, so the company of real painters at Emma Lake provided welcome encouragement. Opening out into wide horizontals, his painting for a time also reflected the breadth and colour of the prairie landscape.

Throughout these years Jan was the principal breadwinner, teaching maths, although John taught part-time at Winchester School of Art. He also wrote on art, only occasionally, but always very well. In 1983 he spent a semester teaching in Boston. While there he painted busily, but was too broke to send the pictures home. Rolled up and forgotten, they were eventually repatriated more than thirty years later. He spent 1985 as artist in residence at Edinburgh University. Ironically given Talbert’s treatment by the establishment, it was mostly funded by the RSA from the Sir William Gillies Bequest. This residency was followed by the second of four one-man shows at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery. They were held in 1975, 1985, 1994 and 2003. The draw of North America continued however and he and Jan spent the years 1987-9 in New York.

At home, John’s stature and originality were beginning to be recognised. Tate Britain bought Opening in 1987 (though nothing since,) and the National Gallery of Scotland bought Escalator in 1989. He also won several important commissions and was showing regularly, with Francis Graham-Dixon through the nineties, with Flowers Gallery in the first part of the next decade, and also elsewhere. He also became an accomplished print-maker. He was still working against fashion, however, and shamefully was never given a major public exhibition in London. Nevertheless, in 2009 he won a commission for three windows for Norwich Cathedral. Typically he took careful account of the architecture and as a result his beautiful, luminous windows look as though they belong in this magnificent ancient building, a rare feat in modern church glass and a tribute to his art, his skill and his thoughtfulness.

International recognition came with a touring exhibition in China in 2016, aptly titled Like Singing, Like Dancing. Sadly, however, in his last years, he was struck down with a particularly debilitating form of Parkinson’s. Nevertheless though his body failed him, his spirit remained quite unbowed. Sustained by Jan’s devoted care and helped by his assistant, Hideatsu Shiba, he not only managed to continue to paint in the face of this terrible adversity, but to paint wonderfully well. Only weeks before his death, Jan brought him to Scotland to fulfil his wish to have one final exhibition. Shown at the Fine Art Society, it was a group of beautiful works, all recent, truly his swan song and farewell.

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John remained a true Scot. He loved a pipe band. He would also regularly greet you with yet another funny story from a seemingly inexhaustible fund. They generally featured the wayward antics of Angus rustics and were told in the Doric with inimitable style.

Nor was he only an abstract artist. He was also a gifted draughtsman. His Christmas cards and illustrated letters and postcards were a delight. He also painted beautiful, light, airy water colours. In all its forms his art reflected his character. A vivid and engaging person, he would respond with the same infectious enthusiasm to a piece of Roman architecture or a well-cut coat on a complete stranger. It was a kind of ever-untarnished innocence and it is there in his painting too. That is why it stands apart. Its brilliance and luminosity reflect the man himself. He is survived by his wife Jan.