Obituary: Joseph Maxwell RSW, artist, teacher

Artist whose love of line and precision was born during RAF cartography training. Picture: Paul Reid
Artist whose love of line and precision was born during RAF cartography training. Picture: Paul Reid
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Born: 19 November, 1925 in Kilmarnock. Died: 30 March, 2015, in Aberfeldy, aged 89

Joseph Maxwell’s emergence as one of Scotland’s important contemporary painters had its unlikely genesis in Ordnance Survey and his ­wartime exploits as a young RAF airman.

Having had a variety of short-term jobs after leaving school, he trained as a cartographer and served with a photographic reconnaissance squadron, undertaking numerous recces in Mosquito aircraft ahead of bombing raids on Germany. Then, as the conflict drew to a close, he was one of those involved in the harrowing task of repatriating French inmates liberated from concentration camps, a horror that left an indelible impression on the flier who was then not yet out of his teens.

But amid the brutality of war and the dangerous missions to map out enemy terrain and targets, he had gained a reputation as an accomplished cartoonist, regularly providing witty drawings for the RAF magazine Air Clues. He had also taken up painting, producing sketches and portraits, and developing a talent that saw him sponsored, after demob, on a painting course at the Sir John Cass Art School in London (now simply The Cass and part of London Metropolitan University).

From there he went on to Edinburgh College of Art and became a teacher and lecturer while cementing a career as a distinguished artist. He was also a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour who exhibited at the Louvre, and met Picasso – whose abstract style failed to rub off on Maxwell, leaving the Scot to concentrate on the landscapes for which he is best known.

Maxwell was the eldest of three children of Railway Police sergeant William Maxwell and his wife Mary and was educated at Leith Academy, leaving school at 15 to join the Co-op where he was “the worst clerk they ever had”. He then had brief spells in the police, the forestry business and Ordnance Survey before joining the RAF at the height of the Second World War, in 1943. He did his cartography training in Wales before being posted to 540 Squadron, which provided aerial photographic evidence before and after bombing raids on Germany.

In 1945, as the Allies advanced, the squadron moved to France and he was based in Coulommiers, near Paris, and crewed de Havilland Mosquitos on photographic reconnaissance missions, often supporting daylight raids by US Air Force bombers. After taking part in the distressing operation to return home those French nationals who had survived the Nazi concentrations camps, he was invalided out of the service by medics who deemed him too young to have witnessed such scenes.

However, out of that darkness came some good: during his time in France he was billeted with a family whose head was a major figure in the French resistance in Coulommiers and with whom Maxwell formed a close bond. That friendship endured for many decades after the end of the war, with the Frenchman often visiting Scotland.

Following Maxwell’s year at The Cass, he returned to Edinburgh in 1947 where he studied at Edinburgh College of Art under Sir William Gillies who tried to turn him into a Colourist. Maxwell preferred the works of Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious, both war artists who also specialised in landscapes.

At art college he met his first wife, Sheena, whom he married in 1951, and after graduating the couple worked independently as artists for a short time, creating murals among other things. But he soon moved into teaching and taught throughout the 1950s at various Edinburgh schools, including the Royal High School and Ainslie Park Secondary. Latterly he was head of department at Firrhill High.

In 1957, he became a founder member and first president of the Holyrood Art Club, and was elected to the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1960.

Tragically, Sheena developed Hodgkin’s disease (now more usually known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and died in 1961, leaving him to care for their young children, a son and a daughter. He married for a second time the following year, to a fellow Firrhill teacher Christine and went on to have another daughter and son.

Shortly after their marriage Joseph and Christine moved to Dundee, where he joined the College of Education’s art department, which he subsequently headed. Meanwhile, he continued to produce his own work, mainly muted and carefully composed landscapes displaying a love of line that he attributed to the precision of map-drawing, which he loved.

In the late 1970s he was awarded the Diploma of Dilan de L’Art Contemporain and was one of a select few British painters invited to exhibit at The Louvre in Paris.

It was during one French trip that he met Picasso, in the Cafe des Tombliers, a favourite artists’ haunt in Collioure, near the Spanish border. Years later he recalled struggling with the language barrier: “His French was thick Catalan and mine was thick Leith Academy … He asked, ‘What do you paint in Scotland?’ I wish I’d had the nerve to say, ‘Lavatory seats’ but I was rather in awe.”

Maxwell retired from teaching in his mid-50s, but continued to lecture for the Scottish Arts Council and at the universities of Edinburgh, Dundee, St Andrews and Warwick. He renovated an old farmhouse near Aberfeldy where he also ran adult painting classes.

In 2002, he held a solo exhibition, Light of Two Lands, focusing on works from his two favourite painting areas – the countryside around his Perthshire home and the Le Marche region of Italy where his daughter, Jane, had bought a house.

Maxwell – whose work is in public collections across the UK and in New York – enjoyed the fascinating contrast between the Scottish and Italian landscapes, but also occasionally produced large and complex still life compositions.

Beyond his painting, he was just as colourful and creative in his family life – an adventurer with a slapstick sense of fun. He acquired his pilot’s licence while in Dundee, went tandem paragliding in Switzerland and snorkelling in the Red Sea in his 70s and, for one granddaughter’s birthday, arranged a ride in a microlight to fly over her party, parachuting gifts into the garden. Then there was his frequent deployment of a whoopee cushion and, at one daughter’s wedding reception, a device that enabled two angels to dispense wine through their waterworks.

He had a well-honed sense of the absurd and no airs or graces, an attribute that allowed him to connect with ease with all social strata from mixing with the aristocracy to blethering with an Italian farmer.

Maxwell is survived by Christine, his wife of almost 53 years, his children Jane, William, Marylouise and John and eight grandchildren.