Obituary: Nita Begg, artist

Nita Begg
Nita Begg
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Nita Begg was a Scottish artist who received critical acclaim for her work in the still life genre over a career spanning 50 years.

Nita Begg DA, artist. Born: 13 November, 1920, in Glasgow. Died: 21 August 2011, in Auchlochan, Lanarkshire, aged 90.

Through still life, Begg examined the inner landscape, drawing inspiration from decorative objets d’art, curios and family mementos. Her paintings fused dazzling colours. Expressive brushwork contrasted with clean geometric forms.

Nita was born in Glasgow in 1920 and as a child crossed the city by train and by tram to attend Laurel Bank High School. Her father, James Livingstone Begg FRSE FRGS JP, trained as a professional artist, studying in Paris for three years, and Nita followed in his footsteps, entering the Glasgow School of Art as a diploma student in 1937.

In 1939 she lived in Paris for six months with her sister Catherine, studying and speaking the language at St Joesph de Cluny Convent.

During the Blitz she helped with firewatching duties at the Mackintosh building and in 1941 lost her adored brother Tom when he was killed in action during the siege of Tobruk.

After graduating in 1943 she worked in her uncle’s property office, then for a short while in a Shettleston munitions factory but found the deafening noise unbearable so instead joined the British Red Cross.

She trained as a nurse and served for more than three years until 1947. That summer she was invited onto the post-diploma course at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, run by James Cowie, where she first met student artist Angus Neil.

This brought a return to painting after the bleak war years and flung her together again with fellow students Joan Eardley and William Gallacher. She married William in December 1949, just a month after he was elected professional member of Glasgow Art Club.

Her relationship with Joan Eardley was that of a friend and fellow painter. It developed during their student years together at Glasgow School of Art, and lasted until Eardley’s untimely death in 1963.

Eardley would give her a fiver with which to look after Angus Neil while she was away in London in the 1950s.

In the 1950s she lived in Duke Steet, Denistoun and her early, sombre paintings from that era reflect the drab domesticity and gloom of the period. By the mid-1950s her colour use was apparent and “bright hues” were noted by The Herald critic in 1955 in the painting of her nephew, Tom.

In the 1960s she moved with her young family to the relatively quiet West End, which was by comparison full of light. This change could be seen in her work; colours became brighter, more vivid, more a celebration of life.

She was elected as member of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists in 1962. Her 1967 exhibition in the Blythshood Gallery drew much press attention.

Emilio Coia in The Scotsman praised her confidence in paint and her sensitivity in portraying the objects which populated her still lives, while Cordelia Oliver picked out her “softly broken succulent colours”.

Stylistically she was beholden to no one form and like her art school contemporaries Carlo Rossi, Margot Sandeman and Joan Eardley she followed her own path, finding that success lay simply in exploring and experimenting with the medium.

In 1968 one of her paintings was purchased by the Queen during the annual patronage of the RSA. This really thrilled her and in the same year she was awarded the 1968 Lady Artists Lauder Award jointly with sculptor and friend Wendy Ross.

In 1969 she exhibited solo at the English Speaking Union Edinburgh, a collection of “representational, impressionist and abstract works painted with vitality and joy”, noted The Herald.

Her social conscience was apparent in works like Mother and Child, Korea painted in the international year of human rights, and by the inclusion of medals, orders of discharge and family heirlooms in her subject groups.

In the 1970s Edward Gage described her work as rewarding and fresh at the Scottish Society of Women Artists, and Coia in Scottish Field asserted that “she wields paint with authority”.

Her work was recognised by art critic Clare Henry, who picked out her work amongst the exhibitors at the 1985 Glasgow Society of Women Artists and was impressed by Begg’s detailed observations of “simple keys and matchbox” at Visual Arts Scotland in 1992.

In 2004 Nita was awarded the GSWA Special Prize for painting at its annual show in the Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie. She also exhibited at Links House in Glasgow, Cyril Gerber’s art warehouse, and at the Pitlochry Festival.

Other joint exhibitions followed at the Torrance Gallery and ESU in Edinburgh along with regular contributions to the RGI, RSA, GSWA and VAS, and several private galleries.

She took part in charitable exhibitions, giving to Christian Action Housing, MacMillan Support, St Columba’s Hospice, Cancer Research and the High Blood Pressure Foundation.

Amongst many private sales her work was collected by Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Edinburgh Fund Managers and Shepperd & Wedderburn. Andrea Dworkin, the celebrated feminist, bought one and remarked that it gave her great joy and was something to treasure.

In 1980 Nita left Glasgow to settle in her holiday home at Straiton, Ayrshire, where she continued to paint and pursue her love of gardening. In 1994 she moved again, to Darvel, to be closer to family.

Ill health ended her painting days in 2004 and her remaining years were spent with family reading and listening to classical music and viewing the art exhibitons.

After hospitalisation at the start of the year and in failing health she moved to Auchlochan retirement village, where she died, aged 90, on 21 August, 2011.

Nita Begg is survived by her three children Michael, Jane and James, and seven grandchildren.