Obituary: Bill Baxter, founder of the ABBO group of emerging Aberdeen artists

Artist Bill Baxter
Artist Bill Baxter
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Bill Baxter, artist and teacher. Born: 22 March, 1931 in Aberdeen. Died: 20 August, 2018 in Aberdeen, aged 87.

Bill Baxter was the last of the influential group of Aberdeen artists known as ABBO and the driving force behind the quest to promote their work.

Named as an acronym of their surnames’ initials, the group comprised Eric Auld, Donald Buyers, Baxter and Bill Ord, all born within a couple of years of each other and all former students at Aberdeen’s Gray’s School of Art.

At Baxter’s instigation, ­several years after graduating and while working as an art teacher, they banded together to pool resources and stage exhibitions. As a result of their entrepreneurial approach they helped to raise the ­profile of art in Aberdeen, showcasing their diverse range of ­talent to audiences across the UK and in Belgium.

Collectively they enjoyed a decade of success, operating on a shoestring yet doing much to promote Scottish painting in the latter half of the 20th century.

Baxter, who produced still lifes and abstracts and created land and cityscapes in both earthy and vibrant shades, fluid and precise lines, was the son of a North-east fishing family. But he also had ­Cornish roots. His father George, a skipper from ­Aberdeen’s Footdee, or Fittie, married Cornish coastguard’s daughter Elfreda Polwin. Tragically his wife and their second son both died at the birth and her widowed husband eventually married her sister Blanche, who had looked after their surviving son.

The couple went on to have two daughters, Margaret and Joan, and son Bill whose artistic promise was first evident as young boy. A keen woodworker, he had developed an interest in the skill after ­wandering, aged four, into a carpentry workshop near his home. Aged seven he requested an axe for Christmas. It duly arrived, following some debate about its suitability for a child, and he became the family carpenter.

As a boy he also made model boats and lino cuts – once ­utilising a piece of flooring from under his mother’s bed which he then inked with her mangle.

Educated at Aberdeen’s Broomhill School, where Bill Ord was a pupil, he met Eric Auld when he went to the city’s Robert Gordon’s College where he excelled in science and maths.

His headmaster wanted him to do a BSc at university but Baxter had already enrolled at Gray’s School of Art, along with Auld. Donald Buyers would join them and Bill Ord was already there.

While at Gray’s Baxter won a scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art where he came under the influence of the renowned still life and landscape painter Sir William ­Gillies. After graduating in Edinburgh, he chose the Navy for his National Service. His interview was cut short when he dismissed a proposal to study Russian at London University as a midshipman and he joined the RAF instead.

He worked in a control tower and employed his artistic skills painting backcloths for amateur dramatic productions and doing portraits of his fellow servicemen for ten Woodbine.

Returning to Aberdeen in 1954, he completed teacher training and acquired a studio at 35 Back Wynd. It was a ­couple of years later, while teaching and painting in ­tandem, that he began trying to establish a group of artists with the aim of staging exhibitions.

He felt Ord, Auld and Buyers would be equally committed to his plan and their first official meeting was held in January 1957. They began with a private showing at Ord’s ­studio in The Adelphi, Aberdeen. Their first public exhibition was later that year at the city’s Gaumont Gallery. ­Baxter later worked from the west wing of a country house at Newmachar, Aberdeenshire, which he rented for 10 shillings a week.

But after marrying his wife Rosemary, in 1960, they moved to a house in Aberdeen’s King Street where he had a large studio. They spent their 58 years of married life there and had three children.

Baxter set up a pottery kiln in the back garden, made his own plates and pots, designed and built the kitchen units and most of the wooden fixtures and fittings in the house. Later a shop, run by Rosemary in the outbuildings, promoted his prints and paintings.

Meanwhile the ABBO Group, of which Auld became the most commercially ­successful, had enjoyed ten productive years of co-operation, staging 14 exhibitions at a wide variety of venues all over Britain, including several at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, and in Belgium.

Although they were received with great enthusiasm and critical acclaim, there was ­little funding and they all had full-time jobs and families to support. After going their separate ways, Baxter became a member of Aberdeen Artists’ Society and showed at their annual exhibition. In the 1970s he helped to create what became Peacock Printmakers, sitting on the first board of the printmakers’ workshop and remaining involved for 25 years.

He taught art at schools including Hilton Academy, Kaimhill Junior Secondary, Hazlehead and Torry Academies and retired early from the classroom, at 51, to become a full-time artist. In 1997 he became an artist in residence carving a wooden figurehead for the Tall Ships visit to Aberdeen that year and in 2001 his 70th birthday was celebrated with a retrospective exhibition at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary’s exhibition space.

He retired from exhibiting his work a number of years ago and, although not as active as an artist, he adored books on art, science and Maths and often visited Aberdeen Art Gallery where ABBO’S work had been recognised with an exhibition in 1965.

He is survived by his wife Rosemary, children Inga, Paul and Merryn and extended family.

ALISON SHAW