Philip Reeves was a quiet but commanding presence in Scottish art for many years. A regular contributor to the RSA, the RGI and the RSW, in the visual cacophony of these big group shows his work sung out serenely, an island of calm. Quiet, abstract and deceptively simple, it was utterly distinctive. Much of the work that he showed was collage, his favoured medium for the last 40 years and more. He was, however, also a superb printmaker. Indeed, he was a professional. Here too, however, collage was involved. He reckoned that it was print-making that took him into collage, that it developed from his habit of working with multiple plates, or introducing textured found objects. Thereafter collage remained definitive of what he did as an artist.
“I did not see the need for anything other than a flatness,” he told me, “and a balance between that shape and that shape, between this colour and that colour... The intervals, the spaces between the shapes, almost like music with the rests between the bars and the music staves. It grew, I think, that way... I wanted to see what would happen if I honed things down. It is getting the balance right, but at the same time making things slightly off balance. That is more interesting. You have to work at it to get it off balance. It is easy to do it perfectly, but to introduce something that might possibly upset things a little bit is something that I always hope will emerge.”
He also described how it all began with landscape. When he first came to Glasgow, when everybody sad he should go to the northwest coast, rather perversely, he said, he went to the northeast coast, where the wide skies, the great cliffs, the stacks and the layering of the rock fascinated him and gave him a vision of a vastly simplified landscape. He moved a long way from this beginning, of course, but in quite recent work, the word “Stacks” was still a favourite in his titles. Even when his work is apparently most abstract, such links to the perceived world remain somewhere behind the image.
First and foremost, however, Reeves was a print-maker and as such his influence on modern Scottish print-making has been profound.
Born in Cheltenham in 1931, his father was a printer and so was sympathetic to the ambition that took his son to Cheltenham College of Art at the age of 16. He then secured a place at the Royal College in London, but had first to do National Service, serving from 1949-1951, first in the 8th Royal Tank Regiment and then in Libya with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. There was no chance for a humble trooper to practise his art in the army. Nevertheless, he hid a sketchbook behind his pay book in his top pocket and drew surreptitiously when he could. At the Royal College from 1951-54 he studied print-making under Robert Austin. His choice may have been influenced by his teacher at Cheltenham, or by his father’s trade, but, typically self-deprecating, his account of it was that print-making was “probably easier to get into”.
Although older than him, John Bratby and Edward Middleditch, pioneers of the “kitchen sink school”, were his contemporaries at the RCA. He did not follow the fashion they set, but his own early work, principally etching, was nevertheless marked by a gritty sort of urban realism. This translated well to the streets of Glasgow where he moved in 1954, appointed to teach printmaking at Glasgow School of Art by Douglas Percy Bliss. Initially his course was part of graphic design, or commercial art as he called it dismissively, and his accommodation was little better than a cupboard. Frustrated to be in such a lowly position when printmaking was booming in the south, when Harry Barnes took over as Director he lobbied successfully to move into the Fine Art Department. He also won an improved budget and was able to start to expand his subject.
With this change in status, his quiet determination began a revolution in print-making in Scotland. He followed it up when, in 1967, reflecting on how little opportunity there was for his students to carry on after graduation, he responded enthusiastically to the invitation to join the project that became Edinburgh Printmakers. Initiated by American Bob Cox and artists Roy Wood and Kim Kempsall, this organisation began modestly in a small shop in Victoria Street, Edinburgh, but with it a new and highly successful kind of print-making cooperative was pioneered.
Five years later, Edinburgh’s example was followed in Glasgow with the foundation of Glasgow Print Studios. As a founder member and the most experienced print-maker in the country, there too Reeves took a central role. He remained a loyal supporter of the Print Studios, producing and also showing there a constant stream of superb and always original prints.
Reeves retired from teaching at Glasgow School of Art in 1991. In 1963 he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers. He was elected ARSA in 1971 and RSA in 1976. He was a member of the RGI and of the RSW, serving as President of the latter organisation from 1998-2005. He showed regularly in group shows and was supported throughout his career by the Compass Gallery, where he had a series of one-man shows and a retrospective in 2015. He also had a major retrospective jointly at the Talbot Rice Gallery and the Hunterian in 2001 but, always modest, he showed very little elsewhere and, apart from an exhibition with the Fine Art Society in London in 1996, scarcely at all in the south.
His work is represented in the British Museum, the Fleming Collection, the Government Art Collection, in Glasgow and Aberdeen Art Galleries and in several other public collections in Scotland, but shamefully, the National Gallery holds just three prints by him, purchased nearly 40 years ago. He really was an outstanding artist, however, and in spite of his modesty, his reputation will certainly continue to grow.