Obituary: Pat Semple, acclaimed artist and inspirational teacher

Pat Semple, artist. Born: 3 July, 1939 in Kent. Died: 2 May 2021 in Inverness, aged 81

Pat Semple pictured with a portrait by fellow artist John Byrne
Pat Semple pictured with a portrait by fellow artist John Byrne

With the death of Pat Semple, Scotland has lost a highly accomplished and expressive artist. For over 40 years her paintings, drawings and prints earned her a glowing reputation and many admirers. She was also an inspirational teacher in schools across Scotland.

Patricia Frances Semple was born 3 July 1939 at Bromley in Kent, the only child of Neil Semple from Kintyre, and Frances Cox from Cardiff. She was often separated from her parents. Neil, a Marconi radio operator, spent long periods at sea until 1943, and was away for work even after he and Frances settled in Edinburgh.

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Pat’s early education was mostly at the village school at Saddell in Kintyre, where she stayed with her beloved grandmother in a seaside cottage, and played with her cousins. Often she would wander alone, dreaming up stories and absorbing the views of the shoreline, sea and sky. Later she drew on her lasting memories and impressions in her painting, and she often revisited the scene. At the age of 11 she lost her ailing mother to tuberculosis, adding to a formative sense of insecurity.

Her artistic talent was recognised by the nuns at St Margaret’s Convent, Edinburgh, and aged 14 Pat determined to attend art school. After leaving Lasswade Secondary School in 1958 she studied drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, where her contemporaries included John Bellany and her friend Barbara Rae. Among her most influential teachers were John Maxwell, Anne Redpath, Robin Phillipson, Denis Peploe and Derek Clarke. She made friends, threw herself into her training, gained confidence and felt herself accepted into a creative community, like “a small country with the same language, where we could be recognised and understand each other”.

In 1962 Pat benefited from a post-diploma travel bursary, then after training at Moray House began her first teaching job at her old school in 1964. Although she continued to live at home with her father, to whom she remained very close, she was leading an increasingly independent life with her circle of friends. Pat supported CND and once made a memorable visit to the Soviet Union. Later she was quietly pro-independence.

In 1970 she married her college contemporary, the sculptor and teacher Frank Pottinger, with whom she shared a love of artistic abstraction. In 1973 his job at Aberdeen College of Education took them to Torphins and later to Strathdon. They divorced in 1989.

From 1980 onwards Pat exhibited her paintings and drawings widely, sometimes collaborating with other artists, and was especially supported by galleries in Aberdeenshire and Tain. Her work depicted landscapes and often elusive or half-seen figures in ever-changing moods or transcendent states, sometimes broodingly dark, but with an increasingly vivid palette.

She was inspired figuratively rather than literally by ancient landscapes and their inhabitants, and by her personal experiences. The Glasgow Herald perceptively observed that “her work shows an artist stretching out to touch elusive forces which she senses around her, in a style that is dramatic and of a visionary nature”. Pat later embraced Catholicism, which reinforced her spiritual perception of humanity and our earthly environment.

In 1987 she was elected to the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), and through it encountered her old tutor Derek Clarke. Their shared a love of the wild landscapes of Sutherland helped overcome an age difference of 27 years. After marrying in 1992 the initial base for their passionate and productive artistic partnership was at Kinlochbervie, and later near Tain, where they shared a studio in a converted outhouse. Her marriage brought her a ready-made family. We all loved her and in return experienced the loving warmth of a bohemian, stylish and beautiful stepmother and grandma.

Pat continued to inspire primary pupils at Alness and Invergordon with the joys of messy creativity in paint and papier-mâché, until diabetes forced her to stop in her late-50s. Finding it increasingly hard to manage her condition, continue her art and look after Derek, she made the hard decision to live separately.

This did not diminish her love for someone whom she regarded as her ‘lion’, and whose example still inspired her to fulfil her life as an artist. She frequently visited Derek in his Edinburgh studio and shared painting expeditions. After his death in 2014 it was a proud moment when she collected his MBE for services to art from the Queen at Holyrood.

Pat moved to Tain, finding her place in its artistic community and making joyful close friendships, for which she had a remarkable gift. Twenty happy and productive years followed until 2020, when she was diagnosed with dementia and required care. She died from a stroke. She is survived by three of her stepsons Christopher, Tristram and Andrew (Perro predeceasing her) their partners and five grandchildren, and her cousin John Martin.

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