Obituary: Tom Shanks, respected Scottish landscape painter

Tom Shanks, artist. Born: 
16 April 1921 in Glasgow. Died: 
14 June, 2020 in Kilmacolm, 
aged 99

Tom Shanks
Tom Shanks

A lifelong love of the Scottish landscape inspired Tom Shanks to become one of Scotland’s most respected landscape painters, though he always remained modest and self-effacing about his own achievements.

His evocative watercolours of mountains, lochs and beaches are in the collections of Prince Philip, the House of Lords and Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, among many others. But the artist, who continued to paint until a month before his death, had a tendency to scrutinise his own work carefully before saying, quietly: “It’s not a very good one.”

Tom was born in Glasgow and spent his early years in Dennistoun. His parents, Thomas and Annie, were active in the peace movement, helping to organise a group which hosted speakers on peace issues. After his father’s death, when Tom was just ten years old, he and his older brother were raised by their mother and her two sisters. Shelving his dream of going to art school, he left school in his early teens and got a job as as an office boy at Templeton’s carpet factory.

But art remained his passion. As young as seven, on family holidays to Skye he would set off with his drawing book and sketch the mountains. He later spoke of this as a formative experience which defined what would be his key subject for the rest of his artistic life.

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At Templeton’s he began to exhibit his drawings and paintings in the art club and worked his way up to a job in the design department at the time when the company was creating the carpets for Cunard’s new liner, the Queen Mary. When war broke out in 1939 he determined to remain true to the principles he had learned from his parents and became a conscientious objector. He was sent to do forestry work at Benmore, near Dunoon, for the duration of the war.

Returning to Glasgow, he started attending night classes at Glasgow School of Art where his exceptional work was spotted by the director, Harry Barnes, who encouraged him into full-time study. He graduated in 1950, winning a prestigious travelling scholarship which took him to France, Italy and Belgium, painting as he went.

Tom’s wife-to-be, June, was a fellow student at Glasgow School of Art. They married in 1953 and were together for 65 years until her death in 2018.

Tom and June moved to Rosehill in Kilbarchan in 1956, sharing the big house with artist friends Bill and Cynthia Birnie. Work was done to subdivide the house, but never completely – on the upstairs landing only a curtain separated the two families. Tom and June’s daughters, Judy and Wendy, grew up alongside the three Birnie children, forming lifelong friendships.

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Tom worked as a scenic artist for Rutherglen Rep Theatre and designed ceramic tiles for Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studioes. He also began to exhibit his own paintings with Glasgow gallery Cyril Gerber Fine Art, a relationship which continued until his death after the gallery passed to Cyril’s daughter Jill. He was elected to membership of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) in 1957.

Feeling he needed a more secure income than painting could give him, he trained as a teacher, working first as a peripatetic teacher of art in special needs schools then at Trinity High in Renfrew, where he inspired many young people to enjoy art and pursue it for themselves.

Meanwhile, he continued to paint. The family often spent the six-week summer holiday in the Highlands, where Tom would head off daily to paint and draw. Working en plein air was an important aspect of his practice, whether painting the mountains or sketching seascapes on the deck of a ferry bound for the islands. He took early retirement from teaching to concentrate on painting.

Always productive, Tom was now able to exhibit regularly with a range of galleries and a following quickly grew for his work. Never one for self-promotion, he preferred to leave June to work the room at private views and could often be found in quiet conversation with art students or gallery assistants, learning about their work. He was made RGI in 1983 and PAI in 1996.

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As Tom and June approached their eighties, they moved from Rosehill to a cottage in nearby Kilmacolm, close to their daughter Judy and her family. Tom saw his granddaughters Gillian and Kirsty almost daily, and when Gillian married and came to live nearby they had a similarly close relationship with their great-grandchildren. Tom was a master at imaginative play and loved to amuse the children by drawing on their boiled eggs.

At no point did advancing age curb Tom’s productivity or ambition as an artist, with a room in his cottage always set aside as a studio. If anyone ever asked why he was still wielding a paintbrush in his nineties, they would be quietly told: “I’m an artist, that’s what I do.”

A master of watercolour, he particularly enjoyed capturing the moods and weather of the Highlands, the shifting patterns of cloud and light over panoramas of mountains. In old age, he decided to experiment with oil paint and produced a handful of exquisite works, adapting the techniques he used so masterfully in watercolour to this new medium.

He was a good editor of his work and kept setting himself new challenges, never settling for paintings which could be described as formulaic. His late paintings experimented with elements of pattern, almost as if he was revisiting his time in the design studio at Templeton’s and bringing aspects of this subtly into his work. His last solo show was at Jill Gerber Fine Art in 2018, but he continued to supply paintings for group shows, and painted well into his 99th year.

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He celebrated his 99th birthday in April during lockdown with his three great-grandchildren singing to him through his window. The pandemic meant attendance at his funeral was limited, but friends and neighbours lined the streets of Kilmacolm as his cortege passed, to honour a man who is remembered as a caring, modest gentleman and an exceptional artist. At his funeral, he was described as “a gentle unassuming man who loved people and life”.

He is survived by his two daughters, two granddaughters and three great grandchildren.

SUSAN MANSFIELD

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