Elizabeth Blackadder managed to be widely popular and very successful and yet remain a committed and aware contemporary artist.
Indeed, I am sure her popularity was not just a response to some of her more familiar subject matter, notably the cats and flowers that populate innumerable mugs and place mats, but to her shining integrity as an artist. It is visible in everything that she did and in the feeling for the world around her and the things in it that she expressed constantly in her art.
Those more familiar images, too, were only one aspect of an artistic output that ranged very widely, both in subject and in technique. Her drawing was beautiful and underlay all her work in oil and in watercolour. She was also very inventive in the latter medium. From her childhood she painted flowers to the extent that botany was at one point her potential future.
In her early work, landscapes and buildings were a constant, but flowers, too, continued to be, as they remained thereafter. Her respect for them and her intuitive sympathy demanded botanical accuracy, but also found expression in the way she painted them, capturing their innate vitality. Writing about her flower painting years ago, I was moved to quote Dylan Thomas to describe how she captured “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. It stills seems apt.
She rarely painted people or wide urban scenes, but, preferring close focus, it was natural that still-life should become a primary vehicle for her. She collected all kinds of visually intriguing things, especially if they were brightly coloured. Indeed, she loved colour. (In one of her rare self-portraits she is seated in a Japanese robe behind a vermillion lacquer table. A block of brilliant colour, it takes up half the picture, while she herself is scarcely even in focus.)
If, however, in her earlier still-lifes, you can recognise objects assembled on a table to be painted, later any such notional support disappeared and the objects and perhaps some brush marks, patterns or strips of gold, all seem to be suspended in some marvellous mental space. This poetic, free association was the hallmark of some of her very best work.
She was also a superb print-maker and began making prints very early on with pioneering lithographers, the Harley Brothers. In 1962, her work with them included a commission from the Post Office. Later she worked for many years with Glasgow Print Studio to produce such masterpieces as her superb series of coloured etchings of orchids. The prints combine with spectacular success her love of flowers (she travelled to the Far East to study orchids), her sense of design and her intuitive skill as a printmaker.
Elizabeth Violet Blackadder was born in Falkirk in 1931, daughter of Thomas and Violet Isabella Blackadder. Her father, an engineer, died when she was young, and her mother worked as a domestic science teacher to keep her family.
During the first years of the war Elizabeth stayed with her grandmother in the west and went to school in Dunoon, but she finished her schooling at Falkirk High and went from there to the University of Edinburgh. There, under David Talbot Rice, she completed the five-year Fine Art degree taught jointly with Edinburgh College of Art where William Gillies was head of painting.
With a postgraduate scholarship from the College, she spent the winter of 1955-56 in Italy. Magnificent drawings of the cathedrals of Florence and Pisa are a record of that time.
Back in Edinburgh, she married a fellow student, John Houston. In the first years of their marriage they lived in London Street, Edinburgh, in the flat above Anne Redpath, whose work and range of subject matter certainly inspired Elizabeth, but they also had Joan Eardley as a houseguest on at least one occasion.
Until John’s untimely death in 2008, their marriage was a unique artistic partnership, but she also told me how much she relied on him, especially, I think, because of his wide understanding of contemporary art. As her career began to outshine his, however, far from any jealousy, he simply radiated pride at her success.
In 1958 Elizabeth enrolled at Moray House to do a teacher training course and in 1962 was appointed to a full-time post at Edinburgh College of Art, where she worked alongside John until 1986.
Meanwhile, however, they took every opportunity to travel to paint, first around Scotland, then regularly to France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, to the US in 1969 and in 1985 they made the first of several visits to Japan.
Japan, Japanese art and art objects, gardens, and indeed, fishponds, were a major source of subject matter for Elizabeth thereafter. She painted beautiful pictures of Japanese temples with their slatted screens and of brightly coloured fish in fishponds.
But Japan was also a major influence on her work more subtly. Especially in her later semi-abstract still-lifes, the sense of the importance of the space between things, of the open ground in her pictures as well as the placed objects, surely echoes the way these things function in Zen gardens and, as with the gardens, it gives a deeply contemplative beauty to her painting.
She still painted more directly, however, especially working alongside John in Venice and elsewhere, or painting her familiar cats. The latter, too, as they move in and out of her compositions seem to reflect the fluency of the exchange between her pictures and the familiar world around her. (One picture I wrote about had two cats, a few years later I saw it again and it had three.)
It is obviously not a private world. She shares it as she paints it, but there is paradox there for she was a very private person. Quiet, almost shy, she gave herself no airs and graces for all her success. Far from it. It was characteristic of her that when she was made Limner to HM the Queen and was asked to do a drawing of Her Majesty, she took the morning train to London, a cab to Buckingham Palace, drew the Queen and got the evening train back to Edinburgh. Her occasional self-portraits capture this modesty.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s art is often very colourful. Indeed, she had a marvellous sense of colour, but it is also always very subtle. Often, like her, it is quiet, too, but its integrity is resonant and its poetry is rich. Her reputation and her success were only what she deserved and they will surely endure.
Commissions she received included portraits, several tapestries and two sets of stamps for the Royal Mail, one of orchids in 1993 and another of cats in 1995. Her exhibition history is very extensive and her work is represented in public collections throughout the UK and beyond.
Her many honours and awards include the RSA Guthrie Award, 1962; elected ARSA 1963; ARA 1971; RSA 1972; RA 1976; RGI 1984. She was appointed OBE in 1982, Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner in 2002 and DBE 2003.
She was awarded honorary degrees by Heriot-Watt University, 1988; University of Edinburgh 1990; University of Aberdeen 1990; University of Strathclyde 1998; University of Glasgow 2001; University of Stirling 2002; University of St. Andrews 2003.
If you would like to submit an obituary, or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.