Review: Painters in Parallel: William Johnstone & William Gillies

In showing side by side two contemporaries who did not see eye to eye, the Scottish Gallery illustrates the divergence of the art world of the 20th century while still allowing both to shine in their respective traditions

In showing side by side two contemporaries who did not see eye to eye, the Scottish Gallery illustrates the divergence of the art world of the 20th century while still allowing both to shine in their respective traditions

William Johnstone and William Gillies were both very significant figures in the art of Scotland in the last century. They were also close contemporaries and, taking that as a cue, the Scottish Gallery has put on Painters in Parallel, an ambitious exhibition that brings them together, although that would have been unlikely to happen while either was alive. They did not see eye to eye. It did not help that in 1923, when both graduated from Edinburgh College of Art, a travelling scholarship was withheld from Johnstone but was awarded to Gillies.

The exhibition presents a substantial display of the work of both artists, and the contrast between them is as striking as you might expect. Johnstone painted dramatic abstract pictures, often on a very large scale, that are quite unlike anything painted by any other artist of his generation in this country. He mistrusted dealers, however. His exhibiting history was patchy and he relied more on enlightened patrons for such sales as he made than on regular gallery shows.

Most Popular

    Gillies, on the other hand, rarely painted on a large scale and stuck almost exclusively to landscape and still life. Far from being abstract, wherever possible his pictures were executed with the motif in front of him. He was immensely prolific and exhibited constantly throughout his life, creating a wide and loyal public even in the difficult middle decades of the last century and becoming a pillar of the art establishment. Paintings here, such as a view of Temple with the moon rising, or a watercolour of crofts by the sea on the west coast, show him at his very best. A little walled garden in the foreground of the latter picture is like an oasis of flowers and green in a wild landscape, a secret garden, and it has a charming naïvety which is typical of him.

    Modelled on the St Ives painters – the early work of Ben Nicholson, for instance, and Christopher Wood – how far it was cultivated is made clear by the sophistication of a watercolour like On the Meldons Road, for instance, or the masterly drawing of Anstruther Harbour. These and other similar pictures show how his beautiful draughtsmanship was the armature of his painting even when it seems almost childishly simple.

    Nevertheless, bringing the two artists together like this perhaps suggests that they had more in common than either would have been willing to recognise. Landscape is at the heart of Johnstone’s work, too. Even a little untitled picture which seems to be no more than a single green brush mark turns magically into a landscape. Landscape is often implicit in his abstract paintings, too. Sweeping veils of grey windswept rain over the Border hills are vividly evoked in Rain in Ettrick, for instance; gentler, clear blue weather is in two paintings simply called Clouds. The red earth of the Borders is there too. It dominates the landscape Fields and Woods, painted the year of his return to Scotland, and is invoked with a few sweeping brushstrokes in a superb, summary drawing called Untitled: landscape from the same time.

    Johnstone was born in 1897, Gillies the following year. As in their art, in person too they could not have been more different. Gillies was small and quiet and lived an almost monastic life, dedicated to his art. Brought up in Haddington, he went to Edinburgh College of Art in 1916. His course was interrupted when he was conscripted. Serving in the trenches, he was gassed and was also wounded and he never spoke about the war in later life. When it was over, he returned to finish his course at Edinburgh. The scholarship which Johnstone missed took him to Paris to the studio of André L’Hôte. This had little long-term impact on his art, however.

    Returning to Scotland, he spent a brief period as an art master in Inverness. He was then given a part-time post teaching at Edinburgh College of Art and remained there pretty much for the rest of his life, eventually becoming head of painting and then principal. He finally retired just four years before his death in 1973. It was not an adventurous life, but it was an effective one. Suspicious of theory and indeed of intellectuals generally, he taught by example. His pupils included Elizabeth Blackadder, John Houston, David Michie and Frances Walker, artists who were to become leaders of their generation.

    Johnstone, in contrast, was charismatic and intellectual and was one of the most artistically adventurous painters of his time. Among a wide and international circle of friends, from early in his career he was particularly close to Hugh MacDiairmid and although he spent much of his life outside Scotland, he saw his work as part of a Scottish Renaissance. This meant that the art establishment was always suspicious of him. Son of a Border farmer, working on the land, Johnstone was not called up till the very end of the First World War and did not see active service. Much to his father’s chagrin, however, he took advantage of the break with home, left the farm and enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art.

    The opportunity to travel denied him by the withheld scholarship was made up by the award of a Carnegie scholarship by the RSA the following year. He too travelled to Paris and, too, to the studio of André l’Hôte, but unlike Gillies he took to the excitement of Paris in the 1920s with enthusiasm. The Surrealists were at their most active and outrageous. The city was their theatre. Johnstone’s art was shaped by what he learned there. Like JD Fergusson before him, he was one of the few British artists to be fully in tune with the radical ideas emerging from the Continent. As principal, first of Camberwell School of Art in London and then of the Central School, he pioneered the introduction into this country of the progressive ideas about art teaching that originated in the Bauhaus, the radical German art school which counted Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky among its many distinguished teachers. In 1960, Johnstone retired from teaching and returned to the Borders. At first he farmed on a bleak hill farm, but later he settled in a house in a gentler landscape near Kelso. The last 20 years of his life also saw a tremendous flowering of his art. It was then that he painted the big abstract pictures of which there are several magnificent examples here.

    From the late 1920s Johnstone was experimenting with the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, the route into the unconscious that could release images unconstrained by conventions. A series of purely abstract scraper-board drawings from the 30s show Johnstone experimenting with this idea and we see it clearly in St Martha’s Hill, Surrey a beautiful landscape painted in the war years which is evocative of the place, yet consists mostly of free and open brushwork that is more about mood than tangible description. In Torso, a lovely nude from the same period, the image seems to emerge from accidental marks on the canvas.

    This is the inspiration too for the calligraphic brush drawings which he did in the last ten years or so of his life. They are closer to music than to any conventional western pictorial imagery and this is true of late abstract pictures like Mandala, a single, energetic blue splash in a wide empty canvas.

    By its title, though, landscape was still in his mind in the magnificent Romantic Blue Landscape, a great, dark burgeoning cloud of a painting. These pictures have such grandeur and authority that people who come along just to see Gillies will be astonished. Gillies is as enjoyable as he always is, but Johnstone quite simply knocks your socks clean off.

    Painters in Parallel: William Johnstone & William Gillies

    The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

    Rating: ****

    Until 3 March