The true colours of Scottish painter, George Leslie Hunter

The biggest exhibition in 50 years of the work of George Leslie Hunter provides an opportunity to properly assess the contribution he made to the Scottish Colourists, writes Tim Cornwell

The biggest exhibition in 50 years of the work of George Leslie Hunter provides an opportunity to properly assess the contribution he made to the Scottish Colourists, writes Tim Cornwell

The troubled life and erratic talent of the Scottish painter, George Leslie Hunter, comes under the spotlight this month in the biggest exhibition of his art in 50 years. From the devastating destruction of his studio in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, to his near-fatal swigging of a bottle of turps in Provence 20 years later, Hunter’s highs and lows made him both the best, and worst, of the Scottish Colourists.

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Many of his paintings, it is said, were spoiled by his habit of reworking them on the easel late at night, in poor light and after a few glasses of wine. His sudden death in 1931, aged 54, came just after the French government’s purchase of a painting had finally “opened the door” for his career, as he described it.

Leslie Hunter: A Life in Colour opens at the City Art Centre today, with about 80 works. The Rothesay-born painter was christened George, but adopted the name Leslie in San Francisco, where he first moved with his family aged about 16. “I’m hoping that it will demonstrate that Hunter is a much finer painter than people give him credit for,” said Bill Smith, co-author of a new book on the artist. The painter has been dogged by stories about the “uneven” quality of his work, strange swings in behaviour or even alcoholism, some of them exaggerated, he said.

“There is no evidence whatever to suggest he was an alcoholic,” he said. “Like an artist, he liked to drink. I don’t think he is as uneven as that. He had the irritating habit when he got back in an evening, of seeing a picture on an easel and thinking he could improve it, which he didn’t.”

But Hunter’s death matches a life story where he showed little care for his own health. Poised to marry an art student about half his age, it appears he delayed in seeking medical treatment despite stomach pains that left him doubled up in agony, and died after a late operation on a ruptured gallbladder. His betrothed, Marnie Scrafton, heard he was ill only when he called off a weekend date at the Glasgow Art Club ball, and learned of his death in a nursing home when she read the Monday papers.

The Hunter show is the second of four major exhibitions in Edinburgh in a revival of gallery interest in the Scottish Colourists. A six-month exhibition of the work of FCB Cadell at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art wrapped up in March, and the city gallery is showing Hunter until October. The SNGMA’s show devoted to SJ Peploe, the best known of the Colourists, opens in November, hanging for nine months, with the fourth, John Duncan Fergusson, to follow.

The Hunter exhibition boasts 79 pictures, including the best in gallery collections but with about two-thirds owned by private collectors. Hunter’s work runs from Venice and Paris to the illustrations the self-taught artist provided to British and American magazines. It varies between detailed drawings of Parisian street scenes or garden parties, from landscapes to his impressionistic still lives.

In October, the show travels on to the Fleming Collection of Scottish art in London. “He produced both some of the best work of the Colourists but equally some of the worst,” said the gallery’s director, Selina Skipwith. “The reason that he has been under appreciated is that the key works have really been in private collections, and really good works rarely come on the market. As this exhibition has drawn the majority of its pictures from private collections, some never seen for years, it’s the first opportunity to assess his contribution to the work of the Colourists.”

Hunter was born in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute in 1877, one of five children of a chemist. In 1892, his oldest sister and brother, a medical student, died, possibly in the influenza pandemic. The devastated family moved to California, busily recruiting “well-disposed, industrious people” to settle the state. In an economy hit by a financial crisis, by the end of the century the family returned to Scotland while George tried to make his career in San Francisco first in a painting business and then as a sketch artist. In 1899, he got a first commission illustrating short stories for magazines. They would include The Outcasts of Poker Flat, one of the most famous Western stories by Bret Harte.

Hunter returned to Europe in 1902, first to Scotland and then Paris, supporting his life as an artist with magazine illustrations. A wealthy American collector described him as “a young man, ill clad, under-nourished, but with a restless activity”, sketching constantly in a cafe on any scrap of paper that came to hand.

He returned to San Francisco. In 1906, as he prepared for his first solo exhibition there, the earthquake hit, with his studio and work from Scotland, Paris and California destroyed. Years later he would remember the “irreparable loss”.

The Hunter show is co-curated by Smith, the art historian and former director of the Fleming Collection, with the city’s collections manager David Patterson. The book is co-written with Jill Marriner, the Scottish art expert who worked on Michael Palin’s documentary on the Colourists. It is the first full biography in 75 years, and notes how Hunter “is still misunderstood and underrated” compared to the other three Colourists.

After the earthquake, Hunter came back, and stayed, in Europe, living with his family in Glasgow but also in Paris. His first solo exhibition, at Alexander Reid’s gallery in Glasgow in 1913, won favour. He moved from being influenced by Dutch painters towards Cezanne and increasingly, Matisse. “The major thing was he was very impressed by Matisse,” said Smith. “When he had his solo exhibition in 1928 in Glasgow the pictures he showed were very much influenced by Matisse, and I think the Glasgow audience simply couldn’t come to terms with them. He was obviously disappointed but still had faith in his art, and when he took an exhibition over to New York the following year, the critics in the newspapers there were applauding him. It was just a question that really Glasgow just didn’t understand what he was trying to get at.”

The Christie’s specialist, and Scottish paintings expert Andre Zlattinger oversaw the sale of Hunter’s 1920s picture Still Life with Tulips and Oranges in 2009 for £433,250, a world record at auction. “I love Hunter because I think he is an artist who is so spontaneous. Peploe is dedicated and rigorous, but with Hunter you get moments of genius. He was a troubled figure, struggled in life a bit, had his ups and downs but was obviously a great artist and striving to push himself as a painter.”

One of the lows was the curious episode in 1928 when Hunter mistakenly swallowed some turps he had apparently stored in a wine bottle in his studio – though rumours centred on “trouble with a lady”. He was admitted to a clinic in Nice and his recovery took several weeks. It was a time when fellow artists noted his “habit of making noisy outbursts”, arguing in his studio with an imaginary opponent.

In 1931 Hunter’s work was shown in the milestone exhibition Les Peintres Écossais in Paris, which saw Peploe, Fergusson, Hunter, and Cadell shown together in the French capital. The French government purchased Hunter’s Houseboats, Loch Lomond. “I have been kicking at the door so long, and at last it is beginning to open,” he exulted. By December that year, he was dead.

• George Leslie Hunter: A Life in Colour, opens at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, today and runs until Sunday 14 October. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, and 12pm to 5pm on Sundays. Admission is £5 (concessions £3.50)