Now that December has begun, it’s fair to say that Christmas is coming! Celebrations this year will be unlike any other, but modern Scottish artists can help you to enjoy the season nonetheless.
A White Christmas
First comes the winter weather and the dream of a White Christmas. Snow (Scene) St Ives of 1947 by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) shows how a covering of snow acts as Christmas decoration for the outside.
Barns-Graham was born in St Andrew’s and trained at Edinburgh College of Art where she excelled as a student. In 1940 her Special Maintenance scholarship was extended and the college Principal, Hubert Wellington (1879-1967), suggested she should go to St Ives in Cornwall. Barns-Graham thus joined a group of modernist artists based there, including Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), who became known as the St Ives School.
Snow (Scene) St Ives
Barns-Graham painted Snow (Scene) St Ives in 1947, by which point she had joined the Newlyn and St Ives Societies of Artists and set up in No.1 Porthmeor Studios. It comes from a series of works in which she depicted views of the Cornish town; in this instance Back Road West. Her simplification of architectural form is enlivened by the detailing of stonework and glazing. A strong sense of line provides discipline, whilst the snow softens contours. A textured, layered sky looms overhead, but the light reflected off the snow means the image is affectionate rather than menacing.
The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust
Snow (Scene) St Ives was bequeathed by the artist to the trust she established in 1987, which became active on her death in 2004. Its aim is to enhance the reputation and understanding of Barns-Graham and her work and to support others to fulfil their potential in the visual arts.
Amidst the cold weather, nature soldiers on and provides us with pleasure during the dark months. Margaret Hislop (1894-1972) celebrates the beauty of winter flowers in her Christmas Roses, which I have tentatively dated to the 1940s.
Hislop (née Grant) was born in West Calder. She trained at Westminster School of Art in London and at Edinburgh College of Art. After significant travels with her husband, the artist Andrew Healey Hislop (1887-1954), the couple settled in the Scottish capital. Hislop showed her work regularly in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Glasgow Institute, Royal Academy of Arts, Scottish Society of Women Artists and the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). She was elected a member of the RSA in 1964.
This still-life painting bursts with joy, as the titular flowers compete with the decorated vase for our attention. Officially known as ‘Helleborus niger’, three of the five-petalled flowers are shown straight on, displaying their central pistils to full effect. Other flowers and sprays of leaves are painted more modestly, some merging with the scumbled background. The cockerel strutting on the swell on the vase provides figurative movement in the centre of an expanse of abstraction. The subject and style of the work reveal Hislop’s friendship with Anne Redpath (1895-1965).
Lillie Art Gallery
Christmas Roses was given to Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie in 1995. The gallery opened in 1962 thanks to the bequest of funds from the local banker and artist Robert Lillie (1867-1949), along with his art collection. It has a particular interest in representing the work of women artists.
Many people have put up their Christmas trees early this year, in an attempt to provide some cheer amidst COVID-19 restrictions. Margaret Thomas (1916-2016) delights in her festive decorations in Christmas, which may date from the 1960s.
Thomas was born in London. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art followed by the Royal Academy Schools, both in the English capital. During a long and prolific career, Thomas became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, New English Art Club and Royal West of England Academy. I am claiming her as a Scottish artist as she established a studio in Edinburgh in 1956 which she maintained for the rest of her life!
Viewed close up and slightly from above, Christmas teems with objects and joy. A modest potted Christmas tree is festooned with baubles, angels and other decorations. Some are translucent, some are reflective and all are accompanied by streams of ribbon and tinsel. Figurines, toys, ceramics and presents crowd the table-top. Shape, colour and pattern create a celebratory atmosphere, whilst the simple background provides respite from such exuberance.
City Art Centre
Whilst plans for spending Christmas abroad are stymied this year, we can still dream of celebrating it in warmer climes. The Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) shows us what we’re missing in Christmas Time in the South of France of 1922.
John Duncan Fergusson
Fergusson was born in Leith. He was self-taught apart from sporadic attendance at the Académies Colarossi and Julian in Paris. In 1907 he moved to the French capital and thus began a life-long love of France, where he lived until 1914 and between 1929 and 1939. Fergusson, F. C. B. Cadell (1883-1937), G. L. Hunter (1877-1931) and S. J. Peploe (1871-1935) are known as the ‘Scottish Colourists’ and are amongst the most celebrated of modern Scottish artists.
Christmas Time in the South of France
Christmas Time in the South of France was painted whilst Fergusson and his partner, the dance pioneer Margaret Morris (1891-1980), were staying in Juan-les-Pins. They were the guests of the businessman and philanthropist George Davison (1854-1930), who had bought the Villa Gotte in the resort earlier that year. A sun-drenched Cubist townscape is activated by two women laying out a picnic in the foreground. An architectonic tree beside them provides a compositional boundary at the left and upper edges. Its branches and leaves draw the eyes over terracotta roof tops, amongst which further trees are interspersed. The image climaxes in the crowning cluster of buildings on the far hill. The brilliant blue of the sky and the women’s tans add to a sense of warmth and well-being.
The Fergusson Gallery
Following Fergusson’s death in 1961, Morris established the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation in order to secure his legacy. The works and archive for which it was responsible now form the core of The Fergusson Gallery in Perth. The gallery purchased Christmas Times in the South of France, with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, in 1998. Here’s hoping we might be able to experience a Christmas like the one it depicts next year!
In the midst of opening Advent calendars, we can be cheered by the fact that Christmas is coming. Depending on your mood, you might enjoy this ‘Welcome to Winter‘ blog, or else you might prefer ‘The Great Escape‘. Barns-Graham and Fergusson appear frequently on this site. If you put their names into the ‘search’ box at the upper right, you will find out more about them, but you might especially like ‘The Workplaces of Wilhlemina Barns-Graham‘ and ‘Beneath the Mask‘ which features Fergusson.