Halloween is different this year given COVID-19 restrictions, but fear not, it can still be enjoyed via modern Scottish paintings.
With door to door guising (trick or treating) considered unsafe by the Scottish government at the moment, Halloween Frolics by James Elder Christie (1847-1914) is a joyful image of a group of children enjoying a dusk procession. Christie was born in Guardbridge, Fife. His international training included courses at Paisley Government School of Art and Design, the Royal Academy Schools in London and the Académie Julian in Paris. On establishing a studio in London, he joined the New English Art Club and was a founder member of the Chelsea Arts Club in 1891. Two years later he moved to Glasgow, where he served two terms as President of Glasgow Art Club between 1899 and 1901.
Christie established a reputation as a portrait and genre painter, as epitomised by Halloween Frolics. A curving path amidst a forest provides the compositional basis of the painting, along which the children walk. They are depicted in varying degrees of detail, focussing on the young girls leading the way and others at point in the stream behind them, from the boy with raised arm and leg mid-way to the older girl who has broken free on the left and holds aloft a lantern in each hand. Other children are merely glimpsed and all are accompanied by waddling geese at the lower left. The glowing orbs of their ‘neepie luntrins’, or jack o’lanterns carved from turnips, provide otherworldly light sources in the gloaming. The trees, surrounding vegetation and glimpses of clear sky provide an idyllic pastoral setting, with no hint of ghosts or ghouls. This is Halloween at its least frightening and most fun.
In contrast, The Witch of 1968 by John Bellany (1942-2013) is unapologetically sinister. Bellany was born in the East Lothian fishing village of Port Seton. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art before teaching at various institutions including Winchester School of Art and Goldsmiths, University of London. His long and prolific exhibiting career encompassed solo shows from Scotland to Australia. In 1991 Bellany was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
The gender of the witch in this painting is unclear, with their black clothing and hat reminiscent of the iconography of the Grim Reaper. The composition’s focal point is the witch’s lifting of a fish to their mouth, grasped firmly between multiple fingers, teeth touching teeth like a kiss of death. The fish’s eye seems to look at the viewer, as does the witch and their companion owl. The fish’s tail trails away into an ambiguous foreground underneath a low horizon. Three quarters of this square format image (the board measures 91 x 91cm) is given over to a sullen sky in which sits a sickly waning moon. The technique throughout is rough and expressive, the palette low-toned in a work suffused with menace.
John Bellany presented The Witch to the Royal College of Art, where he studied and taught.
The Haunted House
The Haunted House by James Ferrier Pryde (1866-1941) is the kind of place which guisers would avoid at the best of times. Pryde was born in Edinburgh. He trained at the nearby Royal Scottish Academy Schools and at the Académie Julian. In 1894 he formed the poster and graphic design ‘Beggarstaffs’ partnership with William Nicholson (1872-1949), who had married Pryde’s sister Mabel Pryde Nicholson (1871-1918) the year before. Pryde went on to combine an erratic acting career with being an artist and had his first solo exhibition in London in 1911, at the age of forty-one. He died in London in 1941.
The Haunted House is typical of the works which characterise Pryde’s oeuvre from 1914, in which he explored the themes of ruin and decay. The bleak, un-identified building overshadows the figures gathered in front of it. Dark, broken windows hung with tattered curtains epitomise an overall air of neglect. The dreary, simplified façade is forbidding, the patch of light blue at the lower right the only respite within an otherwise ominous image. Little wonder the house is believed to be haunted.
This painting was purchased by Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford in 1927.
Assassination, Black, White and Orange
An abstract approach to Halloween can be seen in Assassination: Black, White and Orange of the 1960s by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004). She was born in St Andrews and studied at Edinburgh College of Art. The renewal of her Special Maintenance Scholarship led to Barns-Graham’s arrival in Cornwall in 1940, where she became a key member of what is known as the St Ives School and a pioneer of British abstraction. On inheriting a family property near St Andrews in 1960 she thereafter straddled both the English and Scottish art worlds. On her death in 2004 she established the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, to enhance her reputation and support others to achieve their potential in the visual arts.
This painting is based on the colours most closely associated with Halloween, namely orange and black. A compact, square format work which measures 50 x 50cm, it is full of energy and action. On a striated background of orange tones, a horizontal struggle plays out in front of our eyes. Rectangles, which range in colour from deep black to bright white, jostle for room, squeeze in together and break free from one another. The space between forms plays a key role in providing rhythm, as do the waves of subtly changing colour; both contribute to a sense of power struggle, solidarity, independence, stability and rupture. The title implies a scene of violence and death, two typical features of Halloween at its most extreme.
Assassination: Black, White and Orange was presented to Dumfriesshire Educational Trust by the Contemporary Art Society.
However different things are this year, I hope you still have a Happy Halloween!
To find out more about John Bellany, you could read this blog and this one. To see a stunning portrait of James Ferrier Pryde, please follow this link. For Wilhelmina Barns-Graham you might like this post and also this one.