In Memoriam: Elizabeth Blackadder

The death of Elizabeth Blackadder (1931-2021) earlier this month is a sad and significant loss to the British art world. As a student and teacher Blackadder was a link between generations of leading modern Scottish artists who spanned the twentieth century, as well as being a pioneer practitioner in her own right.

Elizabeth Blackadder (1921-2021), Self-portrait with a Cat, 1976, oil on canvas
Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Edinburgh: Diploma Collection Deposit 1977 (c) Artist’s Estate

A connection across generations

Blackadder gained a first class Master’s Degree in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and the University of Edinburgh in 1954. Her teachers included the artists Penelope Beaton, William Gillies and William MacTaggart who rose to prominence between the wars. Amongst her student contemporaries were Frances Walker, David Michie and John Houston – whom she married in 1956 – who enjoyed illustrious careers themselves during the second half of the century. As a teacher at ECA from 1962 to 1986, Blackadder taught younger generations of Scottish artists, from John Bellany to Fionna Carlisle who came to the fore thereafter. The inspiration Blackadder provided as a role model, not least as a successful woman artist, was considerable.

Elizabeth Blackadder, Cat and Flowers, 1981, watercolour on paper
The Fleming Collection, London (c) Artist’s Estate

A distinguished multi-disciplinarian

Blackadder enjoyed a long and prolific career. She maintained her own practice alongside substantial teaching commitments, but on retirement in 1986 was able to dedicate herself to her own work. She excelled across media from print-making to painting and tapestry design. She found inspiration in her home, from her cats to the irises which she cultivated with great care in her garden. Regular travels abroad, including throughout Europe, to America and latterly to Japan, provided inspiration and subject matter for many works. Her abilities as a draughtsperson are renowned. Whilst perhaps best known for her botanical imagery, Blackadder’s exploration of the still life and interior genres was sustained and inventive, whilst portraiture was another important part of her oeuvre.

Cat and Flowers of 1981 (above) is a fine example of the delicately balanced still lives for which Blackadder is celebrated, in which the space and relationship between elements is as important as the objects depicted. It also reveals her prowess in the watercolour medium. Blackadder’s oil on canvas portrait of the Edinburgh politician Eric Milligan (below) is full of carefully selected personal references, including the red handkerchief peeping out of his jacket pocket to signify his Labour Party membership.

Elizabeth Blackadder (1921-2021), The Right Honourable Eric Milligan (b.1951), Lord Provost of Edinburgh (1996-2003), 2007, oil on canvas
Museums & Galleries Edinburgh (c) Artist’s Estate

A modest pioneer

Blackadder was the first Scottish woman artist to be elected a full member of both the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and the Royal Academy of Arts. She was the recipient of many other honours, including being appointed Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner in Scotland in 2001 and a Dame of the British Empire in 2003. She shrugged off such accolades with characteristic modesty and simply pressed on in her studio. The work by which she chose to be represented in the RSA collection, Self-portrait with Cat of 1976 (top) embodies that modesty. The artist is depicted in profile and in a mirror’s reflection as a minor pictorial element. The complex composition deftly orchestrates a sense of real and reflected space, within, behind and in front of the viewer.

A major retrospective exhibition of Blackadder’s work was organised by the National Galleries of Scotland in 2011 and was held in the Royal Scottish Academy Building in the heart of Edinburgh, symbolising Blackadder’s centrality to modern Scottish art. Planned as a celebration of her ninetieth birthday, the exhibition Elizabeth Blackadder: Favourite Flowers, which opens at the Garden Museum, London next month, will now be a memorial to one of Scotland’s leading artists.

I shall be talking about Elizabeth Blackadder on BBC Radio 4’s The Last Word programme, to be broadcast on 3 September 2021. For more about modern Scottish women artists, you might like this blog. For a feature about female pioneers at the Royal Scottish Academy, please follow this link. If you like still lifes, you might also like this article.

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