John Duncan Fergusson at 150

The Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson was born on this day 150 years ago. To mark this anniversary I have written a ‘Curation‘ for Art UK entitled ‘Beyond the Scottish Colourists: John Duncan Fergusson at 150‘.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961), Self-portrait, 1907
oil on canvas, 54 x 51cm
Gift from the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation to Culture Perth & Kinross in 1991 (c) Culture Perth & Kinross

John Duncan Fergusson

Fergusson is best known as one of the four ‘Scottish Colourists’, along with FCB Cadell, SJ Peploe and GL Hunter. They are revered as the masters of modern Scottish art. However, Fergusson has the most international reputation of the group and was involved in the art worlds of Paris, London and Glasgow during a career that spanned some 60 years.

Fergusson was born in Leith, near Edinburgh, in 1874. His unorthodox training was undertaken during the 1890s, mainly in Paris, and included sporadic attendance at the Académies Colarossi and Julian. His first solo exhibition was held at the Baillie Gallery in London in 1905 and two years later he moved to the French capital; he painted Self-portrait shortly afterwards. The following six years, spent immersed in the birth of modern European art, provide the foundation of Fergusson’s international reputation.

Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Luxembourg Gardens, c.1910
oil on panel, 36 x 28cm
The Fleming Collection, London

Samuel John Peploe

Of the other Scottish Colourists, Fergusson first met Peploe, in Edinburgh around 1900. Fergusson later declared of their relationship that ‘it was, I think, one of the best friendships that has ever been between two painters.’ They began to spend the summers painting together in France in 1904. Fergusson persuaded Peploe to move to Paris in 1910, where he lived for two years and it was during this period that Peploe painted Luxembourg Gardens. Fergusson welcomed him into his circle of Anglo-American artist friends and both were elected ‘sociétaires’ of the progressive Salon d’Automne.

George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), Peonies in a Chinese Vase, c.1928
oil on board, 61 x 51cm
The Fleming Collection, London

George Leslie Hunter

Hunter moved from San Francisco to Glasgow in 1906 and is believed to have met Fergusson in Paris that year. He described Fergusson as ‘a most likeable chap, determined yet sympathetic’ and they stayed in touch despite Hunter’s nomadic lifestyle. During the 1920s, with Peploe, they had solo exhibitions at La Société des Beaux-Arts in Glasgow (later Alex. Reid & Lefèvre), planned ways in which to champion modern European art in Scotland and spent time working in the south of France, attracted by its climate, light and lifestyle of the south of France. Peonies in a Chinese Vase is a bravura example of Hunter’s still lifes of the period, for which he is perhaps best known.

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell

Cadell was the youngest of the Scottish Colourists and is thought to have been introduced to Fergusson by their mutual friend Peploe before 1910. However, in 1936 Cadell told his patron, the ship-owner Ion Harrison, that he had not seen Fergusson since 1909. Indeed, Fergusson only exhibited with the other Colourists on three occasions whilst they were all alive, in Paris in 1924 and 1931, and in London in 1925. Furthermore, the term ‘Scottish Colourists’ was not coined and applied to them exclusively, until an exhibition mounted by T R Annan & Sons Ltd in Glasgow in 1948. Cadell’s renowned portrayals of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town and its civilised residents is epitomised by Interior: The Orange Blind.

Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959), Côte d’Azur, c.1915
oil on panel, 30 x 40cm
Purchased by Culture Perth & Kinross in 1994 (c) Artist’s Estate

Anne Estelle Rice

Fergusson met the American artist Anne Estelle Rice whilst painting in Paris-Plage with Peploe during the summer of 1907. This contributed to his decision to move to Paris, where she had been living for two years, working as a fashion illustrator. They became central figures in the ‘Rhythmist’ group of artists, also including Jo Davidson, Jessica Dismorr and Marguerite Thompson, many of whom contributed to the cutting-edge journal ‘Rhythm’ of which Fergusson was founding Art Editor in 1911; a group exhibition of their work was held at the Stafford Gallery in London in 1912. Côte d’Azur is one of just a handful of paintings by Rice in UK public collections.

Margaret Morris (1891-1980), Harem Dancers, 1920, oil on board, 60 x 50cm
Gift from the International Association of Margaret Morris Movement to Culture Perth & Kinross in 2010 (c) The International Association of Margaret Morris Movement Ltd

Margaret Morris

The dance pioneer Margaret Morris introduced herself to Fergusson at his studio in Paris in 1913. She was in the city with her dance troupe and their personal and professional lives were thereafter interwoven. Morris, Margaret Morris Movement (the technique of her devising), her teachers and pupils, whether in motion or sitting more formally for Fergusson, provided endless inspiration for his work, including in three dimensions. In his turn, Fergusson taught them drawing and painting, as well as theatre set and costume design. Harem Dancers reveals Morris’s own talents at painting in oils, with a brightness of colour, simplification and outlining of form and sense of rhythm encouraged by Fergusson.

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Workshop, c.1914, oil on canvas, 77 x 61cm Purchased by Tate in 1974 (c) The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Wyndham Lewis

World War One began whilst Fergusson and Morris were in Cap d’Antibes. Morris returned to London where she had a dance school and theatre in Chelsea and Fergusson joined her there soon afterwards. He encouraged her to establish the Margaret Morris Club, emulating the heady creative mix of Parisian cafés. The Club became a gathering place for members of London’s avant-garde scene, including the leader of the Vorticist group, Wyndham Lewis. Their influence can be felt in the paintings Fergusson made based on sketches drawn in Portsmouth docks in 1918.

Frank Dobson (1886-1963), Sir Osbert Sitwell, 1923, bronze, 32 x 18 x 23cm, Tate (c) Artist’s Estate

Frank Dobson

Fergusson is the only Scottish Colourist to have worked in three dimensions and he made sculpture for over 45 years, from 1908 to about 1955.The years circa 1918 to 1922 mark the peak of his activity in this field, which is linked with a parallel development in Margaret Morris Movement. His approach to sculpture owes much to artists active in Paris before World War One, such as Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Archipenko. However, British sculptors whom he met through the Margaret Morris Club, including Frank Dobson and Maurice Lambert, and their use of materials and approach to form, provided Fergusson with new directions to pursue. Frank Dobson’s bust of Sir Osbert Sitwell has been cited as a specific source of inspiration.

Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981), Quai d’Auteil, c.1932
oil on board, 80 x 80cm
Gift from the Contemporary Art Society to National Museum Cardiff in 1938 (c) Artist’s Trustees

Winifred Nicholson

During the 1920s, Fergusson’s work was shown in solo and group exhibitions in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Paris, whilst three solo shows were staged in America. After fifteen years spent living in the English capital, he returned to Paris in 1929. Ever the sociable, pro-active artist, Fergusson became President of Le Groupe d’Artistes Anglo-Américain. He showed his work alongside his English contemporaries, including Winifred Nicholson, John Piper and Victor Pasmore. Nicholson’s Quai d’Auteil shows the view from her second-floor flat in Paris, across the Seine towards a Citröen factory on the opposite bank, to where she moved with her three children in 1932.

Louise Annand (1915-2012), New Art Club Meeting, 1944, oil on board, 51 x 61cm
Purchased with a 50% Grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions by Culture Perth & Kinross in 1991 (c) Artist’s Estate

Louise Annand

Fergusson and Morris were once again in Antibes when World War Two was declared. They settled in Glasgow, where Morris’s most successful and sole surviving dance school was based and which Fergusson considered to be the most Celtic city, as the importance of his ancestral roots became increasingly important to his self-identity. The couple played key roles in the post-1939 renaissance of the Scottish art world, not least as co-founders of the discussion and exhibiting societies the New Art Club and the New Scottish Group. Louise Annand’s New Art Club Meeting is a visual recording of a meeting of the former. All three of Fergusson’s fellow Colourists died during the 1930s, but he enjoyed this final chapter in his career, engaging with a new generation of artists, before his death in Glasgow in 1961

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961), Le Manteau Chinois (Anne Estelle Rice), 1909, oil on canvas, 200 x 97cm
Gift from the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation to Culture Perth & Kinross in 1991 (c) Culture Perth & Kinross

From the Fergusson Gallery to Perth Art Gallery

Morris was the sole beneficiary of Fergusson’s Estate and in 1963 she established the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation in order to secure his legacy. Major works were presented by the Foundation to public collections, led by the gift of fourteen paintings to the newly established University of Stirling in 1968. 

Morris died in 1980 and so did not live to see the presentation of the majority of works and associated archival material administered by the Foundation, to Perth and Kinross District Council in 1991. Numbering several thousand items and covering his entire career, this was a landmark act of munificence. The gift included the beautiful Manteau Chinois (Anne Estelle Rice) of 1909, which was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne that year. The Fergusson Gallery, dedicated to his work and – as specified in his will – that of ‘progressive artists of Scottish descent’ opened in Perth in 1992. It closed in 2023 and the re-development of Perth Art Gallery is underway. This will include a space dedicated to ‘Fergus and Meg’, supported by the Foundation, with improved access and environmental conditions, as well as the ability to show the couple’s work within the context of their Nationally Significant collection of fine art. The new display will open later this year.

For more about Fergusson, please click on this link, a blog about the Scottish Colourists can be found here and you can read about Winifred Nicholson and her family in this article.

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