I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year through modern British paintings! Christmas will be muted for most of us this year and few will be sorry to see 2020 come to an end. However, we can still celebrate the season and look forward to what 2021 may bring.
The bittersweet anticipation of Christmas Eve is captured in 1930 (Christmas Night) by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire to the artists William Nicholson (1872-1949) and Mabel Pryde (1871-1918). He studied for a year at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and in 1920 married the artist Winifred Nicholson (née Roberts / 1893-1981). They lived between London, Lugano in Switzerland and Cumberland. During the 1920s they exhibited their work in solo and group exhibitions, including with the Seven and Five Society.
1930 (Christmas Night)
1930 (Christmas Night) shows a view from a bedroom, through a window to a nearby church. An open curtain, the window frame and the table create strong, compositional boundaries. There is a sophisticated interplay of sight-lines: we look outside, whilst a fox looks inside, returning our gaze. Alongside the view in front of us, the mirror on the dressing-table reflects that of the bedroom behind us. The sense of physical location and an awareness of interior and exterior is therefore pronounced.
The imagery is personal and universal: the artist’s initials are on his brushes and one of his children’s cots is glimpsed in the mirror. This suggests the intimacies of family life, the hanging of Christmas stockings and the excitement of the young on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, the church represents the religious basis of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ. Its ghostly presence in the dark perhaps prompts nostalgia for Christmases past felt by many at this time of year.
The painting was bought by Jim Ede (1895-1990) in 1971 from the academic, curator and teacher Nicolete Gray (1911-97). Ede and Nicholson met in 1924 and Ede provided vital support to him in his early career. Ede went on to establish Kettle’s Yard House and Gallery in Cambridge, where the painting now hangs.
Amidst the commercialisation of Christmas, John Bellany (1942-2013) reminds us what it really celebrates in his Scottish Mother and Child of 2005. Bellany was born in the East Lothian village of Port Seton. He grew up in its deeply religious, hard-working fishing community, of which his family had been a part for generations. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art and at the Royal College of Art in London. A long and prolific career saw him based in London, Essex and Tuscany, teach in Brighton, Winchester and London and exhibit internationally before his death in 2013.
Scottish Mother and Child
This mature painting embodies Bellany’s visualisation of Biblical themes in Port Seton terms. The woman is presented as an archetypal ‘fishing wife’, whose work on shore runs parallel to that of her husband’s at sea. Her combined personal and professional identity is symbolised by the fish placed on her head and the fish-gutting table set before her. She holds up her baby with her left-arm, with her wedding ring on prominent display.
Sections of beach, an upturned fishing boat and the sea can be seen underneath a high horizon behind her. The baby’s swaddling clothes and the boat appear to be flecked with blood, highlighting the life and death cycle inherent in the struggle to catch, prepare and eat fish, whilst raising a family. The boat perhaps represents the absent father, who risks his life whilst working on it. The newborn baby and his mother in this contemporary Madonna and Child portrait, remind us of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary which is marked on Christmas Day.
Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow
Scottish Mother and Child was donated to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 2005. This was the year in which it was painted and in which Bellany suffered two heart attacks in the city, on the way to a solo exhibition at the Mitchell Library. It is likely that the artist presented the work in gratitude for the medical help he received at the time.
The happy chaos and slight weariness of Boxing Day is depicted in The Day after Christmas of c.1931 by Mark Lancelot Symons (1887-1935). Symons was born in London to a staunchly Catholic family, headed by his father the artist William Christian Symons (1845-1911). Symons Junior trained at the Slade and worked for the Catholic Evidence Guild. In 1924 he became a full-time painter and thereafter contributed regularly to group exhibitions throughout England.
The Day After Christmas
In The Day after Christmas, the eye is initially caught by the decorations hanging from the middle of the ceiling which spread out to multiple points around the room. They hang above a scene of familial clutter including furniture, toys and five children. Two older girls are absorbed in a game at a table, whilst three youngsters appear somewhat dazed in the right middleground; the oldest and youngest of the trio look directly at the viewer, whilst the middle child lies on her back clutching a toy windmill in one hand and a horn to her mouth, suggesting a tired attempt to maintain noisy celebrations. Part of the baby’s cot is visible at the lower left in a scene of domestic muddle after the main excitement of Christmas Day.
Bury Art Museum
The painting belongs to Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre. It was established as an Art Gallery to house the Wrigley Collection of paintings, works on paper and ceramics. This was presented to the town of Bury in 1897 by the children of local paper manufacturer John Wrigley.
Happy New Year!
David Michie (1928-2015) helps us to look forward to the New Year with his January Tulips of c.1959. Michie was born in St Raphael in the south of France, to the architect James Michie ((1891-1960) and the artist Anne Redpath (1895-1965). In 1934 he moved to Hawick in the Scottish Borders with his mother and brothers. Studies at Edinburgh College of Art were interrupted by World War Two service and were followed by attendance at Moray House College of Education. Michie taught at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and at Edinburgh College of Art, where he became Head of the School of Drawing and Painting.
January Tulips is a painterly rendering of a vase of the titular flowers beside a platter of oranges on a table-top. It is a highly-simplified image in which the artist has revelled in the thickness, texture and application of his medium. The viewer is provided with various perspectives, from the tilting of the platter to fully display the fruit clustered within it, to the straight-on presentation of the tulips. Their stems and leaves merge with the rich colour fields of the ambiguous spatial setting. Subtle tones of blue, grey and green combine with bold orange, yellow and black to add rhythm to a canvas already enlivened by the artist’s expressive technique. The result is a joyful image which centres on flowers which bring brightness and optimism to a time of cold and darkness.
The painting was presented to Hawick Museum in the Scottish Borders, by the Scottish Arts Council when its collection was dispersed in 1996.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
If you enjoyed this, you might also like my ‘Christmas is Coming‘ and ‘Welcome to Winter‘ blogs. For more about John Bellany you could read ‘Harvest Time‘ and for more about David Michie, please see ‘The Beautiful Tulip‘.