Tulips have provided inspiration to many artists, despite the fact that they continue to grow after being cut. This means that as models they do not ‘sit still’ and need to be observed, sketched and painted more quickly than other flowers. Despite this, their brilliant colours and clearly defined shape make them a popular feature of still-life painting.
Samuel John Peploe
One of the modern Scottish artists most closely associated with tulips is the Scottish Colourist Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935). His Tulips in a Pottery Vase of about 1912 is a radical example of his enjoyment of their form and lifespan.
Peploe was born in Edinburgh. After a brief apprenticeship to a solicitor, he enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. He continued his training at the Royal Scottish Academy Life School before establishing his first studio in the Scottish capital. In 1910, he joined his Colourist friend John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) in Paris where he lived for two years. Whilst there, he was able to submerge himself at first hand in the latest developments in avant-garde French art.
Tulips in a Pottery Vase, c.1912
On Peploe’s return to Edinburgh in 1912, the resultant dramatic change in his work was apparent in paintings such as Tulips in a Pottery Vase. The use of bold, even acidic colours, shows an early awareness of the work of the ‘Fauves’ or ‘Wild Beast’ artists including Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954). The thick, ridged application of paint reveals an investigation into the technique of the Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). The firm outlining of form owes a debt to the French painter Auguste Chabaud (1882-1955).
However, Peploe’s bravado in combining multiple still-life objects, flattened and without shadow, within a severely simplified and geometric setting, results in something uniquely of his own. The tulips dominate the image, spilling out of the titular vase. The solid form of tight to splayed petals is combined with the grace of stem and leaf. Other tulips entering from the right-hand side add a further sense of movement, in a painting shot through with energy. The result is an outstanding example of Scottish modernism.
John Bulloch Souter
A more serene approach to tulips can be seen in Still Life with Purple Tulips and a Figurine of about 1930 [?] by John Bulloch Souter (1890-1971). Souter was born in Aberdeen and trained at Gray’s School of Art in the city. On graduating, he was awarded a scholarship to the Allan-Fraser Art College, based at Hospitalfied, Arbroath. After World War One service Souter established a practice in London and a reputation as a portraitist.
Still Life with Purple Tulips and a Figurine
Alongside his portraits, Souter was also an accomplished painter of still lifes. Still Life with Purple Tulips and a Figurine is an elegant example of his work in this genre. Painted in a highly-accomplished realist style, the simple composition consists of five tulips in a vase and a Staffordshire figure. They are set on a highly reflective table and before a background of draped material.
Colour and calmness
The palette and lighting are gentle; the complimentary colours of the tulip petals and sepals range from light pink to deep purple. Each tulip is shown in a different ‘pose’ from opening out towards the viewer, to stretching upwards. The colours of the pottery woman’s outfit also combine subtlety and depth, whilst her languorous pose adds to the calm atmosphere.
Created on an intimate scale (31 x 30cm) and with painstaking attention to detail, Still Life with Purple Tulips and a Figurine celebrates the grace of the flower within a composition it headlines without dominating. The painting was purchased by Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen in 2007.
In Red and White Tulips of 1959, Anne Redpath (1895-1965) glories in the exuberance of tulips, whose growth from bulbs is a highlight of Spring. Redpath was born in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. She studied concurrently at Edinburgh College of Art and at nearby Moray House College of Education. Following her marriage in 1920, Redpath lived in France for some fourteen years, where her three sons were born. She returned with them to Scotland and in 1949 moved to Edinburgh where she lived for the rest of her life.
Redpath resumed painting in earnest in the early 1940s, after a ‘career break’ due to motherhood. In 1952 she became the second woman ever to be elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture. Eight years later, Redpath was the first Scottish woman to be elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Red and White Tulips
Redpath is celebrated for her domestic interiors, landscapes and still-life paintings of which Red and White Tulips is a vibrant, late example. A generous bunch of multi-coloured tulips is crammed into a jug. With barely any space between them and just glimpses of stems and leaves visible, Redpath revels in the rich hues of pink, red, purple and blue in the sometimes striped flower heads and their often black centres. That palette is carried over into the rigorously painted and abstract surroundings in which the arrangement appears to float. This gestural freedom contrasts with the carefully rendered full-length woman on the jug.
This mature and joyful work was purchased from the Artist by the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in the year in which she painted it.
David Michie (1928-2015), Redpath’s youngest son, takes a more severe approach to the tulip in White Tulips and Black Jug of about 1957. Michie was born in St Raphael in the south of France. His time at Edinburgh College of Art was disrupted by service in World War Two. A period in Italy was made possible by a travelling scholarship, after which Michie trained at Moray House. He taught at Gray’s School of Art before joining the staff of Edinburgh College of Art, where he remained until retirement.
White Tulips and Black Jug
In White Tulips and Black Jug, Michie delights in the arabesque nature of tulip stems, caused by their phototropic property of bending towards the light. The closed white flower heads are silhouetted against a thickly painted black background, infused with blue and red. The tulips and the loosely realised jug from which they emerge add a figurative element to an otherwise robustly abstract painting. Geometric plains dominated by black and white make up the majority of the composition. Space is manipulated with the suggestion of shallowness and depth choreographed throughout the image. At the same time mixed perspective allows the viewer to see the jug from its side and an implied tabletop and rug from above.
The beautiful and versatile tulip
There is an enjoyment of the medium of paint shared with his mother and Peploe. However, where they are committed to colour, Michie prefers the opportunities afforded by a mainly monochrome approach. That he should choose the same flower for such a severe work as Souter did for his serene painting, pays testament to the beauty and versatility of the tulip.
White Tulips and Black Jug was purchased by Dumfriesshire Educational Trust in 1959 and is now in the collection of Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries.