The Joy of Yellow

Yellow is the colour of Spring and with daffodils at their peak, let’s look at how modern Scottish artists have introduced the joy of yellow into their work.

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980), Black and Yellow, 1920
oil on canvas, 82 x 65cm
Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums (c) Artist’s Estate

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980)

In Black and Yellow of 1920 by Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980), the artist named her painting of a nude in a bathroom after the dominant colours of its decorative scheme. Johnstone was born in Edinburgh and trained at the newly opened Edinburgh College of Art. She made this work whilst on the college staff, teaching there between 1914 and 1924.

Black and Yellow

The focal point of Black and Yellow is the full-length female nude, viewed from behind and through the door whose colour is referred to in the work’s title. The model is bathed in natural light and is absorbed in an invisible task. The fresh air entering through the nearby open window does not trouble her, nor does the touch of her bare feet on the yellow rug beneath her. The title draws our attention to this, plus the co-ordinating painted surfaces and corner shelves. Yellow plays a structural role in the composition of the image, emphasising lines of perspective. It also provides a warmth which underlines the comfortable and relaxed atmosphere of the painting.

Aberdeen Archives, Gallery and Museums

In 1933, Johnstone’s husband, the artist D. M. Sutherland (1883-1973) was appointed Head of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen; they lived in the city for the rest of their lives. It is therefore fitting that Black and Yellow was purchased by Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums in 1983, with the assistance of the National Fund of Acquisitions.

Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Yellow Tulips and Statuette, early 1920s
oil on canvas, 56 x 51cm
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935)

In Yellow Tulips and Statuette of the early 1920s by Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), the titular flowers lead a cast of still-life objects and a palette of robust colours. Peploe was born in Edinburgh. He trained at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Royal Scottish Academy Life School in Edinburgh. He is one of the four artists known as the Scottish Colourists, along with F. C. B. Cadell (1883-1937), J. D. Fergusson (1874-1961) and G. L. Hunter (1877-1931). They are Scotland’s most celebrated twentieth-century artists.

Yellow Tulips and Statuette

In this assured still-life painting, the genre for which Peploe is renowned, the tulips lean in from beyond the left-hand side of the canvas and crown the headless statuette in the right foreground. The curves of their stems and leaves are silhouetted against pink, green and black. Colour fields and forms, most obviously in the background and the oranges and flower heads, combine with the reflective table top and shaded, truncated nude to create visual stimulus across the entire image.

Laing Art Gallery

The painting was purchased from the London dealers Reid and Lefevre Ltd, established by Alexander Reid and Earnest Lefevre in 1926, by the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. Reid first showed Peploe’s work in his Glasgow gallery, La Société des Beaux-Arts, in 1915 and mounted regular solo exhibition of his work until 1934, the year before the artist’s death.

William Gillies (1898-1973), Still Life – Yellow Jug and Striped Cloth, c.1955
oil on canvas, 112 x 115cm
Collection and (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Edinburgh

William Gillies (1898-1973)

In Still Life – Yellow Jug and Striped Cloth of about 1955 by William Gillies (1898-1973), it is the colour of the central jug which brings the painting to life. Gillies was born in Haddington, East Lothian. Like Johnstone, he trained at Edinburgh College of Art and worked there for thirty-six years, becoming its Principal in 1960. He was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour.

Still Life – Yellow Jug and Striped Cloth

The eye is immediately drawn to the titular jug in the centre of this gentle yet assured still-life painting. Its colour is enriched by the contrast with the light grey of the tray, tipped up to the plane of the canvas, in front of which it is positioned. A complex composition radiates out from the jug, by way of dried flowers, works leaning on the earth-red wall behind the table and the glimpse of another table-top arrangement in the room beyond. Yet it is the choice of yellow which anchors and completes the image.

Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture

Gillies was elected an Associate Member of the RSA in 1940, becoming a full Member in 1947. As a result he presented Still Life – Yellow Jug and Striped Tablecloth to the Academy as his Diploma Work. On Gillies’ death in 1973 he left a significant bequest of his work to the RSA, as well as a legacy which helps to fund, amongst other activities, the Sir William Gillies Bequest lecture, which was established in 1978.

Margaret Mellis (1914-2009), Orange and Yellow Structure, 1966
oil on board, 79 x 114cm
Cornwall Council (c) Artist’s Estate

Margaret Mellis (1914-2009)

In Orange and Yellow Structure of 1966 by Margaret Mellis (1914-2009), the artist uses yellow as a foil to shades of white, orange, brown and lilac in a warm and lively abstraction. Mellis was born in Wukingfu, China and grew up in Edinburgh. She too studied at Edinburgh College of Art, followed by time in the Paris atelier of André Lhote (1885-1962) and Euston Road School in London. She established herself as an abstract artist whilst working with Ben Nicholson (1892-1982), Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and other Modernists in St Ives in the 1940s.

Orange and Yellow Structure

In this painting, Mellis divided the board support into six almost square sections. Each has a foundation colour on which shapes based on a quarter of a circle, in a contrasting colour or colours, float or are fixed by their alignment with the edge of a plane. The point at which edges and forms meet and the spaces between them are energised by colour change, geometry and curves. The hand of the artist is clearly visible, the paint application is flat and even. The result is an abstract painting of unusual informality and sensuality.

Cornwall Council

Orange and Yellow Structure was purchased by Cornwall Council in 1968, two years after it was made. It is in the collection of New County Hall in Truro, twenty-six miles away from Mellis’ former Cornish base. May we feel the joy of yellow in our surroundings this Spring, as we have seen it in these four paintings.

For more on Dorothy Johnstone you might like to join me at my free on-line talk ‘Proposed and Seconded: The Women Artists Nominated for Membership of the Royal Scottish Academy during the 1920s’ on 13 May 2021. Further information and a link to book tickets can be found here. To read more about the Peploe and its modern Scottish companions in the Laing, follow this link. Finally, another still life by Gillies featured in my ‘The Signs of Spring‘ blog.

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