The Signs of Spring

As the winter of Covid-19 drags on, be cheered by the signs of Spring which are beginning to appear. Four modern Scottish artists draw our attention to the start of this lovely season.

William Gillies (1898-1973), Still Life with Begonias and Crocuses, c.1968
Collection and (c) Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, Edinburgh

The Shoots of Bulbs

The appearance of shoots from bulbs, whether grown indoors or planted outside, is one of the earliest indications that the end of winter is coming. William Gillies (1898-1973) includes this encouraging moment in his Still Life with Begonias and Crocuses of about 1968.

William Gillies

Gillies was born in Haddington, East Lothian. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and under André Lhote (1885-1962) in Paris. Gillies joined the staff of ECA in 1925 and rose to become its Principal. He was elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1947.

Still Life with Begonias and Crocuses

In this landscape format painting, the shoots of crocus bulbs can be seen in a pot at the centre left. Gillies presents us with several viewpoints at once. We look down on the objects he displayed on a table, whilst also being able to see the sides of several of the vessels. The horizontal stripes of the tablecloth provide a compositional foundation, whilst the corresponding struts of the chairback, tucked in at the upper edge, provide a sense of the space within which the work is set. Visual rhythm results from the combination of space or overlap between elements and the contrast of curve and line throughout the composition.

Royal Scottish Academy

This work is part of the substantial bequest made by Gillies to the Royal Scottish Academy. His legacy also funds, amongst other Academy activities, an annual lecture.

Robert Sivell (1888-1958), Spring, early 1940s, Aberdeen Archives, Art Gallery & Museums
(c) Artist’s Estate

The Arrival of Spring

The moment when Spring arrives to replace Winter is visualised by Robert Sivell (1888-1958) in his Spring of the early 1940s. Depicted as a young woman in a white dress, the new season is seen walking towards the viewer, holding budding branches in her hand.

Robert Sivell

Sivell was born in Paisley. He attended Evening Classes at Glasgow School of Art whilst working as an apprentice engineer during the day. Sivell taught at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, becoming Head of Painting before his retirement to Kirkcudbright. He was elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1943.


Modelled by a Gray’s sculpture student, Spring is depicted as a beautiful young woman. Her full-length pose begins with a quizzical tilt of a head adorned with flowers, whilst her left-hand reaches out for support from a fence post. Innocence is signified by the bridal white of her dress, as well as by her barefeet. The image is sensual without being overtly sexual. A sense of time and progress is provided by the tree-lined path along which Spring has walked, which stretches into the distance. A delicacy of movement, colour and light suggest optimism in this lyrical image.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

Spring was purchased by Aberdeen Art Gallery in 1945, with income from the Lyon Bequest. This bequest has supported the acquisition of works by artists from Bessie MacNicol (1869-1904) to Peter Howson (b.1958).

George Henry (1858-1943), Picking Bluebells, undated, William Morris Gallery, London

A Woodland Flower Carpet

As Spring begins to take hold of the natural world, one of its most impressive sights is the return of the bluebell to our woods. George Henry (1858-1943) rejoices in this moment in his undated Picking Bluebells.

George Henry

Henry was born in Irvine, north Ayrshire. He studied part-time at Glasgow School of Art and also attended classes given by William York Macgregor (1855-1923). He is known as one of the ‘Glasgow Boys‘, along with Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) with whom he travelled in Japan from 1893 until 1894. Henry was elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1902 and of the Royal Academy in London in 1920.

Picking Bluebells

The influence of Henry’s Japanese trip is still evident in this mature painting. Echoes of the costumes and hair-styles of Geisha can be seen in those of the women occupied in the titular activity. Receding drifts of bluebells are indicated by dabbed brushstrokes in the lower third of the canvas. The horizontal trunks and branches of the trees and shrubs growing above them draw the viewer’s eye upwards. Light and shadow play across the composition as Spring sunshine suffuses the scene with a gentle luminosity.

William Morris Gallery

The Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) presented Picking Bluebells to the William Morris Gallery in London in 1936. Brangwyn had worked as an apprentice draughtsman in the Morris & Co workshops in the 1880s and gave his art collection in memory of the designer William Morris (1834-96).

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961), Spring, Botanic Gardens, 1950
The Fergusson Gallery, Perth (c) Perth & Kinross Council

Spring has Arrived

Winter is forgotten as John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) paints its successor at the height of its glory in Spring, Botanic Gardens of 1950. A mature woman embodies seasonal fertility, set amongst the trees and houses surrounding Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.

John Duncan Fergusson

Fergusson was born in Leith, the port of Edinburgh. He attended Life Classes sporadically at the Académies Colarossi and Julian in Paris, but was otherwise self-taught. During five key years spent living in Paris between 1907 and 1912 Fergusson was elected a sociétaire of the progressive Salon d’Automne. The inter-war years were spent between London and the French capital, before he returned to Scotland on the outbreak of World War Two. Fergusson is known as one of the four Scottish Colourists, who are amongst the most celebrated of twentieth-century Scottish artists.

Spring, Botanic Gardens

Following Fergusson’s move to Glasgow in 1939, he and his partner the dance pioneer Margaret Morris (1891-1980) settled in the city’s West End, close to the Botanic Gardens. Fergusson had long been interested in the relationship between female beauty and natural fecundity, a fascination encouraged by Morris’s philosophy of dancing freely in nature. In Spring, Botanic Gardens, the season is represented by a more mature and sensual woman than seen in Sivell’s more tentative work above.The voluptousness of Fergusson’s model, from lips to bust, relates to the fulsome foliage with which she is surrounded. The palette is dominated by green, the colour of growth. Winter is a thing of the past, whilst Summer is soon to come.

The Fergusson Gallery

Following Fergusson’s death, Morris established the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation to promote the his life and work. In 1991, the Foundation presented a significant gift of his work and archival material to Perth and Kinross Council, including Spring, Botanic Gardens; The Fergusson Gallery opened the following year.

May these paintings provide cheer for us during this lockdown Winter, as the signs of Spring begin to show themselves. The hope they provide is more welcome this year than usual.

Further Reading

William Gillies also appears in my ‘Welcome to Winter‘ blog and J. D. Fergusson is included in ‘Christmas is Coming‘.

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