The Edinburgh School | Insights

11 May 2020

In Scottish painting there is a long tradition of major figures placing a great emphasis on the importance of works on paper within their individual oeuvres and nowhere is this better seen perhaps than in the work of the painters of ‘The Edinburgh School’. This term is generally used to refer to a group of influential and highly successful Scottish artists who are closely associated with Edinburgh College of Art either through receiving their training or through teaching there; many did both. It was a place where the excitement of the times and new ideas were shared both between and within generations.

The Edinburgh School | Insights
Edinburgh College of Art, 1949. Including Sir Robin Philipson, John Houston, David Michie, Sir William Gillies, Penelope Beaton, Adam Bruce Thomson, Robert Henderson Blyth and more.

The core group consisted of Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), Anne Redpath (1895-1965), Sir William Gillies (1898-1973), Sir William MacTaggart (1903-1981), John Maxwell (1905-1962) and Sir Robin Philipson (1916-1992). These painters were bound together as students and tutors, by their memberships of the Edinburgh-based Exhibition bodies: RSA, SSA and RSW, and were foremost friends and colleagues who shared an intense interest in the development of art and ideas.

If core attributes are to be identified then we see how drawing is used both as a means of observation, to underpin or construct and to produce lyrical works in their own right

Christina Jansen, 2019
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Adam Bruce Thomson, Border Landscape, c.1960, watercolour, 36.5 x 53 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir William Gillies, Borders Hillside, oil on canvas, 41 x 58 cm

The leitmotif was still life painting and the landscape of Scotland; their collective contribution represents a brand of painting which was unique to Scotland during a time when the School of Paris was at the heart of progressive, modernist thinking. After the end of The War, with the birth of the Edinburgh Festival and availability of access to continental Europe and the activity of the Scottish Committee of the ACGB, an atmosphere of possibility and optimism existed for artists which found full expression in Edinburgh.

Twin pillars

The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir William Gillies, c.1960
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Anne Redpath, c.1960

Gillies and Redpath have rightly been understood to form the twin pillars of the Edinburgh School, friends to so many talents in the next generation, artist exemplars of how anything was possible, that art mattered, that painting was far from dead and that the pursuit of beauty and significance was a worthwhile calling in a rapidly changing world.

The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir William Gillies, Still Life, Pot with Daisies, c.1952 oil on canvas, 58.5 x 112 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Anne Redpath, Flowers in a Jug, 1963, oil on board, 82.5 x 72.5 cm

The Scottish Gallery, commonly referred to as Aitken Dott’s, was very much at the heart of fostering the notion of a ‘school’ of generally like-minded painters, it being the main commercial and exhibiting hub in the capital, if not the country. Major figures of the school regularly held shows with us, both those of the older generation and from the later 1950s those younger artists who they had helped to inspire.

Guy Peploe, 2019
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Penelope Beaton, Still Life with Orange, oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir William MacTaggart, From Studio Window, 1977, oil on board, 60.5 x 50.5 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir Robin Philipson, Fruit, 1980, oil on canvas board, 40.5 x 35.5 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir Robin Philipson, 1957
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Sir William MacTaggart, c.1963

A second wave

A second wave of Edinburgh graduates began exhibiting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, principally David McClure, John Houston, Elizabeth Blackadder and David Michie. The final generation of the Edinburgh School painters, before the atomisation of the contemporary art world and its eventual reforming in the homogeneity of contemporary conceptual practice, is best represented by John Bellany. A rebel in his day, exhibiting on the railings outside the RSA, his close relationship with Philipson and Houston, his respect for Gillies and his acceptance of the primacy of drawing and technique link him back to the School origins.

The Edinburgh School | Insights
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, c.1980. Photograph by Robert Mabon
The Edinburgh School | Insights
John Houston, c.1980. Photograph by Robert Mabon

Blackadder, like several Edinburgh School painters, has maintained separate watercolour and oil studios. Her compositions in oil must be seen as her greatest contribution, brilliant fusions of real objects and imaginary space, the perfect balance of sharp focus and free drawing with the brush and an unerring sense of restraint and harmony, never overworked.

Guy Peploe, 2019
The Edinburgh School | Insights
John Houston, Sunset, Arisaig, 2004-05, oil on canvas, 35.5 x 40.5 cm
The Edinburgh School | Insights
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, Kikko, 1988, pastel, 38 x 38 cm

The Edinburgh School might contain artists as diverse as Gillies and Bellany, but the description is more meaningful than the bald list of alumni of Edinburgh College of Art since its inception in 1909. Most of the most prominent exemplars were also staff at the College and inevitably the choices in selecting new colleagues, falling to the Heads of School and Principal, could perpetuate an ethos while of course enriching the intellectual and stylist diversity of the College. In this respect William Gillies and then Robin Philipson were hugely influential. Yes, Gillies gave a job to Denis Peploe after serving six years in the War and returning to gain his teaching qualifications. But he also employed Robin Philipson, a subject painter of immense and precocious talent but with no previous connection to Edinburgh. In his turn Philipson staffed the College with several prominent graduates but brought the likes of Leonard Rosoman and later Victoria Crowe to provide new impetus and stimulation from outside. Many Edinburgh artist graduates escaped their colleges and country by taking port-graduate positions, making their career in England or further afield. All valued their College education and in their exhibition careers often made connections to their artistic origins.

The Edinburgh School with Guy Peploe

Please click on the link below to watch a short video of Galery director Guy Peploe, discuss the work of the Edinburgh School.

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