John Bellany



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John Bellany CBE, RA, HRSA
1942 Born Port Seton, Scotland

Edinburgh College of Art. Studied painting under Sir Robin Philipson and Sir William Gillies

Royal College of Art, London. Studied under Carel Weight and Peter de Francia

Official cultural visit to East Germany with Alan Bold & Alexander Moffat: visited Dresden, Halle, Weimar, East Berlin & Buchenwald Concentration Camp

Lecturer in Painting, Brighton College of Art

Lecturer in Painting, Winchester College of Art
Visiting lecturer at Royal College of Art and Goldsmith’s College of Art

Lecturer in Painting, Goldsmith’s College of Art
Lecturer in Painting, Royal College of Art, London

Artist in Residence, Victoria College of the Arts, Melbourne, Australia

Elected Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Awarded CBE by Her Majesty, The Queen

Awarded Honorary Doctorate, University of Edinburgh

Awarded Honorary Doctorate, Herriot Watt University
Honorary Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art, London

Honorary Citizen, Focandora, Barga
Awarded the Chevalier Medal, Florence
Awarded the Freedom of San Cristoforo, Barga

Awarded The Freedom of East Lothian

Awarded Honorary Doctorate, Queen Margaret University, Scotland

Retrospective Exhibitions

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Serpentine Gallery, London

Hamburger Kunsthalle and Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund

Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

John Bellany – Eine Schottische Odyssee – Kunsthalle Jesuitenkirche, Aschaffenburg, Germany

John Bellany – Eine Schottische Odyssee – Spandau Zitadelle, Berlin, Germany

Bellany: Works on Paper, 1965-2009, Beaux Arts, London

Bellany: Epic Voyage, a retrospective spanning 5 decades, Beaux Arts, London

Scottish National Gallery: A Passion for Life, Edinburgh

John Bellany: Epic Journey through Life, Beaux Arts, London

Dromidaris Gallery, Holland

Edinburgh College of Art

Winchester School of Art

1970, 71, 73, 74
Drian Gallery, London

Hendricks Gallery, Dublin

New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh
Printmakers Workshop, Edinburgh

Royal College of Art, London

Triad Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford, Royal College of Art
Edinburgh City Arts Centre

Aberdeen City Art Gallery

1977, 80
Acme Gallery, London

1978, 79
Glasgow Print Studio

Scottish Arts Council, Edinburgh
Printmakers Workshop, Edinburgh
Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews

Third Eye Centre, Glasgow
Southampton City Art Gallery
Newcastle Polytechnic

Moira Kelly Fine Art, London

Goldsmith’s College of Art, London

1982, 84
Rosa Esman Gallery, New York

Paintings 1971-82, touring exhibition: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield; Third Eye Centre, Glasgow; Rochdale Art
Gallery; Hatton Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; MacLaurin Art Gallery, Ayr; Rosa Esman Gallery, New York;
Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne

Dűsseldorf Gallery, Perth
Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney
Mercury Gallery, Edinburgh

1984, 87
Roslyn Oxley Gallery, Sydney

National Portrait Gallery, London
Galerie Krikhaar, Amsterdam
Inaugural Exhibition for the opening of the Henry Moore Gallery, Royal College of Art, London
Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh and touring Scotland

1986, 89
Fischer Fine Art, London

Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London
The Old Man and the Sea: Paintings and Prints, Compass Gallery, Glasgow
Greenhill Galleries, Perth
Butler Gallery, Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
Hendricks Gallery, Dublin
MacLaurin Gallery, Ayr
Bellany as Printmaker 1965-1985, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow; Printmakers Workshop, Edinburgh; Aberdeen Art Gallery; Beaux Arts, Bath
Recent Acquisitions, National Portrait Gallery, London

1987, 96
The Peacock Gallery, Aberdeen

Workshop Gallery, Edinburgh; Aberdeen Art Gallery; Beaux Arts, Bath

1988, 90
Ruth Siegel Gallery, New York

The Renaissance of John Bellany: watercolours painted in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
John Bellany: A Renaissance, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Aberdeen Art Gallery

1989, 94
Beaux Arts Gallery, Bath

Raab Gallery, Berlin
Compass Gallery, Glasgow

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Fischer Fine Art, London

A Long Night’s Journey into Day: A 50th Birthday Tribute, Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow
50th Birthday: A Celebration, Beaux Arts Gallery, Bath

1992, 93
Flowers East Gallery, London

Prints, Drawings and Watercolours 1970-1993, Berkeley Square Gallery, London

Recent Paintings, Flowers East at London Fields, London

Recent Paintings, Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York
John Bellany: New Paintings, John Bellany; Print-Maker, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
Edinburgh Festival Exhibition
Strathclyde University Gallery, Glasgow

Monoprints, Flowers East, London
MacGeary Gallery, Brussels
Galeria Kin, Mexico

A Toast to Mexico, Beaux Arts, London

A Scottish Odyssey, Beaux Arts, London

Elaine Baker Gallery, Boca Raton, Florida

Beaux Arts, London
Solomon Gallery, Dublin

John Bellany, University of Northumbria
Haven, Beaux Arts, London

John Bellany at 60, Beaux Arts, London
60th Birthday Exhibition, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Bellany at 60, Solomon Gallery, Dublin
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
Commune Galleria, Barga

John Bellany, Piazza Angelio, Barga, Italy
Beaux Arts, Bath,
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh

Solomon Gallery, Dublin
Beaux Arts Gallery, London
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh (Edinburgh Festival Exhibition)

East Lothian exhibitions to celebrate John Bellany’s Freedom of East Lothian award
National Gallery of China, Beijing, National Gallery Shanghai, China
The John Bellany Odyssey, Mitchell Library, Glasgow

Celtic Vision, Solomon Gallery, Dublin
Beaux Arts, London

The Eternal Sea, Roger Billcliffe Gallery, Glasgow
Edinburgh Festival, Open Eye Gallery Edinburgh
Enchanted Land, Lemon Street Gallery, Truro, Cornwall

Beaux Arts, London
Solomon Gallery, Dublin
Harbour Gallery, Port Seton
John Bellany and Thomas Gainsborough, Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury
Lemon Street Gallery, Cornwall

Bellany: Works on Paper, 1965-2009, Beaux Arts, London
Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex
John Bellany: A Celtic Voyage, Open Eye, Edinburgh

John Bellany: Love in the Abyss, Beaux Arts, London

Peppercanister Gallery, Dublin, Ireland
John Bellany, Piazza Angelio, Barga, Italy

John Bellany, Beaux Arts, London

John Bellany at 70, Edinburgh Festival

John Bellany, Works on Paper, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh

Selected Group Exhibitions

Edinburgh Festival Exhibition, hung on railings at Castle Terrace (with Alexander Moffat)

1965, 66, 67
Young Contemporaries, London

Edinburgh Festival Exhibition on Mound steps (with Alexander Moffat)
John Moores Exhibition 6, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Twenty by Fifty-Seven, New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh

The Nude, New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh

Arcadia Fine Art, Edinburgh (with William Crozier; Rodick Carmichael and Peter Stitt)
Scottish Realism, Scottish Arts Council Touring Exhibition
10 Scottish Printmakers, Sussex University

British Figurative Art, Nova London Gallery, Copenhagen
Scottish Artists (touring exhibition, New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh)

Figures in the Landscape, Arts Council Touring Exhibition
London Group, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

A Choice Selection, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh
British Painting ’74, Hayward Gallery, London
British Art ’74, Germany (British Council touring exhibition)
John Moores Exhibition 9, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

4 Scottish Realists, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
English and Scottish Painting ’75, Fieldborne Galleries, London

John Moores Exhibition 10, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

25 Years of British Painting, Royal Academy, London
Expressionism and Scottish Painting, Scottish Arts Council (touring exhibition)
London Group, Royal College of Art Galleries, London
Scottish Painting, Edinburgh College of Art

Scottish Artists, Amos Anderson Gallery, Helsinki
Tate ’79, Tate Gallery, London
Independent Irish Artists, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin (with Bacon, Crozier & Freud)
British Painting, Oxford University
The British Art Show, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, and touring

John Moores Exhibition 12, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Prize-winner)
British Art 1940-1980: The Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery, London
The Triptych, Ian Birksted Gallery
Peter Moores Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh; Goldsmith’s College, London
The Nude, Angela Flowers Gallery, London
13 British Artists, British Council exhibition touring Germany
Art and the Sea, touring exhibition

The Subjective Eye, touring exhibition
John Moores Exhibition 13, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Contemporary Choice, Serpentine Gallery, London
Inner Worlds, Arts Council touring exhibition
Drawing Towards Prints, Printmakers Workshop, Edinburgh

Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
Self-Portraits, Scottish Arts Council touring exhibition
Scottish Expressionism, Warwick Arts Trust, London
The Hard Won Image, Tate Gallery, London
The British Art Show, touring exhibition

Athena International Awards, Mall Galleries, London (joint first prize)
British Painting, Manchester City Art Gallery; Fine Art Society, Edinburgh

Man and Animals, Arts Council exhibition, Nottingham Castle
Celtic Vision, touring exhibition, opened Madrid

Scottish Painting 1954-87, 369 Gallery, Edinburgh; Warwick Arts Trust, London
Represented Britain in Ljubljana Print Biennale, Yugoslavia;
2nd Triennale of European Engraving, Grada, Italy
The Self-Portrait, selected by Edward Lucie-Smith & Sean Kelly, Artsite Gallery, Bath; Fischer Fine Art, London
The Scottish Bestiary, The Banqueting House, London (portfolio of prints, touring exhibition)

British Romantic Painting, touring exhibition, opened Madrid
The Royal College of Art Print Portfolio Exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

El Greco Exhibition, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (guest artist)
Eros in Albion (House of Massaccio), British Council Exhibition, Italy
British Figurative Painting, selected by Norbert Lynton
Every Picture Tells a Story, British Council touring exhibition, Hong Kong; Singapore, Africa
Scottish Paintings since 1900, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; Barbican Art Gallery, London

Glasgow’s Great British Art Show, McLellan Galleries, Glasgow
The Compass Contribution, Tramway, Glasgow
8 Scottish Printmakers, British Council touring exhibition, Singapore; Glasgow
Turning the Century, The New Scottish Painting, The Raab Gallery, London; Milan; Berlin; USA
Scotland Creates, McLellan Galleries, Glasgow

New British Art, British Council Exhibition, Denmark
Modern Masters (prints), Berkeley Square Gallery, London

Scottish Painting, Flowers East, London
Contemporary Trends in British Art, Hayward Gallery, London
The Line of Tradition, Scotland
John Moores Exhibition 18, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The Bigger Picture, McLellan Galleries, Glasgow
After Redoute: Recent flower paintings, drawings and photographs, Flowers East, London

Contemporary British Art in Print: The Publications of The Paragon Press 1986-95, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

The Power of Images, Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin
Naked, Flowers East at London Fields, London
Rye Art Gallery
Virgin Airways Upper Class Lounge
Realism, Künstlersonderbund of Deutschland, Berlin
Angela Flowers (Ireland) Inc., Co. Cork, Ireland

Print, Riverside Studios, London
Contemporary British Portraits, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Religious Images, National Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Scottish Artists, Solomon Gallery, Dublin

A Celebration of Mary Queen of Scots, Bourne Fine Art, Edinburgh

Pictures at an Exhibition, Moussorgsky Musical Exhibition, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh

Contemporary Religious Art, St Paul’s Cathedral, London

The Enchanted Land: Puccini’s Landscape, Lights and Colours, The Mitchell Library, Glasgow

The Royal Academy in China, National Gallery of China, Beijing, Shanghai Gallery of Art, China
European Union Gallery, Brussels

Royal Academicians in China, Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Florence Biennale, Italy

Four Scottish Painters, Barns-Graham, Bellany, Davie and Redpath, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

Florence Biennale, Italy

Royal Academicians come to Richmond, Richmond Hill Gallery
Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions every year from 1985-2009

Public Collections

Aberdeen Art Gallery
Arts Council of Great Britain
Belfast Polytechnic
British Council
British Museum, London
Chesser House, Edinburgh
Contemporary Art Society
Dundee Central Museum and Art Gallery
Edinburgh Corporation
Ferens Art Gallery, Hull
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums
Government Art Collection
Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Isle of Man Arts Council Collection
J.F. Kennedy Library, Boston
Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery
Leeds City Art Gallery
Leicester Museum and Art Gallery
MacLaurin Art Gallery, Ayr
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Middlesbrough Art Gallery
Museum of Boca Raton, Florida
Museum of London
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Gdansk
National Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
National Gallery of Poland, Warsaw
National Library of Congress, Washington
National Portrait Gallery, London
New York Public Library
Perth Museum and Art Gallery
Royal College of Art, London
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Scottish Arts Council
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Sheffield City Art Gallery
Southampton City Art Gallery
Swindon Museum and Art Gallery
Tate Gallery, London
Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh
University of Western Australia, Perth
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
Wolverhampton Municipal Art Gallery and Museum
Yale Centre of British Art
Zuider Zee Museum, Holland

Awards, Commissions and Prizes

Andrew Grant Scholarship. Travel to Paris.
Postgraduate travelling scholarship. Travel to Holland and Belgium
Commissioned by Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to paint murals for Chesser House, Edinburgh

Burston Award, Royal College of Art, London

John Moores Prizewinner

Major Arts Council Award
Wollaston Award, Royal Academy, London

Athena International Art Award (joint first prizewinner)

Wollaston Award, Royal Academy, London

Commissioned to paint Lord Renfrew and Sir Roy Calne by the National Portrait Gallery, London

British Council visit to Central Europe, Prague, Vienna, Budapest

Korn/Ferry Picture of the Year, Royal Academy, London

Glasgow Herald Award for Excellence

Cheval Medal from City of Florence

Fishers in the Snow presented to the New Scottish Parliament

Awarded the First Freedom of East Lothian

Awarded Honorary Doctorate, Queen Margaret University, Scotland

John McEwen 2008

John Bellany


John Bellany is a painter of Nordic mystical power. One of the great masters of our time, no doubt about it – Alan Davie


John Bellany’s 13th Beaux Arts exhibition is a selection covering the five decades of his career, with two paintings dating from his first trip north of the Arctic circle at the end of 2007. These Lapland pictures are indicative of the autobiographical nature of his subject matter, his total oeuvre spinning one of the most fantastic yarns in the history of art.

That is a tall claim but undeniable. The technology which has saved his life more than once was not available to previous generations. Had he been born any earlier we should have been deprived of the full flowering of his art, as well as the depths he plumbed to tell the story of his liver transplant in 1988 – the longest operation in the world at that date. That he survived a heart attack in 2006, when he was officially declared to have been ‘dead’ on a pavement in Glasgow for over a minute, now happily registers – again thanks to technology – as a mere footnote.

It makes sense therefore to see Bellany’s art as the log of a voyage – what else could one call the story of  this most searching painter of the epic relationship of man and the sea? – and to discuss the selection in chronological order, each decade having its particular character.

Carel Weight remembered that his former protégé and pupil at the Royal College of Art had ‘tremendous roots’. Bellany’s art is rooted in everything to do with his well-documented upbringing as the son of  the skipper of a ‘skiff’ (a 40 ft boat for herring fishing with half-a-dozen  crew) working out of Port Seton in the days before science had eroded religion, before the negative effect of technology had homogenised social and national distinction, replaced music-making and reading with television, endangered fish stocks and even placed mankind’s very existence at risk.

To a rationalist like the militantly atheist Richard Dawkins it might seem to have been a dark age of religion and superstition, when the prawns destined for his sandwich were chucked overboard as ‘vermin’ and the only answers to the devilish forces of nature were the sacred promise of  the church and the profane oblivion offered by the pub. But  people lived closer to nature then and, for all that there were rich and poor, it was a more neighbourly society in consequence. In addition, with scientific ignorance there was wonder, with religion came knowledge, discipline and  respect – not just in the present but for the past.

The two paintings from the 1960s, The Down-and-Out and Lost Soul, date from when Bellany was living in London for the first time as a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art. Not everyone in London at that swinging time was cruising the King’s Road at the wheel of an E-type Jaguar. The recently married John and Helen Bellany, soon proud parents of the infant Jonathan, were coping on a student bursary which made no allowance for marriage, let alone children.

While the fashion for all things American saw pop art succeeded by cool minimalism Bellany stuck to his traditional guns,  disdaining what he dismissed as the DDFs (dedicated followers of fashion) to ally himself with the old European masters in search of eternal verities. At this time he became keenly aware of  the dichotomy of  his Presbyterian birthright from reading James Hogg’s dark psychological masterpiece, The Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner: the story of a boy of strict Calvinist training, who is persuaded by a stranger, the devil as it transpires, to commit a series of murders on the understanding that, as a member of the elect, no sin can deprive of him salvation. The fact that the reader is never sure whether the devil is real or a figment of the boy’s imagination makes it all the more disturbing. No wonder The Private Confessions was so admired by the surrealists.

There is a bleakness about much of Bellany’s 1960s work  which testifies to his strictly religious (church attendance three times on the Sabbath) and nature-ruled upbringing. Fishing and mining were the mainstay of East Lothian employment in his youth, both industries plying the depths at risk of death. But from the start there is an assured historical awareness and respect in his painting, derived from many apprentice hours copying from the wonderful collection in Edinburgh’s National Gallery. And yet he was always his own man, the skipper of his own boat, with a rare sense of destiny and an awareness of death unusual in one so young, although not in a community dependent on the sea.

Bellany’s ‘tramp’ in her defiantly scarlet tights (in fact posed by the Goya-esque Antoinette, a willingly collaborative Royal College model) would not have looked out of place in a Netherlandish painting from four centuries before; but is that collaged newspaper ‘napkin’ the origin of those fragments of minced ‘newsprint’ (with their collaged letraset letters) which became a favourite motif of Francis Bacon from 1970? Bellany’s external College ‘studio’ was within yards of Bacon’s own, a source of daily inspiration to the young man who nonetheless kept a respectful distance in their ‘local’, The Zetland. Despite this lack of direct contact it is quite possible Bacon saw a version of Down-and-Out. For all his aloof independence he kept an eye on things. And what Soul could be more Lost than the old man clasping his bottle, haunted by the ominous flock of crows from Van Gogh’s last painting or, as applicably, the seagulls which scavenge the wake of boats. Both works are painted on hardboard, an economic measure rather than an aesthetic choice.

The 1960s seem like the gathering of the storm which raged in the 1970s. The 1970s paintings reflect the turbulence in Bellany’s own life: a period when his marriage to Helen ended in divorce – in the aftermath he even briefly stopped working – and he embarked on a second marriage doomed to end in the premature death of his new wife, Juliet.

The Accordion Player and only marginally less hectic two-faced Janus, Roman god of exits and entrances, surveyor of past and future, both painted in 1975, are two torrid examples from  this period, when Bellany drove representation to the verge of abstraction. There is a northern fierceness to this expressionistic work which positions him with the German painting he so admires – his first trip to the Tate as an Edinburgh student was to see a Kokoschka retrospective. And it makes him a foreign precursor of the expressionist revival among post-Second War German painters, which achieved international acclaim in the early 1980s. There is certainly no British figurative artist who has taken expressionism to more passionate extremes.

The 1980s saw John and Helen remarried, to the delight of their three children, Jonathan, Paul and Anya, and also the slow deterioration of  his health and eventual life-saving surgery in 1988. The brutal Accordion Player  (Bellany is an accomplished accordionist and pianist) is no less morbid than The Accordionist done shortly before his health broke down completely eight years later. The kiss of Life 1984 dates from the year he re-joined Helen and finally gave up the ‘amber nectar’ or, by then, the Bacardi. It is proof of his rare energy that booze never disrupted his relentless working schedule, which he maintains to this day. One rule he observes is to paint a self-portrait on his birthday, 18 June. Self portrait in chef’s hat celebrated one of his presents by depicting him  as a greedy chef, le patron mange ici – a black irony, since he was hardly capable of eating by this stage of his illness.

After plumbing the depths in the 1980s there is a sense of joyful release as his post-operative strength returns. Soon after leaving hospital he wrote in emphatic capitals to his old friend Sandy Moffat: ‘COLOUR IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING’ and so it remains. There had been colour in the early work but never for the sheer joy of it. Flowers, a subject he had previously disregarded, were one discovery, worldwide travel another. Italy was his favourite country and since they bought a country house near Barga, northern Tuscany, in 2000, the Bellanys have lived several months a year there. He now commutes between  properties in Barga, Cambridgeshire and Edinburgh, each with a studio-room fully equipped so he can arrive unencumbered and go straight to work.

Having a top-floor flat in Edinburgh, with a view over the Firth of Forth to the foothills of the Highlands, keeps him rooted to home however far he roams. More sophisticated drugs and reliable facilities abroad now allow him to visit parts of the world previously out-of-bounds. In 2003 he went to China and the Far East and in 2005 had the unique privilege for a British painter of an exhibition at the national galleries of  Beijing and Shanghai. Typically, he painted the pictures for the show during an extended stay prior to the opening.

Wherever he paints he returns insistently to the sights and memories of his upbringing, with a mythological cast of his own invention conjured from the myth and magic of his formative years in Port Seton or down the coast, past the talismanic Bass Rock, to his grandparents at Eyemouth in Berwickshire. One is reminded of his early mentor Hugh McDiarmid’s lines in the poem Deep Sea Fishing: ‘I kent their animal forms and primitive minds, like fish frae the sea.’

It was through Barga connections that the Bellanys visited Lapland, their friend Andreas Marcouci, the Italian Deputy Minister for Culture, and Leonardo Mordini having opened a hotel there in a former castle. They attended the opening festivities just before Christmas. Munch has long been another of John Bellany’s masters, so the trip proved a further circle completed. ‘Everywhere you looked you saw Munch!’ He exclaims; and Munch seems to haunt the watercolour Lutheran Church, Gallivare, Lapland and oil on canvas Fjalinas Castle, Lapland, as much as that spectral sun.


John McEwen

John McEwen 2012 Epic Voyage

John Bellany’s Epic Voyage


In a sense John Bellany’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a self-portrait, so closely does it trace the highs, lows and locations of his life, his often masked (invariably of a fish or marine bird) and soulful figure inevitably included.

Seeing the Max Beckmann (1884-1950) show at the Tate in 1965 revealed the power of masks and mythologies, opened the door to his becoming what another of his early inspirers, Alan Davie, has called ‘a painter of  Nordic mystic power’. The foundations were already laid by his upbringing as the son of a fisherman in the fishing village of Port Seton. In this close-knit community dependent for its livelihood on the unforgiving sea, death was daily defied, superstition and religion ever-present. As a child Bellany attended church three times each Sabbath.

Faith was at the core of the loving security of the family, all the greater for the encompassing insecurity. ‘My childhood was idyllic. There were no strictures. It was all high romance, lyrical,’ Bellany recalls.

Faith inescapably raised immemorial questions, posed in a pivotal Bellany painting half-a-century ago – Whence do we come? Who are we? Whither do we go? It surely also explains why Damien Hirst admires and collects his work. Hirst too had a Christian upbringing and therefore an engrained sense of mortality, as much of his work testifies. When Bellany was a student he was exceptional in seeing the bigger historical picture. He copied the old masters and challenged what he scornfully called ‘dedicated followers of fashion’; that majority of his contemporaries whose work avoided the profundity of philosophical questions or moral issues.

This attitude was enforced by a traumatic visit to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1967. There followed a spate of paintings of broken human beings in the striped shrouds (eerily similar to the hospital night-shirt he wore after his life-saving 1988 transplant operation) of anonymous holocaust victims, the darkest expression of  Nordic mystic power. Lost Soul 1968 is an early example.

On that transforming visit to East Germany he met older German figurative painters, serious, socially-engaged, men at the coal-face of political reality, who had no truck with the stylistic formulae so popular in the West. He was welcomed as an equal, not patronised as a young hot head.

But above all with Bellany there is the sea, and especially there are boats. Boats as symbols of voyaging, of doom and tranquillity, as stages, as arks bearing sirens and omens, as guardians of memory. ‘I love to paint, whatever I am painting. At heart, however, I am a mariner,’ he has said.

James Ensor (1860-1949), from the Belgian shore of the North Sea, is another member of the Nordic pantheon who played a seminal part in his development. Ensor’s Two skeletons fighting over a fishbone is a precursor for several versions of Kiss of Life, a subject first painted in 1984 – the year Bellany renounced drink, the consequence of a raucous youth, and was re-united with his wife Helen and their children.

Self Portrait, Addenbrook’s Hospital 1988 was undertaken shortly after he had survived the pioneering liver transplant. ‘I’ve never come across anybody who the day they came out of the intensive care ward started resuming their profession,’ recalled Sir Roy Calne, his surgeon. So amazed was Calne that he was briefly inspired to paint full-time himself. For Bellany, drawing and painting were an analgesic; the concentration required dissolved the pain.

On being discharged he and Helen rented a cottage in the countryside at Eversden, within safe distance of the hospital. It was glorious spring weather and exhilaration found expression in his first painting of flowers, a subject of celebration ever since. He also painted a friendly neighbour, Sarah.

Renewed health coincided with financial success and exhibitions as far flung as Mexico and China. Wherever Bellany goes he sets up studio, even in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel to paint The Bundt, Shanghai. Today he spends his summers at Sipulicchia, his fine 18th-century house near the Tuscan town of Barga, where he has been honoured with a civic  citation and is regarded as ‘il noto artista’, its special artist.

The intensity of faith and wonder Bellany experienced as a child was fed by fear of the unknown in the awesome presence of the sea; but Italy has softened that stark first acquaintance with life. Brought up as a Calvinist he was told “‘You do this and you’ll go to hell!”’. The lurid imagination of Hieronymous Bosch did the rest. But in Catholic Italy   emphasis is placed on the joyful prospect of salvation.

‘The landscape, the climate, the warmth of the people – everything has tended to make me take a gentler view of life and that’s bound to be reflected in the work. The stress and strain of contemporary life just drops away…It’s changed the tone of appreciation of what could happen after death, if anything. These thoughts go through my mind all the time when I’m painting  – as a result I have a much more optimistic view.’

The art-historian Duncan MacMillan compares ‘the sombre and dark’ paintings of Bellany’s early career, influenced by the ‘dangerous’ waters of the North Sea, with his late work, ‘inspired by the sunshine, the people and the rich and ancient landscape’ of Italy. In an interview with Margherita Moscogiuri Bellany adds his own explanation: ‘Colours reflect what is going on inside: they are out there to be looked at depending on how one feels. It is not necessarily the case that the happier I am the more aggressive my use of colour becomes. More often, the opposite is true.’


The topical and historical importance of this depth of seriousness, this breadth of vision, has only become more apparent with time. It was forged at a date and in a place which was pre-18th century in its passion, reverence, superstition and dread; and existed in a broader culture which can equally be said to have changed more in his lifetime than in the previous two thousand years. That intellectual and social revolution has been wrought by a sea change in the relation of society to religion; especially in the West and particularly in Britain. As Michel Houellebecq says of the artist in his latest novel, The Map and the Territory ‘his contemporaries generally knew more about the life of  Spider-Man than that of Jesus’. Even the pope admitted this January that ‘in vast parts of the earth faith risks being extinguished like a flame that runs out of fuel’.

The supreme consequence of faith is a reverence of death and therefore of life. What makes Bellany that rarity in modern art, an epic artist, is that he sees life in relation to death. It means he is especially and pitilessly true to himself.

A new book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying lists ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me’ as number one. When Bellany was a young man he painted the following lines on the wall of his Battersea studio.  They are by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), inspiration and friend of his art student days in Edinburgh.


And let the lesson be – to be yersel’s

Ye needna fash gin it’s to be ocht else.

To be yersel’s – and to make that worth bein’,

Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en.


MacDiarmid’s heroic example as internationalist and nationalist – he was one of the founders of the SNP – helped Bellany set down the moral, spiritual and artistic standards which would guide him This meant ‘human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated’. It was this that made him a youthful exception in bravely opposing those who jumped on the bandwagons for pop, abstraction, the trashing of tradition and craft, and eventually, all that classified as fine art.

It also meant being true to his particular Scottish roots, not as a parochial escape but to exploit a priceless emotional and imaginative source; for the circumstances of this physical world have also changed beyond recognition. Who in his childhood could have foreseen that over the course of a mere 50 years the survival of fish would be globally endangered? That a floating waste of indestructible garbage the size of Texas would blight the Pacific?

Art encompasses the world and an artist should address the world and its history, as his painting of Danae, a homage to Rembrandt, exemplifies. But if the artist is also true to himself and his own experience then so will he be to kindred spirits globally. This has been more than confirmed by his international success. It has also inspired younger artists, in Scotland particularly.

Awe of death is indivisible from the urgency of that truth to life, overtly stated with the early Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) and later Death and the Maiden. Death in his pictures is as insistently present as the immemorial sea. Like a Roman emperor he seems to have had the word whispered in his ear as a constant reminder of mortality from the very start. It gives a grandeur to his vision and appears almost to have conjured the epic life voyage, which is his subject.


2012 sees Bellany achieve ‘three score years and ten’. This retrospective selection of paintings is a reminder of an impressively long artistic evolution; a prelude to the major survey at Scotland’s National Gallery of Modern Art in November.

Fate has decreed that never in the history of art has there been a story to match his unique saga of survival. This is literally true: without modern technology it would not have been possible. It has allowed him to be the first artist in Britain successfully to undergo a liver transplant; and 20 years later to survive a cardiac arrest in the street, during which he was technically dead for two minutes. Such brushes with eternity have put him on equal terms with his father, grandfather and forebears down the generations, who made their living in the daily, life-risking, business of fishing the high seas.

Calm, for all those often threatening skies, is part of  that redemption, conveyed in  a succession of post-millennium harbour scenes, represented here by an untitled view of Eyemouth, home of much-loved grandparents. It was at Eyemouth he began to draw and he still considers it ‘one of the most beautiful places in the world’. With his harbour paintings it is as if Bellany too has reached some spiritual haven, after that uniquely perilous but finally triumphant voyage through life.

In 1986 his long-standing friend and fellow painter, Sandy Moffat, quoted a Bellany statement of 1966: ‘I believe that it’s imperative that one is really excited and overwhelmed by the things one paints or writes about – I don’t need to quote any examples to prove this.’ Moffat concluded: ‘I would agree with that and I would quote as an example none other than John himself.’ In John Bellany’s seventieth year that endorsement is as applicable and more vital than ever.


John McEwen



Helen Bellany 2014 'Wither Do we go?'

‘Wither do we go?’

‘Who are we? From whence do we come? Whither do we go?’  These fundamental questions could be said to underlie the whole function and purpose of the arts.   As with many artists those questions consumed John. His whole life was spent asking them, knowing that they could never be answered. His compulsion was in the asking and his passion the never-ending pursuit.

The works in this exhibition are footsteps in his quest as we follow the passage of his own life.  In The Burden (1971) we find him embroiled in the struggle of his inner turmoil of the early seventies, the questioning of his Calvinist upbringing in Scotland giving way to the existential concerns of Beckett and Gide.

The melancholy poetry of Time will Tell (1975) casts a spell of mystery and brings us to the peak of his loneliness in You’re 35 Today John (1977).

The wounded fish in Puffin Fable (1974) is the sacrifice over which the vigil of the seabirds casts a solemn dignity.

Weaving throughout the decades are dreams and nightmares composed of the warring elements of the raw emotions and sexual drives of virile youth pitted against the fear of the God of his childhood whose threat of Hell and damnation would plague his inner thoughts to the end of his days.

Weighty matters, but aren’t they part of the stuff of what it is to be human? To have biological impulses and emotional urges which are continually being governed or not governed by an inner voice, an inner voice that has been a vigilant companion since the dawning of one’s consciousness? That aspect was more than fully developed in John but it was the other side of his persona that never failed to triumph magnificently over the dark.

His love of life is what he is remembered for. Months spent in the dazzling light of Australia in 1983 was an oasis which produced works of dynamic abandon. His tribute to the Australian painter Fred Williams (1983) was an affectionate expression of his regret that death had robbed him of meeting an admired ‘Brother of the Brush’ and ‘St Kilda’ (1983) recalls something of his Melbourne days when he was, by then, balanced precariously at the end of the line.

A second life, gifted to him in 1988 by a liver transplant propelled him forward and out of the shadows.

The cerebral conflict never abandoned him. Eros and Thanatos never released their grip but now there was more of a philosophical acceptance of life and its ambiguities and contradictions. They would be played out in more serene symphonies, the brass and the timpani more often giving way to the melody.

Now colour and light and the whole carnival of joy burst through and even in his most solemn reveries the mystery and the poetry sang out with a haunting beauty while, at times, the ecstasy of just being alive compelled him to abandon himself to the sensuous purity of flowers – ‘a day off from the world’, he would call it.

The physical act of handling oil paint and applying it to canvas was a sensual delight to him and if, at the end of a day’s work, he considered that he had produced ‘a beezer’ then for a few fleeting moments Paradise was within his grasp. As the chimera inevitably faded he would once more resume the challenge with the coming of the morning light.

I would like to think that John is now basking in the balm of an everlasting paradise with no sign of John Knox anywhere to be seen and far from the burning fires he feared.

This is the first exhibition of his work to be held since he died at the age of seventy one in the summer of 2013. He has left us a wealth of ‘beezers’ to behold and I hope that on visiting this selection of his work you will find more than a few of them here to enjoy.

Helen Bellany
May 2014