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Landscapes and Still Lifes
Above: William Gillies on the Lammermuirs, c.1920s
Cover: Trees near Temple
Landscapes and Still Lifes
11 January - 3 march 2012
16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HZ
Tel 0131 558 1200 Email email@example.com
William Gillies was an influential teacher to several
generations of painters and is widely regarded as one of
Scottish art’s most beloved sons.
He was perhaps The Scottish Gallery’s most important artist holding seven exhibitions with the Gallery during his lifetime and we still exhibit his paintings on a regular basis.
Gillies’s first ever show was in the front window of a Haddington watchmaker’s in 1920.
Unbeknown to the locals at the time, it was the start of an artistic career for one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century.
William George Gillies was born in Haddington in 1898. He entered Edinburgh College of Art in 1916, but his studies were interrupted when he was called for service with the Scottish Rifles in 1917. He saw action in France and was wounded and gassed, spending three weeks in hospital in Glasgow. He returned to his studies in 1919, putting the horrors of war behind him and at the end of his diploma was awarded a travel bursary.
In 1923 he went to Paris and worked as a student underneath the French Cubist painter, André Lhôte, an experience that had no long-term effect on the young artist. Although Lhôte’s teaching was not to Gillies’s taste it did give him the chance to witness avant- garde painting first hand; a far cry from his classical training at Edinburgh College of Art.
Shortly afterwards he was accepted to the staff of ECA, a post which was to tie him to the College for the next 40 years.
After a spell of living in Edinburgh on Willowbrae Road in 1939 Gillies moved with his mother and sister to a cottage in Temple - a small town on the bank of the river Esk. The Gillieses were not city folk, and a return to the country was like going home. The garden and surrounding countryside provided plentiful subject matter with occasional trips to Perthshire, the West Coast and Fife. When Robin Philipson returned from a painting trip to New Mexico he told Gillies that he would definitely enjoy it. Gillies replied that he ‘hadn’t done the Glasgow area yet.’ Gillies’s mastery of the Scottish landscape came from a deep knowledge and understanding of the land. His compositions and colour harmonies seem to extract the very essence of each landscape he experienced.Where the ordinary eye would see nothing of interest - fields in the middle distance, a stretch of moorland, an expanse of sky - Gillies sees positive elements, crucial to his pictorial arrangement. His domestic environment too provided much inspiration; his eye constantly searching and experimenting with the subtle tabletop arrangements of ordinary objects for his still lifes: his sisters’ ceramics, a “tilly lamp”, a pot of flowers from the garden.
He was a painter who was not concerned with social or political comment, or indeed art historical debates. In 1931 the Society of Scottish Artists secured a loan exhibition of 12 pictures by Norwegian master Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Gillies was deeply impressed by the brooding quality of Munch’s work, although his nihilistic message was less attractive: ‘If I want to send a message, I’ll write a letter,’ he remarked.
Gillies regarded ‘his’ college and his students as his home and family, and lived to see four generations of students achieve national and international success. It can’t have been
10 Summer Landscape, Esperton near Temple, 1952 Watercolour, 25.5 x 33.5 cm Signed lower left Exhibited: William Gillies and the Edinburgh School, The Scottish Gallery, 2006 (no.6)
12 Stooks Oil on panel, 44 x 79 cm 13 Gillies was a prolific watercolourist and his approach varied throughout his life. In the earlier period he only employs the brush, sometimes wet on wet, with a minimum of drawing which can lend a spontaneous and gestural quality and often captures a particular moment or some fleeting atmospheric effect. From the 1940s he tended to draw first, with pencil or pen and then use monochrome or colour washes but he would often return to ‘pure watercolour’ when the subject demanded, as in Rosebery, near Temple. Half a mile or so south along the course of the South Esk is Rosebery reservoir and Gillies will have parked his faithful Ford Granada (he had a lifelong love affair with the internal combustion engine) on the B6372 and climbed up a little to look down on the grey water and rain sodden trees on the far bank.
Gillies had seven one-person shows with The Scottish Gallery in his lifetime but in addition there was often a ‘bin’ of unframed Gillies watercolours displayed in the premises on Castle Street which were constantly on sale at the ‘bargain’ price of 20 guineas.
14Rosebery, near Temple, c.1960Watercolour, 47 x 62 cmSigned lower left
15 The Loch, 1946 (possibly in the Pentlands) Pen and ink wash, 49 x 69 cm Signed lower right Provenance: With Aitken Dott & Son, Edinburgh Private Collection, Edinburgh With Cyril Gerber, Glasgow Private Collection, Glasgow Exhibited: William Gillies, Festival Exhibition, Aitken Dott & Son, 1963 (no. 35) Gallery Exhibition, Cyril Gerber Fine Art, Glasgow, October 1996
18 Autumn Trees,Tummel Watercolour, 52 x 63.5 cm Signed lower left Exhibited: William Gillies, Festival Exhibition, Aitken Dott & Son, 1963 (no. 35)
26 27 Still Life withYellow Cloth & BlueVase, c.1954/5 Oil on canvas, 35 x 66.5 cm Signed lower right Provenance: Private Collection, purchased from The Scottish Gallery in 1970 Exhibited: Exhibition of Paintings -WG Gillies, The Scottish Gallery, February 1970 (no. 35) 28 29 Cavehill Near Lyne, 1956 Pencil, 25.5 x 35.5 cm Signed and dated lower left
32 Crofts Argyll, 1949 Watercolour, 24.7 x 31 cm Signed and dated Provenance: Estate of the late Katie Horsman With Ewan Mundy Fine Art, Glasgow Collection of Giseli Gresswell, Oxford Private collection, UK
36 37 Winter Afternoon, 1952 Watercolour, 25 x 34.5 cm Signed and dated lower right 38 Trees near Temple Sepia ink, 28 x 38 cm Signed lower left Provenance: Collection of Hilary and Keith McCallum
40 Sunset, c.1960 Watercolour and body colour, 31 x 50.8 cm Signed lower right Provenance: The collection of Dr. Robert A. Lillie Private collection, Scotland Exhibited: William GilliesWatercolours, The Scottish Gallery, 1968 (no. 31)
The comments below were written by friends and colleagues to accompany W. Gordon Smith’s book A Very Still Life, Atelier Books, Edinburgh, 1991 SIR ROBIN PHILIPSON RSW RGI RSA RA PRSA (1916-1992) He had in abundance whatever it is that inspires people to make the most of life. A quiet man, totally incapable of self-promotion. And there was never any chance that he would smother himself in dead language, leaving only a cipher or sign.
I know he was enormously proud of his decorations. He adored it when he became CBE. After one of our many chats round the fire at Temple – we had eaten the bacon, egg and sausages at midnight to keep us going till 3a.m. – I got up to go. He said, “Got another letter from the Palace.” “Not it?” I said. “’Fraid so,” he said. We had to get him a tail-coat.
DAVID MCCLURE RSW RSA (1926 – 1998) I have been trying to pin down my thoughts on the great man. I do not find it easy. In a way he remains an enigma. I was a student for five years while Gillies was Head of Paintings and yet I had only three or four lessons from him in all that time. The first was when MacTaggart called for Bill Gillies to come and see a painting I had done. He admired it generously and commended it for its tonal values. I had on the easel a much more freely painted thing with apples and a jug. He looked at it and said “Apples are not tennis balls. They have planes.” He then proceeded to push the wet paint around with his horny thumb, making the apples truly three-dimensional, and expressed in ‘planes’. On another occasion I was propounding a theory I had come across about ‘Organic Colour Values’… I asked him if he did not agree with this. His response was typically antiintellectual. “No. Nature always gets the colour wrong, so you have to try to improve it.” FRANCES WALKER RSA RSW (B.1930) I first saw him when I went to do a drawing test. He appeared to be a janitor bustling around arranging antique busts for groups of anxious hopefuls to draw – then collecting our efforts. He wore a well-used smock overall belted around the middle. An unpretentious, practical, busy person – approachable but not likely to suffer fools or arrogant people gladly. He had a sharp, shrewd way of looking at people. I liked his direct, very Scottish, Lowland personality, his pawky dry humour and economy of words… I know he had a strong influence on me – by example, in his dedication as an artist and by his work. The linear, lyrical quality of his work and descriptive use of colour – and forget when he it was who proposed me as an Associate of the RSA. His whole vision appealed to me. I felt instinctively that what I wanted to say in my work was more related to Gillies than the ‘painterly’ or gestural Scottish painting of the time. I envied his speed, facility and skill, and admired the fluency of his pen-and-ink drawings and watercolours.
His work reveals his continuous celebration and enjoyment of snow, rainbows, stormy skies, twilight, moonlight, sunlight…
42William Gillies teaching the life class at Edinburgh College of Art
43 DAVID MICHIE OBE, RSA (B.1928) His paintings reflected him – very unfussy, economical, unpretentious, without any pomposity and never heavily solemn. He didn’t like pretentiousness in others. It was clear to all his students that he had integrity, cared about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the school. He set high standards for himself and expected similar from those around him. He could be generous in praise and critical of slack work or behaviour by students and colleagues – quite fiercely.
His indulgences were simple – cars, motor bikes, chocolate biscuits and cigarettes whose smoke stained a wisp of a moustache. He sold me the first car I possessed – a Triumph Gloria with real leather upholstery – for £30. He was an enthusiastic maker of homemade wine (like his mother), responding to the flowers and fruits of the season – dandelion in early summer, gooseberry following. Raspberry was a favourite.
Gillies, Maxwell and Willie Wilson are an interesting trio to compare. All bachelors with idiosyncratic ways of relating to women. Gillies was very close to his mother and sisters. Apart from them women seemed to exert no fascination. In fact, Gillies seemed to be happily asexual. He had a great sense of fun and loved the fancy dress carnival of the college Revels. I remember him dressing up as Harpo Marx and on another occasion as a racing cyclist – padded body and arms giving him comic bulging muscles.
While he was a naturally modest person, he had a proper sense of worthy qualities. He said of himself that he might be remembered as a ‘little master’. However one describes him (I very much dislike ‘ranking’ artists) it is undoubtedly true that all who knew him and his work were enriched.
WILLIAM JACKSON (DIRECTOR OF THE SCOTTISH GALLERy 1975-1991) He was not a great innovator and certainly did not break new ground, but he might well prove to be one of the greatest natural painters this country has produced this century.
I first visited Temple in the autumn of 1968. Here was this busy and amiable man who trotted everywhere with little, hurried steps. I remember the sitting-room at the back of the house, with its variety of wallpaper, and large key paintings which were astonishing to me in their brilliance… The day was concluded with tea, toast and home-made apple jelly. There was also a bottle of elderberry wine, which is why I remember little of the return journey.
DAME ELIzABETH BLACKADDER RSA RA RSW RGI (B.1931) He was special to me. When I was a young student in 1949, and being a woman, I got no feeling from Gillies that I was in any way different – you were a painter, and it didn’t matter you were, man, woman, whatever. He just expected you to get on with it. That sense of there being no difference may not seem very much, but I think it was something very special to him and important to me as a painter, right from the beginning. I was very lucky to have such encouragement.
44 Top: The artist at work, c.1933 Bottom: William Gillies in the garden at Temple
1898 Born 21 September, Haddington, East Lothian, son of John (born 1856) and Emma Gillies (nee Smith, born 1864) and brother of Janet (born 1896) and Emma (born 1900).
1909-1916 Educated at Knox Academy, Haddington (awarded Dux Medal in 1916).
1916 Enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art, studied for two terms.
1917 Called for National Service. Drafted with the Scottish Rifles to France where he saw service around Arras. Wounded and gassed and returned to Scotland in 1918.
1919 Resumed studies at Edinburgh College of Art.
1920 First solo exhibition in Haddington watchmakers, owned by local art enthusiast Alexander Wright.
1921 Death of Gillies’s father.
1922 Awarded Diploma in Drawing and Painting and post-Diploma Scholarship providing studio facilities for a further year’s study.
Became a founder member of the exhibiting society the 1922 Group. The group’s exhibitions were held in Edinburgh from 1923-29.
1923 Awarded Travelling Scholarship and, with fellow recipient William Geissler, went to Paris to study under André Lhôte, and travelled to Italy.
1924 Returned to Scotland.
Appointed Assistant Art Master at the Royal Academy, Inverness.
1925 Appointed part-time lecturer in School of Drawing and Painting, Edinburgh College of Art.
1928 Gillies’s family moved from Haddington to 162 Willowbrae Road, Edinburgh.
Joint exhibition with Frances Hodgkins, St George’s Gallery, London.