Flower Power: Elizabeth Blackadder at the Scottish Gallery Edinburgh

Elizabeth Blackadder, 'Sweet Fish and Avocado', oil on canvas
Elizabeth Blackadder, 'Sweet Fish and Avocado', oil on canvas

Title:
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder | A Celebration

Times:
Tue - Fri (and Mon 14th and 21st Aug) 11:00 - 18:00, Sat 11:00 - 14:00

From: 27 Jul 2023

To: 26 Aug 2023

Venue:
The Scottish Gallery
16 Dundas Street
Edinburgh
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH3 6HZ

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Wonder Woman was created as an American comic-book heroine in 1942, still recognised today as a feminist icon. At The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, in its Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition series Wonder Women, we find three equally powerful and renowned artists, Dame Elizabeth Blackadder (1931-2021), Wendy Ramshaw OBE (1939-2018) and Bodil Manz, all of whom have close associations with the Gallery.

Dame Elizabeth Blackadder | A Celebration is a major retrospective, reflecting on her life, work and legacy, with a superb selection of work in oil, watercolour, screenprints, etchings and tapestry. ‘Blackadder took inspiration from her home and garden taking pleasure in the simple things: Plants were a subject she approached curiously in between naturalistic representation and botanical observation.’ – Guy Peploe

As a child she collected plants and flowers, classifying them with Latin names. As an avid gardener most of her life, Blackadder is renowned for her delicate flower paintings. A delightful bunch of yellow tulips looks as if the flowers have just been picked and haphazardly arranged in a vase, with one solitary bloom, perhaps with a broken stem, in a small jug.

'Tulips', oil on canvas
‘Tulips’, oil on canvas

Other favourite flowers included lilies, orchids, poppies, irises, hellebores – as well as casual sketching, she specialised in classic botanical studies. Strelitzia reginae from South Africa is commonly known as the ‘bird of paradise’, with glossy banana-like leaves and bright feathery petals.

'Strelitzia', watercolour on paper
‘Strelitzia’, watercolour on paper

Her artistic approach is meticulously, perfectly precise: the art critic Duncan Macmillan describes her floral art as ‘so fastidious it becomes poetic’. This lyrical expression is clearly observed in Spring Flowers, a joyous display of freshly-picked garden flowers arranged in pretty kitchen jugs and glass vases.

'Spring Flowers', watercolour on paper
‘Spring Flowers’, watercolour on paper

‘Her brilliant flower paintings in watercolour – irises rocketing skywards, tulips spreading their petals, orchids growing in patterns complex as a spider’s web. Flower paintings are clearly art, not scientific analysis’. – Duncan Macmillan, The Art of Elizabeth Blackadder.

Blackadder re-imagined the manner of still-life with her imaginative, stylised compositions, in which selected items seem to float within a blank space across the background. The scattered beads, photograph, pen, floral bag and scarf in Still Life, Pink Table with Necklace create such a decorative pattern with a soft wash of watercolour – perhaps all souvenirs from a recent journey.

'Still Life, Pink Table with Necklace', watercolour on paper
‘Still Life, Pink Table with Necklace’, watercolour on paper

‘The way of setting out objects in still-life… the table top I set them, tipped forward closer to the picture surface. I see it more of a tradition that goes back to Byzantine painting and mosaic. Gives a wonderful freedom from convention.’ – Elizabeth Blackadder, 1989

The experience of international travel was an essential aspect of her artwork, touring France, Greece, Turkey and Italy. Just as a photographer is often advised to turn around and check the alternative view, Blackadder avoids obvious, clichéd scenes in Venice, to observe a flock of seagulls perched above the Fishmarket, waiting for a tasty scrap.

Elizabeth Blackadder, 'Seagulls, Fishmarket, Venice', oil on canvas
‘Seagulls, Fishmarket, Venice’, oil on canvas

This painting has been selected as the stunning front cover of the new book, The Art of Elizabeth Blackadder by Duncan Macmillan.

But it was Asia – India, China, Japan – which was particularly inspirational. She returned home with a collection of kimonos, fans and figurines and used traditional Japanese paper for her watercolours. One can appreciate her passion for beautiful silk, papercraft, and porcelain bowls, all exquisitely observed with a vibrant colour palette in False Palm Shadow & Kimono.

'False Palm Shadow and Kimono', oil on canvas
‘False Palm Shadow and Kimono’, oil on canvas

Lobsters have long been a popular subject for artists. Here are illustrations of crabs, scallops and other shellfish as well as the rather humorous Sweet fish and Avocado – the three species of fish seem to have a glint in their eyes and pouting mouths.

Elizabeth Blackadder, 'Sweet Fish and Avocado', oil on canvas
‘Sweet Fish and Avocado’, oil on canvas

This retrospective also includes a specially-commissioned tapestry of a painting, Flowers and Black Cat, (1976) woven at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios. With a hint of Matisse’s shapely patterns, the cat leaps onto the table, almost knocking over a vase of flowers, all against a rich, royal blue background.

'Flowers and Black Cat', handwoven tapestry, wool and cotton
‘Flowers and Black cat’, handwoven tapestry, wool and cotton

Her artwork is well-suited to be translated through tapestry, due to the flat perspective, and fields of space and colour in decorative compositions. Another new Blackadder tapestry, Dragon Fruit and Oysters is also on show at the Dovecot Studios, on Infirmary Street.

This is a most charming and evocative exhibition, highlighting Elizabeth Blackadder’s perceptive artistic eye to observe the world around her, with a delicate touch, quiet intellect and vivid imagination.

‘Her work is always recognisable but flowers, still lifes, landscapes all elicited a slightly different response from her. To use a musical analogy, perhaps this was a difference between music for orchestra, chamber group or solo instrument. As with any composer there were exchanges between these categories. But also a deep underlying consistency.’ – Duncan Macmillan, The Art of Elizabeth Blackadder.

The Scottish Gallery will officially launch The Art of Elizabeth Blackadder by Duncan Macmillan (published by Lund Humphries), on 12th August.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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