In a career spanning seven decades, James Morrison had a tireless passion to capture the raw, wild, natural beauty of the Northern landscape with authentic, artistic vision. After 25 solo exhibitions at The Scottish Gallery during his lifetime, this timely retrospective takes us around Scotland from city to coastline, Highlands and Islands to the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.
After studying at Glasgow School of Art, an early subject for Morrison was the local soot-blackened slum tenements; soon to be demolished, his monochrome paintings became a nostalgic glimpse of a disappearing community. In the late 1950s, James and his wife Dorothy moved to rural Catterline, Kincardineshire, a fishing village and thriving artists’ community which included Joan Eardley, Annette Stephen, Angus Neil and Lil Neilson.
Eardley was a close friend – but, as Morrison explained shortly after her death in 1963, ‘because she was such a powerful, powerful painter, I felt that I had to develop myself as a painter.’ As well as fishing nets and boats, here he experimented with bold abstract landscapes. Field Boundary expresses the rural patchwork of borders, hedges, fences and the blurred edge of the cliff where it meets the sea and soft sunlight in the cloudy sky.
Moving south to Montrose, it was the vast glens around Angus which inspired Morrison to concentrate on realism, influenced by the European masters Claude Lorrain, Jean-François Millet and Horatio McCulloch as well as the Glasgow Boys. Always working en plein air, he observed the sunlight and clouds within a panoramic scene, such as the transient moment on a peaceful day in the still clear air of Spring Landscape.
Throughout his life, he remained committed to the principle that the artist should paint the environment he inhabits. He would spend a month each year exploring the Argyll coastline, Summer Isles and Sutherland, painting outside to portray atmospheric weather patterns across sea, land and sky.
A stunning composition is West Coast – a meteorological mass of billowing grey-blue-white clouds blown across the vast sky by a blustery wind, depicted by a swirl of brash brush strokes; a subtle focus too on a shaft of sunlight over the long, low island, like a beached whale.
A painting technique he evolved, and thereafter always used, was to apply veils of thin, fluid oil paint over a white gesso surface. There is a sense of lightness and transparency here, creating luminous wide skies drawing the eye to the distant horizon.
Understanding the geology of the land was also a recurring topic, such as ancient, glacier-shaped mountains – Quinag near Loch Assynt dominates the wild moorland. The bleak, barren setting is made beautiful by the snowy backdrop, sleek, grey surface of the rock and rolling heathery hills.
‘The Mountains are calling, and I must go.’ – John Muir. Morrison shared Muir’s sense of freedom when outdoors painting mountains, woodland and the wilderness. Having seen his Assynt paintings, the Arctic biologist Dr Jean Balfour suggested he should visit the high Arctic and so in 1990 he took the first of several trips to Ellesmere Island, northern Canada.
One challenge in painting this majestic wilderness was coping with freezing paints and fingers, but the result is a powerfully authentic vision such as the surreal, silent emptiness of this glistening ice-capped environment in the diptych, Large Berg.
The pure freshness of the icy air is clearly felt as well as being dazzled by the sunlight in this translucent, clear blue seascape across Otto Fjord, a natural environment now slowly vanishing and melting due to global warming.
‘The whole experience has been infinitely richer than I could have imagined. The attempt to convey that richness through painting has been a rewarding and absorbing task.‘ – James Morrison
Back in Scotland, he brought that emotional experience to convey the similar tranquillity of place and quality of light to his seascapes. The striated layers of this majestic view of Skye through blended shades of azur, aqua and mauve creates an impressionistic, shimmering perspective.
The BAFTA Award-winning documentary Eye of the Storm (2021), directed by Anthony Baxter, is a poignant portrait of James Morrison aged 85, exploring what it means to be a landscape painter. Now struggling with failing eyesight, he is determined to attempt one last painting. But he is still full of wry humour, delighted to take a walk in the garden and see ‘a Morrison sky – God imitating Jimmy Morrison again!’
This retrospective at the Scottish Gallery covers his lifetime in art from 1960 to 2018, and includes a charming sketch of Mickey Mouse, painted when he eight years old, as part of a collection of archive material. It is fascinating to see that a late painting from 2018, Dark Landscape, returns to his earlier style of abstract composition – with a dramatic mood and sombre palette this is an evocative, tranquil beach scene, calm sea and soft light under a stormy sky.
An illustrated exhibition catalogue is available, price £25, and there will be a screening of ‘Eye of the Storm’ at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (see below) on 19th June at 2:45pm followed by a Q&A, moderated by Christina Jansen (Managing Director, The Scottish Gallery), with guests Anthony Baxter (Eye of the Storm’s Director), Professor John Morrison (author, lecturer Professor of History of Art and son of James Morrison, and Guy Peploe (author and Non-Executive Director of The Scottish Gallery).
With grateful thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.