This is a fascinating, nostalgic private collection of portraits and landscapes which celebrates two distinctive artistic journeys, capturing the creative spirit of the age.
Born into an affluent family in St. Andrews, Beatrice Huntington (1889-1988) excelled in art and music and aged just seventeen, left home to study in Paris. Her early talent was described as a ‘quite wonderful artistic phenomenon’ and she then studied drawing in Munich, before moving to London in 1914 where her work was exhibited with the Society of Women Artists.
After World War I, she returned to Scotland for further art tuition from William Macdonald, (1883-1960). William had also trained in Paris as well as Madrid, where he was inspired by the desert-dry landscape, giving him the nickname ‘Spanish’ Macdonald.
Sharing a passion for travel and art, William and Beatrice were married in 1925 and a few years later moved to a spacious apartment on Hanover Street, Edinburgh. Together they travelled frequently to the French Riviera and Southern Spain. They became key players in Edinburgh’s art scene – Macdonald was a close friend of the Scottish Colourists, F C B Cadell and Samuel Peploe. He exhibited widely including SSA and RSA and was an active member of the Scottish Arts Club.
Beatrice was also an accomplished cellist, and during the 1960s and 1970s she hosted sociable soirées at home, inviting students to perform to share her enthusiasm for art, poetry and music.
After Beatrice’s death in 1988, the Hanover Street flat, with the couple’s collection of paintings was carefully preserved by her close friend, William Syson, who was also a keen art collector with numerous works by Scottish artists. Following his death in 2019, the artwork became part of his cultural Foundation and this exhibition offers for sale around 70 paintings and drawings by Huntington and Macdonald.
The diverse range of portraits shows how Beatrice wanted to convey personality and character, from her father and young son, to a nurse and a Parisian circus clown. One of her most impressive paintings is A Cellist, (1925), Isobel Forrest Neillands, now in the Fleming Collection. The sculpted face, exaggerated muscles in her neck and sharp shoulder blades, veers towards Cubism, which developed in Paris when Beatrice was studying there. The sideways glance, her eyes looking directly at the viewer, adds to the musician’s serious mood.
While A Muleteer from Andalucia is now at the National Galleries of Scotland, on show here is her equally striking Study, (1923), in which the dark bronzed man is resting in the shade, his hands clasped together, with a weary expression on his face.
Again, the angular shape of face and straight lines to frame his plain coloured clothes create a bold, flattened style of composition, as she described: ‘simplification is not omitting, it is containing and that comes with knowledge and hard work.’
In her early work, simplicity was also key in life drawings, yet nonetheless captures a fine sense of human emotion. A watercolour of a Seated Girl uses a cool, crisp palette, almost transforming the life drawing into a blue-dappled, sunlit marble sculpture, her hand on her cheek, akin to Degas’ The Thinker.
It’s interesting to compare this to a nude study by Macdonald, which is also painted with a luminous white, stone-like sheen.
Almost like a caricature sketch, the artist portrays himself in a smart brown suit, neat tie and trilby, the fashionable 1920s gentleman around Edinburgh, while his quizzical expression conveys a quiet, thoughtful demeanour.
Francis Cadell is renowned for his portrait of A Lady in Black, (c. 1926), an elegant woman, carefully posed on a chair in a fur coat, suede gloves and a feathered hat. As a witty response around the same time, Macdonald painted Cadell in similar mode, arm resting on a red chair, all very dapper in black coat and hat.
There’s a hint of smile in his eyes and a smirk around his mouth, as if saying to William, ‘how long must I sit here?’ Such a charming and evocative image and a highlight of this exhibition.
The couple enjoyed travel far and wide to provide a challenge for landscape painting. As well as his beloved Spain and a dramatic Highland seascape, Macdonald’s painting of bare winter trees and snow at Lac Superior is most atmospheric – reminiscent of the majestic Canadian landscapes by the Group of Seven (1920-1933), who explored the barren, bleak wilderness for a national identity.
Beatrice also dabbled in more fluid, impressionistic scenes such as Mediterranean Landscape, featuring broad brushstrokes across a panorama of rolling hills, green dotted vineyards and the horizon washed out in the bright sunshine.
Throughout her career, she remained committed to her development as an artist, ‘…realising the big-ness of it all.’ Her versatility across style and technique was due to her constant experimentation of approach in form, colour and genre. If Salvador Dalì reconstructed a lobster into a telephone receiver, Beatrice was happy to illustrate the shellfish with lemon and salad leaves, like an appetising image in a cookery book.
And following this line of graphic art, her poster image for Abdulla cigarettes reflects the sleek, chic vintage advertisements of the 1920s and 1930s. Founded in 1902 in London, Abdulla promoted an exotic, glamorous, luxury lifestyle from its home, 138 New Bond Street, Mayfair.
Viewing these modernist illustrations, melancholic portraits and languid landscapes, Beatrice and William created their own impressionistic, symbolist, painterly style with an original artistic vision. While certainly successful, exhibiting widely during their careers, it seems strange that they are not more highly regarded or better known today. Perhaps, they should be described as the other, long lost members of the Scottish Colourists.
The annual Beatrice Huntington Award was established by William Syson in memory of his great friend, Beatrice Huntington. The trustees of The William Syson Foundation offer Junior and Senior Awards of £5,000 each for cellists who can demonstrate talent and promise. Applications for the 2023 Awards open in October 2022. See the website.
With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.