During May the Open Eye Gallery presents a welcome exhibition to reflect John Bellany’s celebration of Scotland through his enduring passion to explore life and work on the edge of the sea. This environment was engrained in his blood having been born into a family of fishermen and boat builders in Port Seton, East Lothian.
It was through his childhood observation of this close-knit, deeply religious community where he found his artistic voice. Overlooking Eyemouth harbour is the 18th century Gunsgreen House, built by a local Tea smuggler John Nisbet. His grandmother was born here and Bellany was guest of honour in 2010 when Gunsgreen opened as a museum. Eyemouth was where he loved to draw boats as a young boy as he later recalled, ‘the hustle and bustle of activity, that was the core of my life.’ Boats, fish and seabirds dominate his work, boldly illustrated in a dramatic, expressionist, surreal style.
While at first glance By the Sea is a simple, colourful composition of yachts on the river, a large seagull beside a flush-cheeked woman in headscarf, there’s such symbolism in the underyling narrative: a crucifix around her neck and the image of a church and boat yard on the shore. This encapsulates the hard working outdoor lives of these fishing ports.
As a boy John helped with gutting fish and these images lingered in his mind. Here in Sea Offering is a fishhead and skinned fishbones beside a skeletal figure holding a sandglass timer – an alternative grim reaper. By mythologising the fishermen’s world in his art, the subject of mortality is a recurring theme to reflect the Calvinist fear of death and the uncertain safe return from going out to sea.
Women are also a vital, vivacious element in Bellany’s paintings as fisherlass, bride, seawife, diva, virgin, maiden and constant muse. In Listening to the Sea this glamorous lady, dressed in black evening gloves, cigarette between her lips, listens to the waves in her conch shell. Her gaze is sensual, seductive – is she listening to the call from her lover?
A close look at Sea Maiden reveals that her head is wrapped in an oily blue-scaled fish with its gleaming eye and tail draped over her long red pig-tailed hair. Sensual, soulful eyes are such an iconic characteristic of Bellany’s serene portraits of beguiling women.
And finally, a joyfully colourful vase of Flowers to brighten our days at home. As a student he visited a local bar patronised by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid who advised him that to be true to others, he must first be true to himself. Impressed that MacDiarmid wrote in Scots, Bellany then said, ‘I’m going to paint in Scots.’
This is a joyous, evocative retrospective to showcase John Bellany’s mesmerising, mythical vision of Scottish seafaring life, culture and heritage, which will inspire and enrich the imagination.
34 Abercromby Place
Edinburgh EH3 6QE
With grateful thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.
Main image: Sea Offering, watercolour