Port Seton to Barga: John Bellany’s Tale of Two Countries at Open Eye Gallery Edinburgh

'Time will Tell', oil on canvas
'Time will Tell', oil on canvas

John Bellany: The Italian Connection

Tue - Fri 11:00 - 17:00, Sat 11:00 - 16:00

From: 1 Aug 2023

To: 26 Aug 2023

Open Eye Gallery
34 Abercromby Place
Edinburgh & the Lothians

Share this page

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of the eminent artist John Bellany in 2013, aged 71, an inspirational retrospective at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery colourfully illustrates the two distinctive worlds he captured in art, Scotland and Italy.

‘Ten years on from his death, there are many unfinished conversations in his work that continue to inspire and inform. The unanswered questions that are the life force of creation. We celebrate his astonishing energy, his deeply searching soul, his abundant and infectious love of life’. – Helen Bellany

As a student at Edinburgh College of Art, Bellany visited a local bar patronised by the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who advised him to be true to himself as an artist. He realised what to do – ‘I’m going to paint in Scots.’

Born in Port Seton, East Lothian, his family were fishermen and boat builders within a close-knit, strict Protestant religious community. It was in Eyemouth where he began to draw boats as a young boy, ‘the hustle and bustle of activity, that was the core of my life.’

The 18th-century Gunsgreen House, built by a local tea smuggler, was where his grandmother was born and this dominates the harbour, crowded with boats, in Harvest Hope at Eyemouth. The perspective has such realistic clarity, while the crimson-blood sky adds vividly dramatic expressionism.

'Harvest Hope at Eyemouth', oil on canvas
‘Harvest Hope at Eyemouth’, oil on canvas

Bethel means ‘House of God’ – a place for religious meetings and a chapel for sailors. Bethel is an enigmatic narrative scene to express the traditional local superstition that women could not board a fishing boat; the skipper in the wheelhouse sees a vision of two women appearing on deck amidst the ‘catch of the day’ – fish heads and skeletal fishbones are a recurring image from memories of gutting fish as a boy.

'Bethel', oil on canvas
‘Bethel’, oil on canvas

Women are a vivacious, vital element in his paintings: a fisherlass, virgin, bride, diva, seawife, maiden and muse, their sensual, soulful eyes a constant characteristic, as iconic as a Mona Lisa. Within a cosy domestic setting, Time will Tell is a serene portrait of a bewitching, beautiful lady, imbued with a mood of sadness and nostalgia, the clock on the wall reflecting time passing and the unrelenting power of fate.

'Time will Tell', oil on canvas
‘Time will Tell’, oil on canvas

In 2000, John Bellany and his wife Helen bought a house in Barga, Tuscany, where the peaceful, Italian way of life for several months a year, gave him renewed, life-affirming optimism. He loved the place for its people, food and climate, but most of all for its timelessness.

‘You get the feeling with the people in the village we live in that it could be 1520 or it could be last Thursday. OK it’s part of the 21st century, but the way they live their lives is exactly the same as it was 200 or 300 years ago.’ – John Bellany

Barga is often described as the most Scottish town in Italy, due to its long history of emigration, and in the majestic triptych Journey to Barga, there’s an emotional sense of departure and arrival, past, present, future. With mythological and religious references, here are fish heads and carcasses, seabirds, a crucifix, family portraits and in the centre the travellers, (John and Helen?), en route to Italy. The cloaked priest may be blessing them in prayer to calm the Calvinist fear of death – the uncertain safe return when going out to sea.

'Voyage to Barga', triptych, oil on canvas
‘Voyage to Barga’, triptych, oil on canvas

The time in Barga was one of the happiest of Bellany’s career, his new spiritual home where his paintings of the seashore and green hills are bathed in a fresh, vibrant colour palette.

Initially the port for Lucca, Viareggio is renowned for its sandy beaches, gelato and seafood. Bellany would have felt such affinity to the place with its row of fishing boats, ‘Santa Maria’and ‘Paulo just like in Eyemouth. The thick swirl of brushstrokes in coral, pink, orange, green and blue is so energetic, depicting a brisk breeze of salt sea air.

'Viareggio', oil on canvas
‘Viareggio’, oil on canvas

The warm sun shines on the beach at Lirici – a resort town on the Italian Riviera, a cluster of striped windbreaks and ochre, yellow and white houses crammed up the steep cliffside. With aqua blue sea and sky, the lopsided angle of the scene is so quirky. Lirici is where the poet Shelley, aged just 29, drowned on July 8th, 1822 when his boat overturned in a squall – another link to Bellany and his boats.

'Beach, Lirici', oil on canvas
‘Beach, Lirici’, oil on canvas

This is a joyous, illuminating showcase, combining John Bellany’s mythical vision of his beloved Scottish seafaring heritage with his passion for the scenic beauty and La Dolce Vita of Tuscany. With a truly original, authentic, lyrical artistic voice, painting ‘in Scots’ and later painting ‘in Italian’, his timeless work continues to enrich our imagination.

Poster, 'Time will tell'
Poster, ‘Time will tell’

(Above) two commemorative exhibitions are taking place this summer in Barga and Lucca: John Bellany: Time will tell. Il tempo ci rivelerà, curated by Helen and Angie Bellany

With grateful thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

Share this page

Sign up for Artmag’s free weekly newsletter!

Join us every Friday morning for the latest art news, art openings, exhibitions, live performances, interviews and stories + top UK and international art destinations.