Object of the week

While the Pathfoot Building is closed, the Art Collection will each week focus on some objects of interest. You can also search our entire collection online here.

Self Portrait I
John Bellany
(Watercolour 1981)

John Bellany has been described as Scotland’s greatest artist, and as, at once, a realist, expressionist and surrealist. His work was influenced by the Calvinistic coastal communities from which he came. The men in Bellany‘s family were fishermen and boat builders and many of his paintings feature portraits of the fishing community and are filled with allegory and symbolism. He painted prolifically and passionately throughout his life, at first only scraping a living, but later to international acclaim.

‘My City Edinburgh’ film made by Martin Smith for Channel 4

The above film was made at a happy time of Bellany’s life when he had remarried his beloved first wife and reached financial security, with a home in Italy. The sociable, friendly side of his nature and joy in life comes across clearly here.

When the self portrait was painted, however, in 1981, times were much harder. He was divorced from Helen (his first wife and mother of his three children) and had married Juliet Gray in 1979, but her struggles with mental illness coupled with his own with alcoholism meant that they lived the majority of their married life separated. This portrait, with its greys and yellows, with its reddened eyelids and listless stare, portrays the artist as gaunt and ill. He was only 39 but appears much older. The mood of quiet melancholy foreshadows Bellany’s brush with death later in the 1980s.

The two other works of Bellany’s in the Art Collection are completely different. A pair of works, both entitled ‘Woman of the North Sea’, were created in the mid 1990s. This motif is a familiar one, featuring often in his work of this period. One of these is a painting and the other an etching. Although the painted version also features yellow hues in the face, the effect is of sunshine and health, a complete contrast to the jaundiced self portrait. By this time the artist was reunited with Helen, he had had a successful life-saving liver transplant, and was enjoying major recognition. The tone is now playful and upbeat.

Woman of the North Sea (Pencil and watercolour, 1995)

In this film made for Edinburgh Printmakers Studio in 2007 John Bellany talks about the beginnings of his interest in printing and the creative processes involved.

Woman of the North Sea (Etching, 1995)

There are more films available on the official John Bellany website

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