John Bellany 1942-2013

John Bellany was one of Scotland's most acclaimed painters, celebrated above all for his weather-beaten portrayals of the East Lothian seascape and the fishing community where he grew up .
Bellany established a name early on in his career despite his taste for then unfashionable figurative painting, which he combined with tough expressionism and religious symbolism. Remaining aloof from art world fashions, his style and palette changed only to reflect a career that was tested but unbroken by personal tragedy, heavy drinking and illness. He was finally found dead in his studio clutching his paintbrush, having seen off liver failure in the Eighties; pneumonia; and a major heart attack in the street on the way to his own exhibition in Glasgow in 2005.
His works hang in the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and New York's Museum of Modern Art, but he considered a major retrospective at the National Galleries of Scotland last year to be the highlight of his career.
Although he lived in London, Cambridge and Barga, Italy, and took inspiration from trips around the world (including to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp), the Scottish seascape was Bellany's spiritual home. Fisher folk were in his blood on both sides of his family and he once said: I love to paint. At heart, however, I am a mariner. Even the futuristic landscape of the Shanghai Bundt, painted on a visit to China in 2003, was drenched in the heavily atmospheric tumbledown chaos of a Scottish fishing village and foregrounded by the familiar black presence of a tugboat.
In the Sixties it was Bellany's ability to observe the timeless stoicism of life on the seafront without sentimentality that set his paintings of fishermen apart. Gnarled, sea-and-God-fearing fisher folk appear in formidable early works such as the triptych Allegory (1964), which was inspired by a Saturday job gutting fish, and The Star of Bethlehem (1966).
Such narrative scenes were often allegorical, drawing on Bellany's Calvinist roots. No fewer than 13 churches served Port Seton's 4,000 inhabitants; at the church which, as a child, he attended three times on a Sunday, the beams were painted with fish, a model boat hung above the congregation, and at harvest festivals a stupendous catch of wet fish was heaped against the Communion table.
He also drew on the local myth and superstition of his closed fishing community. He remembered being ticked off for whistling at sea, for fear of whistling up a storm, and was haunted as a child by the nearby Eyemouth windstorm disaster that killed 200 fishermen, leaving a whole community without men. Death and the deep accompanied Bellany everywhere .
Although his paintings are known to reflect his personal story, Bellany's monumental painting style was grounded firmly in the European Old Master tradition. This, however, was always given a local or modern twist, notably in works such as Love Song: Homage to Titian (1991), which portrays Venus as a tenacious fishwife and Cupid as a faltering Scottish knight.
John Bellany was born at Port Seton on June 18 1942; both his father and paternal grandfather captained fishing boats. His maternal great-grandfather was the locally renowned skipper Tarry Maltman, who was once revived five hours after being pronounced dead from drowning.
John's upbringing was pre-18th century in its religious fanaticism, and in superstition and awe bred by fear of the sea. His grandparents' house in Eyemouth overlooked the graveyard and Watchhouse, a squat shelter lined with luridly carved 17th-century gravestones. The stones reinforced a dread of death and subconsciously established a taste for triptych and diptych forms, later stimulated by the paintings of the German expressionist Max Beckmann.
Bellany was always a scrupulously accurate painter of boats and harbours - the rigging, licensed identities and above all the poetic names. He lived to see a dramatic decline in both fish stocks and in Christian belief. His paintings thus memorialise what once appeared an immemorial way of life.
An outstanding student at Edinburgh College of Art from 1960, his horizons were broadened by sitting at the Milne's Bar table of the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid's call for artists to address the giantism of universal subjects, based on self-belief and truth to personal experience, had a profound influence.
Bellany, who likened MacDiarmid's poetry to the rhythms of Beethoven, clung to his advice. Ambitious, too, the cocky young artist hung his paintings on the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy. But nobody complained, and he won the Burstain Award to attend the Royal College of Art in London in 1965.
He moved to London with his first wife, fellow Edinburgh student Helen Percy. It was when he separated from her and their three children in the early 1970s that his reputation for drinking started to grow. Friends and family maintained he never became violent, but rather pushed his sense of fun to the limit. To go out with John meant you were going to lose two days of your life, his old friend and fellow painter Albert Irvin recalled.
Bellany remarried in 1978 and moved to a house in the middle of Clapham Common. But his second wife, the artist Juliet Lister, spent long periods in hospital suffering from schizophrenia, which only fuelled Bellamy's drinking. His darkest and best work grew out of a tumultuous and fertile period in the early Eighties when, in contrast to his declining mental and physical health, his artistic standing only rose. He suffered liver failure in 1984; Juliet committed suicide in 1985; and his father died just months later. In 1988 he survived a pioneering liver transplant.
His surgeon was Sir Roy Calne, who was impressed with Bellany's remarkably speedy recovery - he was the only patient the doctor had known to return to work the day after surgery.
Bellany credited his faith: I just think that if you have that guiding light, you will survive whatever comes your way, as I have done - a transplant, pneumonia, three heart attacks, two strokes, all these things.
Bellany later painted Calne for the National Portrait Gallery in London. An admired portraitist, he also turned out a birthday self-portrait every year, and his portrait of the great all-round cricketer Sir Ian Botham for the National Portrait Gallery was so admired by Botham's manager Tim Hudson that he bought every available work at a Bellany show in 1986.
In the same year Bellany remarried his first wife, who nursed him through sickness, including a life-threatening haemorrhage, as well as fits of delirium and delusion. Bellany worked throughout, calling his pencil an analgesic. Though his style softened in later years his volcanic output never slowed, nor lost its focus on emotion.
Among Bellany's honours are a Major Arts Council Award (1981), Athena International Art Award (1985) and the Royal Academy's Wollaston Award (1987). He was made a Royal Academician in 1991.
John Bellany, born June 18 1942, died August 28 2013

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John Bellany


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