A lifetime of highlights and lowlights

Artist John Bellany at his studio and home in Essex

Artist John Bellany at his studio and home in Essex

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IT is an occasion that Scottish painter John Bellany has described as the greatest moment of his life.

The achievements of one of the true figureheads of Scotland’s art scene are being celebrated in a special exhibition opening today at the Scottish National Gallery.

Marking his 70th birthday, John Bellany: A Passion for Life, showcases about 75 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints from the key periods of the renowned artist’s remarkable career.

Mr Bellany knows only too well the highs and lows of a lifetime, having survived a liver transplant, heart attack and a serious bout of depression to produce his extensive collection of works.

He summed up his latest, most extensive collection by saying: “This exhibition and my 1986 Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art have been the truly greatest moments of my whole life.

“There is no greater honour that can be given to an artist by his country. It is the reward of a lifetime.”

The retrospective, funded through the People’s Postcode Lottery, will unveil works by Mr Bellany that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited before.

Keith Hartley, chief curator of the Scottish National Gallery, said: “This is to date the largest show there’s ever been of his work.

“He’s really one of Scotland’s most important artists and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to display the full range of what he’s done both in oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints.

“He’s up there amongst the top Scottish artists. He’s a great realist artist, reflecting the tragedies and the triumphs of 
ordinary life.”

Mr Bellany’s earliest works on display date back to his days as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1960s, many of which drew on the inspiration of old masters such as Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and Poussin.

Mr Hartley said several of Mr Bellany’s drawings, opposed to his better-known paintings, were standouts.

He said: “There are some absolutely fantastic drawings, which is very much at the heart of his art. Obviously he’s a great painter, but everything comes out of his drawing really and so we’ve been at pains to show really top quality drawings from the early 1960s all the way through to recent years.

“Probably most of those have never been seen before. There’s some great portrait drawings, self-portraits, a portrait of his wife Helen, his grandmother, his grandfather.

“There’s some great drawings of people in Glenogle swimming baths back in the 60s here in Edinburgh.”

Mr Bellany was born in Port Seton, a close-knit fishing community ten miles east of Edinburgh, in 1942, and Mr Hartley said those family roots had played a central role in the renowned artist’s works.

“John was brought up in Port Seton. His father and all his male relatives worked in the fishing industry, so that’s coloured everything he’s ever done.

“Although he’s got a flat in Edinburgh, it’s always been important to him that he has deep roots. Whether he’s painting something in China or Australia, or wherever, you always feel that at the back of it are his deep roots here in Scotland.”

Among the rare eye-catching pieces is The Boat Builders, completed in 1962. The giant-sized work painted at the age of 20 fills several panels and is another nod to his upbringing.

Mr Hartley said: “It’s absolutely huge and it’s very, very assured, very ambitious and it shows right at the beginning of his career when he was still at Edinburgh College of Arts what he wanted to do.”

His paintings produced during the 1970s would be haunted by themes of fate and doom, with his brushwork in pieces such as The Sea People (1975) and Cod End (1977) becoming more expressionistic. It is a contrast to his paintings from the mid-1980s onwards, where the death of his father, a reunion with first wife, Helen, and his own battles with health introduce a warmness back into his artwork.

The Addenbrooke’s Hospital Series, which is said to have greatly contributed to the speed of his recovery from a liver transplant, is among the pieces exhibited from this transitional period.

Mr Bellany remains one of the longest surviving liver transplant patients in the UK.

• The exhibition is running until January 27, 2013, at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound.