Obituary: Ian Hughes, artist, 55

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ONE of Scotland’s most talented painters, who was an artist in residence at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has died.

Born in Glasgow, Ian Hughes attended Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, where his work showed promise.

As a student he won a clutch of prizes, including a major travelling scholarship from the Scottish Education Department.

However, it was a series of exhibitions in Edinburgh that helped establish his name.

Early shows – including one at the Capital’s 369 Gallery, and in London – confirmed his emergence as a force in Scottish art.

However, it was in another show at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1987, The Vigorous Imagination, which cemented his reputation and opened up his work to an international audience.

It was no surprise following the success of the exhibition that Hughes was invited to become artist in residence at the national gallery.

Two years later at the same venue, another exhibition confirmed the gallery’s choice had been sound, as it too received international acclaim.

However, fame did not sit easily on his shoulders. He buried himself in his work and increasingly his empathy was directed towards the homeless and mentally ill.

While continuing to paint, he began to pursue a parallel career as a psychiatric nurse.

In 1991, Hughes fulfilled a residency at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of psychiatric illness.

But while there, he sustained serious facial injuries from a patient who attacked him with an metal oxygen bottle.

The link between his role as a medical professional and as an artist is key to understanding his work.
His time as a psychiatric nurse brought him into contact with some of society’s most vulnerable and fragile human beings.

Although Hughes held no structured Christian belief, he used imagery derived from Christ’s Passion as a metaphor for the general suffering of humanity. Such an approach was evident in what turned out to be his final exhibition, held in Summerhall earlier this year.

Unearthed Tongues Set Free continued Hughes’ fascination with Poland and Russia as sites of historical humanitarian atrocity, as well as the legacy of continued human suffering.

Discussing his work, the artist said: “I do believe words are very important, but at the end of the day I want people to come to this show and know nothing about me – even the titles don’t matter. I want them to look at the work and be moved by that. I want the art to reference people’s deeper sense of things, of morality and intellectual understanding.”

Hughes, who died aged 55, is survived by daughter Anna and son Jacob.