THERE were calls today for a gallery to be opened in John Bellany’s name as tributes were paid to one of Scotland’s greatest contemporary artists following his death at the age of 71.
Bellany, the son of an East Lothian fisherman, was clutching a paintbrush in his hand when he died in his studio surrounded by his family last night.
Leading figures in the art world praised a man who was famous for his scenes of fishing villages, but whose work also often reflected his tumultuous personal life.
Born in Port Seton in 1942, Bellany, went on to become one of Scotland’s most influential painters since the Second World War. Edinburgh art impresario Richard Demarco, the subject of a portrait by Bellany, led the tributes and said a memorial gallery would be fitting.
He said: “It is very sad news, but not unexpected. Bellany was a phenomenon. There should be a special museum set up dedicated to his life and work and it would be a good idea if it was in Port Seton.
“He was a one-off and he lived life to the full – there will never be the likes of him again and there must be a great sadness in the community of Port Seton.”
Bellany’s work can be found in some of the world’s greatest collections, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Britain.
Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, which hosted a retrospective of Bellany’s work last year to mark his 70th birthday, said Bellany’s art would remain an inspiration to artists long into the future.
He said: “John Bellany will be celebrated as one of Scotland’s greatest artists of the modern era. From his early, heroic depictions of fisherfolk on the Scottish coast to the vibrant, passionate images of his later years, he gave visual form to the big themes and narratives of human life.
“The retrospective show last autumn demonstrated how he was able to use the drama and crises of his own life as a starting point for powerful explorations of man’s struggle with fate and, as he entered his 70s, it seemed as if he was still at the top of the game.”
A statement on Bellany’s official website announced his death last night. It read: “It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of a true Scottish giant. He was clutching a paintbrush in his hand as he took his final breath. His passion was life and he painted as if each day was his last.”
Bellany, who was awarded a CBE in 1994, was the first Scottish artist to earn a seven-figure sum for one of his works.
Damian Hirst was famously inspired to become an artist after seeing one of his shows in Sheffield.
Bellany lived a turbulent life, embarking on a period of heavy drinking in which he almost died from liver failure. In the 80s, he had to undergo a liver transplant.
He divorced his first wife Helen Percy and married one of his mature students, Juliet Lister, who died in 1985. He then remarried Helen.
After leaving school, Bellany studied at Edinburgh College of Art, tutored by Sir Robin Philipson, a member of the acclaimed “Edinburgh School”.
During his student days, Bellany also became acquainted with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who drank at the same pub. In 1964, Bellany and Sandy Moffat, then unknown art students, caused a stir when they hung their paintings on the railings outside the Scottish National Gallery.
The paintings Bellany produced during the 1970s would be haunted by themes of fate and doom, in contrast to those from the mid-1980s onwards, where the death of his father, the reunion with Helen and his own battles with health introduced a warmness back into his artwork.
The Addenbrooke’s Hospital Series – self-portraits charting the experience of his transplant – is said to have greatly contributed to the speed of his recovery.
In later years, along with Helen, he spent an increasing amount of time in Italy, eventually buying a house in Barga, Tuscany, in 2000. Awarded the freedom of East Lothian in 2005, Bellany painted portraits of Sir Sean Connery, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and cricketer Ian Botham.
Rebus author Ian Rankin said: “So sad to hear that John Bellany has died. A painter whose life was as deep and full as the seas he painted.”
Former Simple Minds manager Bruce Findlay wrote: “I first met John in 1960 when he was at art school. Even then he was ‘driven’ and worked/played hard. A great guy!”
Last year’s retrospective, John Bellany: A Passion for Life, showcased about 75 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints from key periods of the artist’s remarkable career. The show unveiled works by Bellany that had rarely been exhibited before. He described the exhibition as one the “truly greatest moments’” of his life.
Mr Demarco added: “He also loved a town in Italy where a lot of Italian Scots live, Barga, and he was really loved there – a real character. As a result of that he linked Port Seton and East Lothian with that part of Italy.
“He drew his inspiration from his love of the folklore of the fishermen and the Firth of Forth. And he had a great compassion, and was inspired to paint some of the most magnificent paintings by the experience of visiting Belsen.”
Fellow artist John Byrne last saw Bellany at the exhibition. He said: “John was a wonderful man and a great artist. He has gone out on a very good note, being recognised and celebrated by his peers in his own country. He was a great hero.”
Comment: Tributes to a one-off
He has been described today as someone who lived life to the full, a one-off, and, of course, one of Scotland’s greatest contemporary artists.
Tributes have rolled in to John Bellany following his death at the age of 71, typically with paint brush in hand to the last. He leaves behind an incredible body of work and an indelible mark on the art world. Rest in peace, John.
TRIBUTES ON TWITTER
@dmross63: “I bought my wife a book on Bellany for our anniversary yesterday. She spent all this evening reading it. Very sad to hear now of his death.”
@dhothersall: “Sad news that John Bellany has died. I met him a few times, as he had pieces where I used to work. Totally hatstand, but in a good way. RIP.”
@redfellterrier: “Very sad to hear John Bellany has died. Used to lunch under a huge Bellany painting of fishermen & boats.”
@ecnjewellery: “Very sad to hear about John Bellany. A great artist.”
@LiamRudden: “Sad to hear of the death of artist John Bellany. Spent a day in his studio once. It was everything you would expect it to be. As was he.”
JOURNEY OF A VISIONARY
1942: Born in Port Seton
1960-65: Edinburgh College of Art. Studied painting under Sir Robin Philipson and Sir William Gillies.
1965-68: Royal College of Art, London. Studied under Carel Weight and Peter de Francia.
1968: Lecturer in painting, Brighton College of Art.
1969-73: Lecturer in painting, Winchester College of Art.
1974: Divorces his first wife, Helen, with whom he had three children.
1978-84: Lecturer in painting, Goldsmith’s College of Art. Lecturer in painting, Royal College of Art, London.
1979: Marries Juliet Lister, one of his mature students.
1985: Juliet dies and he later remarries Helen.
1988: Elected fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Undergoes successful liver transplant.
1994: Awarded CBE.
1996: Awarded honorary doctorate, University of Edinburgh.
1998: Honorary doctorate, Heriot-Watt University.
2002: Honorary citizen, Focandora, Barga, Italy. Awarded the Chevalier Medal, Florence. Awarded the freedom of San Cristoforo, Barga.
2005: Awarded the freedom of his home county, East Lothian.
2012: Retrospective show at National Gallery.