Elizabeth Blackadder: Decades

Publication: The Times   
August 2016

Elizabeth Blackadder: Decades
The Scottish Gallery

DAME Elizabeth Blackadder, OBE is a celebrated and much-loved oil painter, water-colourist and printmaker. Born in Falkirk in 1931, she attended Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh, studying under William Gillies and David Talbot Rice, amongst others. In 1956 she married fellow student, John Houston – a partnership which lasted more than six decades, until Houston’s death in 2008.  Blackadder returned to teach at her alma mater in 1962, a position that she held until 1986. This survey show, as the catalogue suggests, is likely to be Blackadder’s last on such a scale given her advanced years and her failing health. There is, therefore, a valedictory as well as celebratory aspect to this collection of more than sixty works, representing each of the six decades of Blackadder’s artistic career.  Contradictory to the somewhat dismissive view of Blackadder as a painter of ‘cats and flowers’ this perfectly balanced, small-scale retrospective demonstrates the range of her technique, subject matter and media.  There are certain constants in Blackadder’s work: strong composition and arrangement, the juxtaposition of contrasting tones, perspectival conundrums, delicacy and an assuredness of touch. These have endured almost from the beginning of her career. The earliest work here, from 1954, a watercolour study of a Byzantine church on the Greek island of Aegina, delights in the contrasting colours of sea, land, sky and architecture. Compositionally, the painting achieves a balance between the building, a fishing boat in the foreground and the background’s darkening sky. Blackadder has positioned her view so that the sharp vertical of a lamppost divides the work in two. Other early works such as the ink drawing, Tuscan Landscape (1954) and the lithographs Roman Wall II and Roman Wall, both completed in 1963 – achieve a compositional assurance and a confident handling of the medium.  The oil, Boat and Houses, Auray, from 1962, depicts a Breton fishing village in a similar vein to Anne Redpath, from the previous generation, who had painted the harbours of the Mediterranean and northern France. Blackadder was a close friend of Redpath’s son, the painter David Michie, who died last year. One of Blackadder’s main concerns in painting is the still life – the study of a group of arranged objects, usually positioned on a flat horizontal surface, such as a table top. The still life, like other structured approaches in music or poetry, creates a paradoxical freedom through constraint. The possibilities for arrangement and combination are literally limitless.  From her early years Blackadder has used the form as a way of dealing with abstraction. Eschewing perspective, she juxtaposes large blocks of colour and positioned objects in careful compositions. Often, these objects create a narrative and pique the curiosity. Following a series of visits to Japan, from the mid 1980s onwards, Blackadder’s paintings, now in an elongated format, reflected the deep impact the country’s philosophy, religion and aesthetic codes have had on the Scottish painter. In the last decade or so Blackadder has increasingly turned to depicting arrangements of flowers and plants, not as still-life, but in a way that echoes the approach of the botanical painter. What separates Blackadder’s work from the more formally constrained method is her combination of the unexpected and the unexplained – for example, different species in differing stages of development. Guy Peploe of the Scottish Gallery describes Blackadder as a ‘national treasure’. It’s difficult to disagree with such an accolade.