J.D. Fergusson, Modern Two, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.
January 2014  

John Duncan Fergusson, who was born in Leith in 1874, remains one of Scotland’s best known and most accomplished painters. Fergusson, or “Fergus” as he was affectionately known, eschewed a formal academic training at the Trustees Academy (later Edinburgh College of Art) and pursued his career as a self-taught, independent artist with anti-establishment tendencies.

This show (the first major retrospective of Fergusson’s work for several decades) reveals some tantalising glimpses of the man and his relationship with various women, including Jean Maconochie, the American painter Anne Estelle Rice and the dancer Margaret Morris, whom he met in 1913 and who remained his partner until his death in 1961.

Fergusson painted all of these women, in various guises, from the splendid portraits of Rice and Maconochie in fashionable Edwardian attire to late works such as Bathers: Noon, from 1937, based on Morris and himself. Women and the female form remained consistent subjects for Fergusson throughout his long career. Morris, a pioneer and teacher of modern dance techniques, brought Fergusson into contact with intelligent and beautiful women, many of whom he painted.

Fergusson’s interest in the nude reached its apotheosis in works such as Rhythm (1911) and Les Eus (c1910). These works are celebratory, colourful and uplifting. Fergusson had absorbed much of the tenor and spirit of early Modernism in Paris and this is demonstrated by the formal Cubist approach, underpinned by the technique of Cézanne, whom Fergusson greatly admired. These are not academic studies based on anatomical detail and formal perspective; they are, rather, stylised compositions of colour and form. The eye is compelled to move over the surface of the paintings, creating a feeling of energy and dynamism.

Fergusson’s career began at around the start of the 20th century when he was sketching in the streets of Edinburgh. He converted a cigar box into a portable studio which contained brushes, oil paints and small boards, measuring just 5in x 4in. Some of these oil sketches, of Princes Street Gardens and the Mound, show how Fergusson’s brushwork was central to his style. Fergusson believed that his energy and creativity as an artist derived in part from his Celtic heritage (both his parents spoke Gaelic and came form Highland Perthshire). Later in life, after he and Morris settled in Glasgow in 1939, Fergusson devoted considerable time to writing, editing and supporting artists. Fergusson wrote in 1946: “The Scotland I’d like to see from the Art point of view, would be a Scotland liberated from the stranglehold of Academic Art, and where there was, if not a square deal, at least a fair fighting chance for the Independent Artist.”

His views on the relationship between national institutions and art seem as relevant now (if not more so) as they did then.

Until June 15