Publication: The Times
In the short film accompanying this major retrospective (which celebrates Dame Elizabeth Blackadder’s eightieth birthday), the artist says that she doesn’t talk about her work: “It’s the paintings…!” she insists. Clearly, the show’s curator, Philip Long, has a point when he observes that Blackadder’s work is deserving of greater critical attention – although it is already the subject of a number of publications including a substantial critical monologue.
There is no doubt that Blackadder is both immensely talented – and prolific. The numerous works here demonstrate rare levels of draughtsmanship and an omnivorous curiosity in her immediate environment. Early works such as ‘Fifeshire Farm’ and ‘Dark Hill, Fifeshire’ – both lithographs were completed in 1960 – show a compositional assurance and a confident handling of the medium which one would normally associate with a more mature artist. The ink study ‘Impruneta,’ completed four years earlier while Blackadder was on a travelling scholarship from Edinburgh College of Art, is similarly masterful, conveying the essence of the Tuscan landscape without getting overly bogged down in extraneous detail.
Blackadder’s association with ECA was strong and enduring: in 1956 she was appointed as part-time lecturer and from 1962 onwards she worked in a full-time capacity. Arguably, her appointment and indeed her successful career are due in large measure to her role in perpetuating the methods and subject matter of her teachers who included Philipson, Gillies and MacTaggart. As an exponent of the ‘Edinburgh School,’ Blackadder’s interests lay in the painterly surface of her work, the primacy of colour and a firm compositional sense.
Much of the artist’s popularity stems from her subject matter, which extends to cats, flowers, still lifes and to a lesser extent landscape. It’s relatively easy to trace a line from the French masters such as Bonnard, Matisse and Cézanne through Gillies and then to Blackadder’s own style. For her, still life is about exploring objects in various compositional combinations; often these are presented against a surface such as a table-top portrayed with non-traditional perspective. But Blackadder always stops short of partial or total abstraction despite the influence of the American abstract expressionists who inspired her to create larger, bolder more colourful works. A sense of contemplative calm endures through her compositions, an aspect which was heightened through her discovery of and subsequent influence by the Japanese tradition in object-making and colour.
Blackadder clearly chooses to explore the beauty and wonder of life as if insulated from the darkness of genocide or environmental disaster or a hundred other pressing concerns. Although it’s interesting to speculate on how her great talent might have explored such issues, this is to miss the point because her subject matter is a true reflection of the artist’s interests and personality.
Clearly she stands head and shoulders above the majority of Scottish painters who continue to be fixated on similar subject matter.