The Scottish artists Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were arguably the first gay, 'rock-and-roll' couple of London's post-war Soho scene. Inseparable since meeting at Glasgow School of Art in 1933, they continued to live and work together until their untimely deaths when both were still in their forties. Their drunken antics, open-house soirées and colourful circle of friends (which included Frances Bacon, Lucian Freud and Dylan Thomas) — as well as their art — attracted the patronage of the wealthy and well-connected. For a time, in the 1950s, they were known as 'the Golden Boys of Bond Street' and described by Ken Russell as the 'Last Bohemians'. Photographed by John Deakin for Vogue and with regular shows at the Lefèvre Gallery, their rise was meteoric and their status stellar, if short-lived.
This modest show is timely and coincides with the publication of the first biography of 'The Roberts,' by Roger Bristow. What the show lacks in quantity and scale is compensated for by the quality and range of work — at least in Colquhoun's case. It provides an opportunity for a re-assessment and paves the way for a future — but as yet putative — major retrospective.
There seems little doubt that, of the two, Colquhoun was the more accomplished artist and this notion is underlined by the fact that twenty-nine out of a total of thirty-five works are by him. There may, of course, be other reasons for this imbalance such as the fact that MacBryde was generally less prolific. But there seems little doubt from the evidence here — and extant work elsewhere — that Colquhoun was altogether more dynamic, daring and visceral.
His 'Two Irish Women' from 1948 is a stylised, dark monotype in three colours but with a prevalence of black and grey. It holds the same Celtic mystique as the witches of Macbeth – archetypal figures deeply rooted somewhere in the artist's consciousness. By contrast MacBryde's oil from around the same time, 'Still Life with Calf's Head' seems tamer and flatter, despite the presence of the severed animal's head and the potential for the gory, terrifying power which the subject presents. Colquhoun's oil 'The Necromancer', from 1949, and the monotype 'Festa:Settignano,' made in the following year, continue his pursuit of rawness, archetypicality and powerful, muscular imagery.
Both artists were assured draughtsmen with a fine compositional sense and what MacBryde lacked in dynamism he made up for in technique and attention to detail, evidenced here in the lithographs 'The Clown', from 1950, and 'Still Life on a Table', made ten years later. In 1948 they were approached by Leonide Massine to design the décor and costumes for the ballet 'Donald of the Burthens' which was eventually produced at Covent Garden in 1951. Colquhoun's swiftly executed sketches demonstrate an apt assuredness of touch combined with flair and some familiarity with the subject matter – Highland dress and custom. A series of pen and ink studies made a few years later, such as 'Warrior' and 'Horseman,' show Colquhoun's quick mind conjuring great atmosphere from a few sparse lines.
Despite being two of Scotland's major artists, their last major showing was in 1981. The time seems long overdue for the National Galleries of Scotland to present a full range of this remarkable duo's work.