Scottish Painters from ’59 online

2nd February 2015

Welcome indeed is the appearance today on BBC Arts Online of Ken Russell’s 11-minute film profile from 1959 of the two Scottish painters Robert MacBryde (1913-66) and Robert Colquhoun (1914-62). The film, which was Russell’s first about visual artists, was made for the BBC’s arts magazine series Monitor and originally transmitted on 25 October 1959 (for background, see Michael Brooke at BFI ScreenOnline). The documentary is not exactly unknown, but its circulation has been restricted to dedicated researchers in the past 50 years. As a consequence it is an excellent initiative to see it released like in this way (although quite why the film leader has been included I’m not sure). More… please.

Publication online is linked to an important retrospective of the two artists, who were lovers and hard-drinking partners, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (until 24 May). The film is being screened in the exhibition which (given how hard it has sometimes been in the past to access BBC archival material for such uses) is similarly welcome. Barry Didcock wrote a very good piece about the artists and the show for The Herald; Jackie Wullschlager penned a short, very positive review for the Financial Times:

Modernist but legible, expressive, energetic, such paintings were what the London art scene, mired in the romanticism of Minton and Graham Sutherland, was waiting for in the 1940s – but the last thing it wanted as abstraction, then pop, ruled a decade later. It is a pleasure to rediscover them now.

Ken Russell would be part of pop’s domination of the art scene in the 1960s, but MacBryde and Colquhoun were among the first painters he encountered when working as a gallery assistant in post-war London. His short film is a quiet and reflective tribute to them, and offers little sense of their bohemian ways and, at the time, ‘deviant’ sexuality. Beginning with a journey into ‘deep’ England, past a parish church and through the hanging fronds of trees, the camera arrives at a Tudor cottage in Suffolk which the two Roberts have apparently rented as a studio for just a pound a week.

Russell takes their paintings seriously, accompanying shots of a range of canvases, with careful moves in and out, by voice-over comments from the artists and by a Debussy arrangement of the music of Erik Satie. The artworks have their own space and place in the film, and Russell – ever the enfant terrible – clearly enjoys the quiet joke when MacBryde defaces and cuts up a page from the BBC’s magazine The Listener to help him make a painting.

Much of the film features the recorded voices of the artists, but at this early stage Russell, or Monitor’s editor Huw Wheldon, believed that a narrating voice was necessary to anchor the images, and here Scottish actor Allan McClelland does the honours. Another notable credit is that of the film editor Allan Tyrer, who would cut many of Russell’s later films including Pop Goes the Easel (1962) as well as supervise the editing of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969).

One shot particularly leaps out for me, which is a brief image of a cloaked woman walking away from the camera on a seashore. It is included to give a sense of the peasant people of Scotland who made such an impression on Colquhoun during his childhood and who he frequently depicted in his paintings. In the years after making Scottish Painters, Russell would fight Wheldon and others to be allowed to use in his films ‘recon’ or dramatised sequences of artists, eventually triumphing with the technique in Elgar (1962). But here, in however modest a manner, he is already experimenting with the idea.

PS. Since writing this I have found two other very good pieces online: Richard Warren’s blog has the rich miscellany Colquhoun and MacBryde: encounters with the Two Roberts, and complementing the Ken Russell film at BBC Arts Online is William Cook’s article about the lives of the painters. Each is handsomely illustrated with artworks and contextual photographs.

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