Art books for the new year

In the competitive and fast moving world of art exhibitions and artistic reputations, it is easy to get ignored or forgotten. A number of belated biographies were published last year that bring to the public’s attention some of these artists:

Alasdair Grey (b.1934) is a Scottish artist who along with John Byrne (b.1940) made his reputation by first writing novels and plays. Grey’s ‘A Life in Pictures’, published by Canongate, is a pictorial autobiography that documents his visual output as an artist in Glasgow. Working primarily as a mural painter, illustrator and occasional teacher, Grey found initial success by writing radio plays until his highly acclaimed novel ‘Lanark’ published in the 1980s brought him international acclaim. As an artist he joins the small band of writers who are able to illustrate their own books. He draws in a hard linear style that works best in black and white, using the illustrator’s favourite medium of pen and ink. This he used to good effect in each of his subsequent novels.

Robert Hewison’s biography ‘John Byrne – Art and Life’, published by Lund Humpries, charts the artist’s progress from painter and illustrator to writer of plays for the theatre and television. ‘The Slab Boys Trilogy’ and ‘Tuttie Fruttie ‘ are two of Byrne’s best-known works, but this book tries to redress the balance and shows how both talents are intertwined and how his great talent as a visual artist is now in the need of promotion.

His first appearance as a painter was with London’s Portal Gallery where he submitted work under the name of ‘Patrick’ – who he pretended was his father, a self-taught naïve painter. With the undoubted quality of his work evident, Byrne’s painting career flourished. However he soon tired of this artistic deception and turned his talents to writing, which brought his name to a much larger audience. With his reputation secure Byrne’s undoubted graphic talent and technical facility could now be directed towards portraits, illustrations and prints and his two careers became established.

Alasdair Grey and John Byrne both studied at Glasgow School of Art at a time when the lack of support in Glasgow for the visual arts meant that many other artists wishing to pursue a career took the road to London. Although they both managed to stay in their hometown, two artists from the previous generation who did move south were Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) and Robert McBryde(1913-1966).

Known as the ‘Two Roberts’ they became well known figures in the British art scene, which at that time, in the late 1940s and 50s, revolved around the pubs and galleries of Fitzrovia and Soho. Roger Bristow’s book ‘The Last Bohemians’ published by Sansom and Company, gives a well-written and sympathetic account of the duo’s rise to fame – and their subsequent neglect – as they become casualties of changing taste in the art world. The timely appearance of this book may result in a retrospective of their work to be given at the Royal Scottish Museum of Modern Art to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Colquhoun’s birth.

In all these cases the neglect of their talents can be traced to lack of gallery support, which in the case of Grey and Byrne turned them towards writing and in the case of Colquhoun and Mcbryde’s towards declining fortunes and an altogether sadder end.

Another neglected artist is John Craxton (1922-2009). He was associated with the Neo-Romantic painters of the 1940s and was influenced by Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland. After the Second World War he travelled in Europe eventually settling in Crete in 1960. Responding to his Mediterranean surroundings his pastoral themes became brighter and more complex as they took on a Byzantine influence.

This self-exile of course had a negative effect on his artistic fortunes and soon Craxton’s name would be forgotten as newer artists and art movements came on the scene. Ian Collins has written an excellent authorized biography, also published by Lund Humphries, which not only documents Craxton’s affirmative life as a painter but also his talent for friendship. To coincide with the publication of this book in autumn 2011, the Tate Gallery presented a belated exhibition of his work and David Attenbourgh fronted a television programme about Craxton’s work.

Hopefully these books will help redress the balance and remind people of the work and careers of some of Britain’s least well-known and rewarding artists.

James Cowan

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1 comment for “Art books for the new year

  1. Paul Yelland
    19 January 2012 at 3:49 pm

    I spotted the Craxton drawings and paintings in Tate Britain recently. I particularly liked the neo-romantic stuff from the 1940s, I could see the influence of Sutherland and others. I wasn’t so into the later Crete style paintings.

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