Person of the Week
A man of colour
Barbara Millar on J D Fergusson
Self portrait of the artist
A sandstone cylinder, supporting a large iron water tank, with a steam engine behind, supplied Perth with pure water for 133 years. Since 1992, it has had a new lease of life – as a permanent gallery devoted to the life and work of one of Scotland's most important painters, John Duncan (J D) Fergusson, who died 50 years ago this month.
The former waterworks, which underwent a huge, £950,000 renovation between 2003 and 2005, houses more than 5,000 artworks, including 150 oil paintings, hundreds of watercolours and drawings, 60 sketchbooks and over 6,000 other items which recount the life of Fergusson and his partner of almost 50 years, Margaret Morris.
Fergusson, the eldest of four children, was born in Leith in March 1874. His family – successful wine merchants – were originally from Pitlochry. Fergusson's initial ambition was to become a naval surgeon and he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine, leaving after just a few months to enrol at the Trustees Academy, the forerunner of Edinburgh College of Art. But he did not last long there either – he found the training too formal and rigid, so decided to teach himself to paint.
Early travels took him by tramp steamer to southern Spain and Morocco, an important part of his artistic development. But France was the real lure. His first trip to Paris was in 1898, where he was deeply influenced by French artists including Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. Later, Henri Matisse and the Fauvists, who painted with intensely vivid, exuberant colours, also had a significant influence on his work.
During this period Fergusson befriended Edinburgh-born artist Samuel Peploe and the two made regular trips to the coastal resorts of Normandy and Brittany. Although the work of Fergusson and Peploe – and contemporary Scottish artists George Hunter and Francis Cadell – was diverse, and all four pursued relatively individual careers, they became known collectively as the Scottish Colourists, for their grafting of their knowledge of French art onto the painterly traditions of Scotland.
Fergusson had a successful exhibition at the Baillie Galleries in London in 1905, after which he moved to Paris. Guy Peploe, grandson of Samuel, commented: 'At about this time Fergusson asks his women to take their clothes off – and never lets them get dressed again'. His women were also regularly painted sporting head-gear. As Guy Peploe added: 'There is no reason to suppose that Fergusson disliked women's hair, but every reason to suppose that he loved them in hats'.
Back in London, in 1913, Fergusson met a 22-year-old English dancer Margaret Morris who, with her mother, ran a dance school and had a circle of friends which included George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell. Fergusson and Morris became life-long partners, with the artist dividing his time between London, where Morris was based, France – he had moved to the Mediterranean coast, and Edinburgh, where he stayed with the Peploes.
In 1915 Fergusson became a close friend of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Indeed, it has been suggested that Fergusson encouraged Mackintosh to paint. During World War I, he was commissioned by the government to produce a series of paintings of the naval dockyard in Portsmouth which, according to Guy Peploe, 'had a catalytic effect on Fergusson's paintings'.
He settled in a London studio until the late 1920s, making a painting tour of the Scottish Highlands in 1923. Many of the paintings from this trip were shown in his first major Scottish exhibitions at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh and at Alexander Reid's Gallery in Glasgow. His first major exhibition with the other Colourists was in London in 1925 – one of only three in their lifetimes. In 1926 he had his first exhibition in New York and, in 1928, had four major exhibitions, in Chicago, London, Glasgow and New York.
Fergusson and Morris moved back to France in 1929 but returned to Britain at the outbreak of World War II, taking a studio flat in Clouston Street, Glasgow, near the Botanic Gardens. Here Morris founded the Celtic Ballet and the two collaborated in the setting up of the New Art Club, which became a focus for artistic development amongst many Scottish painters. They remained in Glasgow – with summer forays to the south of France – and Fergusson was awarded an honorary degree by Glasgow University in 1950.
John Duncan Fergusson died in January 1961, at the age of 86, by far the longest lived of the Colourists. At his memorial exhibition in the same year, the prolific French artist Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac paid tribute to Fergusson's 'exceptional sense of colour, outspoken, ringing colours, rich and splendid in their very substance'.
And he added, about his contemporary: 'His art is a deep and pure expression of his immense love of life'.