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Around the galleries

Elizabeth Blackadder

— August 2011

Associated media

Elizabeth Blackadder,  Still Life with Iris, 2000, Oil on canvas.

Patricia Andrew visits a revealing exhibition in Edinburgh

This exhibition, simply entitled ‘Elizabeth Blackadder’, showing at the National Gallery of Scotland from July this year to 2 January 2012, celebrates the 80th year of one of Scotland’s most quietly successful painters. Dame Elizabeth Blackadder was the first woman artist to be elected to both the Royal Academy and Royal Scottish Academy, and in 2001 she became Her Majesty The Queen’s Painter and Limner in Scotland. Accompanying the show is a lavishly illustrated catalogue charting her career up to date.

As John Leighton, Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, notes in his introduction, Blackadder is the most ‘discreet and least public of artists’. Indeed, for all her official titles, and her much-reproduced images (one of which is a best-seller at the shop of the Royal Academy of Arts in London), she is hardly a household name outside Scotland. She has never courted popularity; instead it has come to her. And her art suffers from being, superficially at least, all too charming, indeed the press release of the show rather gives the problem away, stating that ‘Her work is both cherished by the public whilst being highly respected by the art establishment’ – the word ‘cherished’ says it all. For all too many people, her work is about ‘just cats and flowers’ (as an acquaintance of mine said, unable to see much in it). And yes, there are numerous cats and flowers in her work, and the public do love them – but look further, and they are the vehicles of serious artistic achievements.  

Born in Falkirk in 1931, Blackadder studied at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. In the 1950s her early drawings of Italian landscapes and architecture were created in a style she later left behind: wonderfully strong pieces of work, composed of heavy, forceful lines. Many show very bare, spare winter scenes, an Italy rare in the art of northern visitors. Nonetheless, it is a very real Italy, and one I find familiar, having lived through a couple of winters in Italy, in colder temperatures than anything experienced in Britain. 

Since the 1960s, Blackadder’s principal interest has been still-life, though in reality the ‘life’ she shows is rarely that ‘still’. The flowers and animals that populate her work are living things, rarely immobile for long, and the many small, exquisite objects arranged so carefully for study seem to have been placed temporarily, soon to be re-arranged. There is always implied movement, albeit of a kind that is quiet and gentle rather than demonstrative.

Many of the small items that fascinate Blackadder are Japanese. Her visits to Japan in the 1980s really chimed with the way her work was developing, and one of the galleries in this show is dedicated entirely to the Japanese-inspired work, with its rich, deep colours, its sense of presence and reflection. 

Designing the show has not been easy. Blackadder’s delicate works look best on pale background colours, and to me the pastel shades of pink, blue and grey were well chosen. But ‘what ghastly colours’ said some visitors, and ‘look at that horrible salmon pink’ (this from a professional art gallery curator). Then there are labels, not on the walls, but apparently propped (though in fact firmly fixed) on a ledge that runs beneath the works. To some visitors this appears too casual. In fact, opinions about the show seem to be as diverse as opinions about the artist’s work.

Philip Long’s book is published in two versions, by both the National Galleries of Scotland and Yale University Press. Long charts Blackadder’s career, his perceptive text accompanied by lavish illustrations. Blackadder has been well served by writers and curators over the years, with two previous monographs: Judith Bumpus’s  Elizabeth Blackadder  (Phaidon, 1988) and Duncan Macmillan’s  Elizabeth Blackadder  (Scolar Press, 1999), together with various other publications devoted to specific areas of her work, and numerous exhibition catalogues. 

The catalogue  Elizabeth Blackadder  byPhilip Long with an introduction by John Leighton is suitable for the general reader as well as the specialist and is published by National Galleries of Scotland 2011.  112 pp. 94 colour illus.ISBN 978-1-906270-39-1


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: Private collection © the artist

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