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Artist of the month: August 2016

John Bellany RA (1942 – 2013)

Published 1 August 2016

During his lifetime, John Bellany RA contributed to a renaissance in the Scottish arts.

  • John Bellany RA grew up in the East Lothian fishing community of Port Seton, and both the sea and his strict Calvinist upbringing were to be great influences on his life and work. His maternal and paternal grandfathers, and his father worked in the local fishing community and he once said that “I love to paint. At heart, however, I am a mariner”.

    The most prolific and acclaimed Scottish artist of his generation, his paintings explore the complexity of the human condition, employ bold primary colours, and proliferate with marine imagery.

  • In 1965 Bellany moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, from which this early self-portrait dates (pictured). The sea and religion are signified by the seagulls circling in the distance and the crucifix visible around the artist’s neck. This work was previously owned by Carel Weight RA who donated it to the academy, and was head of the Painting School at the Royal College of Art during Bellany’s time as a student there.

    During the 1980s, Bellany went through one of the darkest and most tumultuous periods of his life, spurring a series of paintings of which The Pianist Entertains is one (pictured). He suffered liver failure, the death of his second wife and father, and survived a major liver transplant operation, after which he immediately began painting again, much to the amazement of his surgeon.

    The Pianist Entertains features several autobiographical elements. In the top left hand corner, the detail of the fishing boat The Star of Bethlehem is a reference to his childhood and the theme of fate is explored through the group of characters sitting around the table playing cards. The two cards facing upwards are the Ace of Hearts, symbolic of love and the Ace of Spades, in the form of a Celtic cross, symbolic of virtue.

    The object of the month for August 2016 is (Lord Frederic Leighton’s sketchbook)[/article/object-of-the-month-august-2016-lord-leighton-sketchbooks].