Craigie Aitchison

Craigie Aitchison

One of my favourite artists died this week – a painter who was an outstanding colourist. Here is his obituary from the Times:

Craigie Aitchison was one of those visionary individualists whom Britain throws up from time to time. The first sight of a picture by him might suggest a dangerous naivety, an outrageously childlike religiosity, a decorative triviality, even technical incompetence; but not for long.

His paintings soon reveal a spontaneity of response followed into supremely calculated form and effect; the intensity that only comes from deep experience; and the brilliance of the true artist who can simplify his images almost to abstract shapes, yet intensify their communication.

Craigie Ronald John Aitchison was born in 1926, the younger son of a distinguished lawyer, Lord Aitchison, who was Labour MP for Kilmarnock, 1929-33, and Lord Advocate for Scotland during those years. He died when Craigie was 15.

His son abandoned his original inclination towards dress design since he felt he could not draw adequately. The possibility of studying architecture arose, but finally Craigie — who had frequently read with enthusiasm his father’s legal papers, including the appeals against conviction for murder in which his father specialised — decided to follow his father into law, and read British history and jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh, then at the Middle Temple in London. However, he found himself more interested in the human drama of the law than in legal niceties, and began to take painting lessons from Adrian Daintrey.

Aitchison entered the Slade School of Art in 1952 as a fee-paying student, and was delighted to be there — while resisting instruction in painting, anatomy, perspective or art history. However, he did appreciate advice from Robert Medle and accepted Sir William Coldstream’s example, as taught in his select class there, of basing portraiture on strict measurement; Aitchison subsequently always began his portraits from the eyebrows outward.

Aitchison won an Italian government travelling scholarship in 1955, and the light, the landscape, and the art — particularly the early Italian religious works of stylised simplicity — were a revelation to him. Using vivid colours such as purples and yellows as his starting point — and Aitchison is one of the outstanding colourists of the 20th century, even including abstract painters — he began to produce portraits; still-life paintings; landscapes often with reminiscences of Tulliallan, his family home in Scotland; and contemplative religious subjects; mostly Crucifixions, often backed by the elements of this familiar landscape, with its distant profile of Holy Island. These were pared down to minimal detail, with the understated simplicity of early Italian devotional painting. Their strong colour and suffused emotional ground at first recalled Odilon Redon; later, as the highly calculated edges of his forms became sharper, the comparison with Matisse suggested itself.

After early inclusion in group shows at Gimpel and Gallery One, a fellow student, Michael Andrews, commended Aitchison to Helen Lessore, who gave him shows at her Beaux Arts Gallery in 1959, 1961 and 1964; while the Arts Council included his paintings in its New Painting exhibitions in London and on tour, from 1958 to 1961.

An admirer of Gauguin — after Piero della Francesca and Giotto — Aitchison found non-white people “a thousand times more exciting to paint”, if only for the way their skin set off the colours of their clothes; it was the availability of such friends as models that drew Aitchison from the clear air of Arran to set up his studio in South London in Kennington, in a house full of brightly coloured kitsch and bric-a-brac.

It was always inhabited by one, two or three Bedlington terriers, which he loved to paint and which remind one irresistibly of the dog keeping silent watch over the body of a nymph in Piero di Cosimo’s Mythological Subject (otherwise known as The Death of Procris), in the National Gallery.

He also bought a house — with its own chapel — at Montecastelli San Gusme, near Siena.

Despite the suspicions of some critics confronted by Aitchison’s economy of means, his art won a devoted and affectionate following far beyond his many friends from all walks of life; its colour chords became ever more singing, its compositions ever more subtly solid and its objects of contemplation, especially the Crucifixions which could be like flayed skins, ever more audaciously minimal, without losing their intensity or their innocence, or becoming precious. Aitchison maintained a blithely timeless vision, despite his thoroughly contemporary means of expression. “Ever since the world began, there have been the same birds on the same trees,” he said.

He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1978, and a full academician in 1988. He was given a retrospective of his work from 1953 to 1981 at the Arts Council Serpentine Gallery in 1981-82. He won the RA’s Korn Ferry International Award in 1989 and again in 1991, the Jerwood Foundation Award in 1994, and the Nordstern Art Prize in 2000.

In 1996 he was commissioned to paint a mural of Calvary — a landscape illuminated by a mystical light — for the Gothic Revivalist Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. Other sacred works by him are held by Liverpool Cathedral and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

In 2003 the Royal Academy held a major retrospective of his work, which was so popular that the RA shop produced cups and saucers, ties, mouse mats and memo pads bearing Aitchison designs. He said he did not mind as long as they asked for his approval first.

Aitchison’s popularity increased as the years went by, and there were solo exhibitions at the Albemarle Gallery, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, a retrospective at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, the Timothy Taylor Gallery, the Waddington Galleries and the Long & Ryle gallery among others.The Tate owns four of his works and others are in public collections in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Glasgow, Blackpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Cape Town and Melbourne. He was appointed CBE in 1999.

I delight in his work and am very proud to have a couple of pieces….

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