The Bold and Vibrant Art of the Scottish Colourists

Nazia Safi
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The Scottish Colourists were four individual avant-garde Scottish painters working during the turn of the 20th century. These four were Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937), George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), and John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961). They shared similar bright primary colors and free brushwork that was previously foreign to the British art scene.

Several works by Scottish Colourists will come to auction in Bonhams’ upcoming Scottish Art sale. Bidding will start on May 13th, 2021 at 11:00 AM BST (6:00 AM EDT). Auction Daily takes a closer look at the history and work of the Scottish Colourists before the event begins.

Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Gypsy in a Landscape, 1900. Photo from Bonhams.
Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Gypsy in a Landscape, 1900. Photo from Bonhams.

Who Coined the Term Scottish Colourists?

Art historian and critic T.J. Honeyman coined the term ‘Scottish Colourists.’ In his book Three Scottish Colourists, published in 1950, Honeyman included the core group of three artists, Peploe, Cadell, and Hunter. In the 1980s, the group expanded to include Fergusson. Even though the artists shared common goals and an obsession with color and tone, they each had a distinct style. They worked separately, coming together in their lifetimes for three exhibitions.

The French Effect      

Even though all four Scottish Colourists worked differently, they had quite a lot in common. All were born in the 1870s in Scotland and visited France on one or more occasions. These trips influenced their work. 

Cadell, Peploe, and Fergusson completed their art education in Edinburgh, later moving to Paris to get formal training. While Cadell attended the Royal Scottish Academy Life School, Peploe and Fergusson went to the Trustees’ Academy. However, the artists disapproved of the conservative syllabi taught in these institutions. Hunter was the only member not associated with Edinburgh and did not receive any formal art training. Largely self-taught, Hunter worked as an independent newspaper and book illustrator based in San Francisco.

John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874-1961), Café-Concert des Ambassadeurs, 1907. Photo from Bonhams.
John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874-1961), Café-Concert des Ambassadeurs, 1907. Photo from Bonhams.

In the early 1900s, Hunter and a group of city artists traveled to Paris to experience the latest developments in European painting. Around the same time, Cadell, Peploe, and Fergusson also traveled to Paris. Captivated by Parisian life and the ongoing avant-garde French artistic movements, the four artists immersed themselves in the art and culture of the city. As Fergusson once wrote, “Something new had started and I was very much intrigued. But there was no language for it that made sense in Edinburgh or London – an expression like ‘the logic of line’ meant something in Paris that it couldn’t mean in Edinburgh.”

The artists drew inspiration from French artists such as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, adopting strong and vibrant colors in their work. The artists fused these colors with traditional Scottish art to produce still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and interiors that were completely different from traditional British styles.

John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874-1961), Paris street scene, 1908. Photo from Bonhams.
John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874-1961), Paris street scene, 1908. Photo from Bonhams.

Painting Style

Early 20th-century French art influenced all four artists. As a result, their work often looks similar. However, each had his own interests and painting style that separated his work from the other group members. The French influence is more visible in the works of Cadell, Fergusson, and Peploe as they studied at the Académie Julian in Paris. Fergusson, who had the most intense and enduring connection with France, was drawn to Fauvism, reflected in his bright colors and expressive paint application. Although Fergusson painted different subjects, he was particularly interested in the female form.

Cadell was mainly influenced by Edouard Manet, as seen in his portraits, figure studies, and still lifes. His flat painting style features brighter colors with a base palette of white, cream, and black.

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937), Tying the Rick. Photo from Bonhams.
Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937), Tying the Rick. Photo from Bonhams.

Influenced by Cézanne and Japanese art, Peploe experimented with bold, bright colors against dark backgrounds. Executed in fluid brushstrokes, his landscape and still life paintings often feature geometric shapes and strong outlines.   

Hunter was the only artist of the group who worked in a broad range of media, including ink, oil, and watercolor. He was drawn mainly to the light effects of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements.

Recognition & Legacy

The Scottish Colourists individually garnered recognition during their lifetimes. However, when their work was first exhibited during the 1920s and 1930s, it could not make any significant impact. By World War II, their works were largely forgotten. The Scottish Colourists were rediscovered during the 1950s, but it was not until the 1980s that they were widely recognized. In 1988, Peploe’s Girl in White was sold for a record GBP 506,000 (USD 707,590) at Christie’s sale of Scottish Colourists in Glasgow. The group is today known for introducing ‘modern’ painting to Scotland and playing a crucial role in the early 20th-century British art scene.

Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Still Life with Tureen and Fruit, 1926. Photo from Bonhams.
Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), Still Life with Tureen and Fruit, 1926. Photo from Bonhams.

Scottish Colourists at Bonhams

The upcoming Bonhams auction will highlight several works by Scottish Colourists. Leading the collection is Still Life with Tureen and Fruit by Samuel Peploe. Executed around 1926, the painting features a tureen along with apples and pears. Bonhams will offer the piece with an estimate of £120,000 to £180,000 ($167,732 – $251,598). About the work, Bonhams specialist in Scottish Art in Edinburgh May Matthews said, “The artist’s compositions were meticulously planned and executed, creating the dialogue between object and space for which he and his fellow Colourists were renowned.”

Interested in more artist profiles? Check out our coverage of contemporary artist El Anatsui.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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