15. Actors on a Stage – Robert Colquhoun

In the mid 1940s, Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) was hailed as the best young artist in Britain, slightly ahead of his lover, the fellow painter Robert MacBryde. Yet by the early 1950s both men were out of fashion and almost penniless. Colquhoun spent the next decade searching SE England for cheap studio space before dying in poverty in London in 1962.

Both Colquhoun and MacBryde are often called obscure or overlooked, and certainly their reputation derives as much from their hell-raising days and the people they knew, as from their significant artistic talents. The two men met at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1930s, and began a lifelong romantic relationship, universally known as The Two Roberts or The Roberts. Colquhoun was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, in 1914 to a working class family, his father an engineering fitter. He studied at GSA alongside MacBryde, a year older, born Robert McBride in Maybole, also in Ayrshire. They were taught by the artist (not the author) Ian Fleming (1906–1994), who is known for his Scottish street scenes and was a lifelong friend to the Roberts. After finishing art school, Colquhoun won a travelling scholarship to France in 1937, and MacBryde went with him, his trip paid for by the chairman of governors of GSA on the grounds that separating the two men was inconceivable.

Ian Fleming’s famous painting of the two young men at art college in Glasgow captures their intimacy (1937-38). They were well-matched, creatively and personally. MacBryde was more domestic and practical, skilled at cooking, and more adept with art dealers; Wyndham Lewis praised MacBryde’s wit and others celebrated his capacity for love and affection. Colquhoun was more handsome and more serious.

Colquhoun served as an ambulance driver in World War II but was invalided out in 1941 (MacBryde was exempt for medical reasons), and the two men moved to London, Colquhoun initially seeking work as an official war artist. They exhibited in a 1942 show called Six Scottish Artists with Edward Baird, John Maxwell, William Gillies, and William Johnstone. Initially they put on a strongly Scottish attitude, wearing kilts and declaring their Scottish Nationalism, but while they kept their accents, their stance softened. They never lived in Scotland again, preferring to stay close to the art market in London, although Colquhoun returned many times in his art to the Ayrshire working classes, much as Gauguin painted Breton peasants. In England they initially stayed with John Minton, an English figurative painter who drank heavily and died in 1957, and then more influentially with Jankel Adler, a Polish Jew known for his printmaking, who died in 1949.

They associated with the rowdy artistic circles that included poet Dylan Thomas and artists Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and others; the Roberts were known for their rowdiness and rudeness or directness. Their studio in Bedford Gardens, Notting Hill, became a place to be; they drank at the Windsor Castle in Campden Hill Road. When they were evicted from Bedford Gardens, they seemed to lose some of their social cachet and feared they were being ignored; this may have been the start of their commercial decline.

Later they lived in the countryside, even, for a while at Tilty Mill in Essex, looking after the four children of novelist Elizabeth Smart, who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept about her long-running affair with poet George Barker. When Smart left they stayed on and eventually trashed the house. In the early 1950s both found work in theatre and ballet costumes and scenery.

Although their careers were in decline, Colquhoun saw renewed attention with a solo show at Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 1958. They were the subject of a film by the young Ken Russell in 1959, and by then were living in Suffolk where studio space was cheaper. In 1962 while working on prints for another exhibition, Colquhoun died in MacBryde’s arms: he collapsed after working all night. MacBryde moved to Dublin, where he painted little, and he was killed in a traffic accident in 1966.

In his heyday, Colquhoun’s work was seen as coming from the same place as Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland: cries of despair at the horrors of human life. His works tend towards a lurid or disgusting palette that is heavy on green hues of snot and pus, and various shades of less repulsive orange and red as well as bleak greys. His figures are often tragic in expression as well as frequently deformed. The artists, writer and critic Wyndham Lewis reviewed him in 1947 with high praise for his “existential humanity” and revelation of “la condition humaine”. For Lewis the sickly greens showed existential nausea such as that described by Sartre in his masterwork La Nausée.

Colquhoun certainly had something of the darkness of Bacon, and his tendency to depression and alcoholism probably added to that worldview. But the more formalist work of Picasso was always the key influence for Colquhoun’s art, something he was only intermittently able to escape. There is something of the aesthete about the two Roberts, seen in their focus on art above all else in life (except perhaps their love for each other). A love of form was something Colquhoun shared with MacBryde, and Colquhoun’s works have an elegance and grace despite the lurid colours, in comparison to the rawness of Bacon or Dubuffet.

Colquhoun painted from imagination rather than from life model; Lewis warned that this risks a result that is “thin or conventional”. His works show a bold use of figure but lack the hard-wrought intensity of contemporaries like Freud or Auerbach, whose heavily manipulated paint seems to develop from a battle between artist and model. Perhaps if Colquhoun had lived longer, he would have fallen into the same bland, slightly despairing humanism as Henry Moore, whom he greatly admired and occasionally emulated, as in his stage designs for George Devine’s King Lear.

But this is to underestimate the many achievements of Colquhoun: many more acclaimed artists than him could be classed as footnotes to Picasso, and at his best he escaped the Spaniard’s influence. Actors on a Stage (1945) is one of several pictures that offers a kind of dual portrait, even if the subjects may be imaginary, two men whose relationship is brilliantly captured. It shows two actors looking with an intimate gaze into each other’s eyes. It is sensuous and easy to read the two men as been MacBryde and Colquhoun, even if it is less clear whether they are acting or sincere. He returned to the theme in The Actors (1947) which is less intimate, simpler, and more classical, and considerably less interesting as a result.

Above the two actors is a reclining cat – Colquhoun frequently painted cats and other superficially twee motifs such as birds and bird cages – but it looks almost like a golden statue of a tiger or leopard. The canvas is heavily marked with predominantly horizontal lines; this recalls MacBryde’s considerable interest in removing paint (for instance Woman with Paper Flowers, 1944). This contrasts effectively with the extreme simplicity of the faces and the flatness of the composition.

A similar approach can be seen in another masterpiece from the same era, Woman with a Birdcage (c. 1946). This presents a much grimmer vision of the human condition, the bird cage perhaps a metaphor, its lines and colours and form echoed in the woman’s body. His prints show an even bolder and more despairing vision of humanity, contorted, abstract, mixing bold colours and black.

Although there was little attention in the years after their deaths, claims of the Roberts’ obscurity may be exaggerated. John Byrne wrote a play Colquhoun & MacBryde in 1992, revived in 2014. Roger Bristow’s joint biography The Last Bohemians appeared in 2010 to positive reviews. There was a joint retrospective at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2014-15. The result is that while the stories of the two hell-raisers and two great lovers will always be a part of their appeal, Colquhoun can be seen as a painter who at his best balanced deep emotional response with a great attention to form and line. And the internet loves cat pictures.

Colquhoun and MacBryde were a loving homosexual couple at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. They were forced to hide their sexuality and the true nature of their relationship. Figures of actors were important to both of them; they painted mask-like faces, puppets, fortune tellers, and designed theatrical costumes. At the same time, once in London they promoted themselves in the role of Scottish men: kilts, poetry, folk songs, hard drinking, uncouthness. Thus they found themselves playing one part, hiding another. It’s clear from Ken Russell’s documentary that they chose to stay in England for the work, for London’s centrality to the art world. But it also fuelled a tragic sense in Colquhoun’s art. If existentialism is about anything, it is about life lived as exile, and he was doubly an exile as a gay Scot, or if you factor in other sources of difference and alienation – struggling artist, mental illness, self-conscious bohemianism – a stranger and an actor many times over.

Robert Colquhoun, Actors on a Stage, 1945.
Oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm.


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