‘The great artists of the world’ as American journalist and social critic HL Mencken liked to point out to anyone who would listen, ‘are never puritans and seldom even ordinarily respectable.’ Step up to the harbour’s edge John Bellany—painter, allegorist, poet and fish obsessive. For Bellany has lived several lifetimes in one— some of them puritanical, but none of them thankfully respectable.
Shamefully overshadowed by the vigorous imaginations of the new figurative Scottish artists who emerged in the late 80s, if anyone deserves a monograph as lovingly put together as this beautiful volume, it is Bellany. If he had been born 20 years earlier Bellany could be described as the missing link between Kokoschka and Bacon, but he wasn’t, for he was born into the salty seagull bedevilled air of Port Seton in 1942 into a family of fishermen, boat builders and fundamentalist Presbyterians. His was a childhood living off what Disraeli laughingly called ‘this land of oatcakes and Calvinism’—it was a rearing which was to affect dramatically the profoundly religious nature of his paintings, for as McEwen’s book beautifully underlines, much of Bellany’s work is informed by an intimation of morality and a recognition of evil.
After a lovely (and thankfully short) foreword by fellow Scot John Russell, McEwen quickly gets under way placing the young Bellany in the Closed Brethren religious sect he grew up being a part of in the saltpans of East Lothian in the 1940s. McEwen is a clear and readable, though rarely inspiring writer, so he keeps things going at a fair clip—on to college and his friendships with Sandy Moffat and Hugh MacDiarmid, and his life-changing, traumatic visit to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1967. By Chapter 5: ‘The Gathering Storm’, McEwen finally owns the castle and is handing out free tickets to one of the art world’s most notorious hedonistic displays. In the 1970s Bellany’s personal life went into turmoil and he embarked on a near fatal journey of selfdestruction, a journey that was to end in a liver transplant and some of Bellany’s most brilliant and anguished pictures. As is often the way, it is the bad times which make for some of the most fascinating reading here.
The pictures, which here are numerous and beautifully published and presented, are of course the raison d’être of a book like this. Slightly annoyingly some, (Bellany with his wives, celebrities etc) are not timelined properly so the chronology of the book feels half-realised. On the whole though, it is a joy, and something of a necessity for anyone interested in this remarkable artist’s work.
Paul Dale is a film and art writer