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Bellany was born in Port Seton. His father and grandfather before him were fishermen in Port Seton and Eyemouth near Edinburgh. He was brought up in a strict Christian Calvinist faith within a close fishing community. His upbringing taught him that faith and life were indivisible, this meant work was carried out as a moral justification of God and treated with due respect. The consequence on the young Bellany was that it was easy for him to ascribe a glory and profundity to the activities he saw and daily participated in.
During the early 1960s, he studied at Edinburgh College of Art, here he met with other young Scottish artists to begin lifelong friendships and share ideals for a renaissance in Scottish arts. His contemporaries included Alan Bold and Alexander Moffat. Bellany and Moffat studied under Robin Phillipson and soon began making names for themselves. As new undergraduates, their initial interest was in impressionism but with their common Scottish ancestry they looked toward Alan Davie as a connection to a greater but more accessible artistic world. Much of student life was enhanced by evenings spent between bars such as Paddy Crossans and Milnes, both of which provided material for current and later works. In 1962 Bellany was introduced the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and this reinforced many of his Scottish ideals as well as a desire to represent his art in a heroic and gigantic scale. In 1962 he met Helen Percy, a fellow art student whom he would later marry, Helen would for much of his life be his muse and in many respects provided a stabilizing and practical influence on him.
In this early period Bellany developed his gigantism philosophy and would produce very large paintings, exclusively on wooden panels often depicting scenes of fisherman’s life. Several of these echo religious overtones implicit in his upbringing, crucifixion scenes and the use of the fish, skate which is used as a semi human representation. These early metaphors herald the beginning of his own artistic language which would increase to a large vocabulary of characters and motifs, most of which he refused to explain but they can be seen occurring regularly throughout his career.
Both Bellanys and Moffats reputations were further enhanced when in 1964 they applied for a street trader’s license to sell their work on The Mound which is the site for the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery. They set up their monumental works on the railings outside the RSA and stored them in Milnes bar in the evenings. As well as monumental, Bellanys work was realistic; this was very much against the artistic grain of the early 60s belief "painting is dead" and where abstraction was considered to be the true future of art. It is very much to his credit that he developed a style which looked to his own roots and experience whilst noting influence from the past works of Bosh, Breughel, Beckman and Kokoschka to bring an historical context to his work.
After his studies at Edinburgh, Bellany achieved a major travelling scholarship and traveled around the Europe discovering how the traditions of the great northern European masters could be connected to his own Scottish experience. After this he would marry Helen Percy and move to attend the Royal College of Art in London.
During 1965-7 Bellanys output increased hugely and this was to prove to be his normal working process. He would always be a prolific painter, seeing the act of painting as a necessity. His insistence on realism didn't endear him to the London art establishment but it was clear to his tutors that he was a great talent.
In the summer of 1967 he was invited to a trip to East Germany, In Dresden he viewed Otto Dix's War triptych, this would greatly impact his view of his own material. An even more emotional event was a visit to Buchenwald concentration camp. The trip made at the height of the 60s movement, Bellany was torn away from any cosy belief of flower power and was confronted instead with visions of hell and the difficult personal reconciliation of a loving God with the existence of such places of human degradation. For some time his paintings of fisher folk would be interspersed with contorted faces wrapped in shredded rags of concentration camp blue and white.
In 1968 Bellany graduated and his diploma show was hailed as great success. Many of the paintings from this and the earlier periods are now in public institutions as well as various national galleries. After graduation, Bellany was offered a teaching position at the Edinburgh College of Art but he chose to carry on as a working artist and flit between various teaching jobs at different art colleges. His art proclivity continued throughout the 70s, during this time he felt that if he managed to get one good picture from ten then he was doing well (Bellany would refer to these as Beezers!). Many national and international exhibitions were undertaken during this time and he steadily increased his reputation, acquiring several high profile patrons (David Bowie for one) as well as some high profile commissions - London Underground for example.
His art changed with his mood and when in 1974 he separated from his wife his art appears to take on a darker tone. The symbolism increases and it seems as though each picture can have a whole narrative of symbols within it, increasingly the pictures become wilder and wilder tending more to expressionism, at this point he suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Port Seton for recuperation.
Between 1973-78 Bellany had been head of faculty of painting at Croydon College of Art and had met Juliet Lister who he would later marry. Unfortunately Juliet Lister's history of psychological difficulties, combined with Bellany's own mental stress and his growing dependence on alcohol meant that difficult times were ahead. The 70s to early 80s had been a time of exhibitions and garnering attention, not always successfully but at least a continual progression. In 1982 he was offered a show in New York which exhibited some of his earlier work together with what is probably his most expressionist piece - Time and the Raven. This latter piece was taken as part inspiration by Sir Peter-Maxwell-Davies, master of the Queens Music for a composition of the same name; the picture itself being part inspired from Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven. This show proved successful with many paintings being sold to prominent American collectors as well as the world renowned Museum of Modern Art, New York, this would mean that Bellany would now be financially comfortable.
In 1984, following an impromptu holiday in France with his first wife and family he was diagnosed with Liver disease, an obvious consequence of his alcoholism. With stoicism he took the pledge and successfully abstained for the rest of his life, unfortunately, the damage had been done. Further trauma was to follow in 1985 when his father and second wife Juliet died. On positive notes, he was jointly awarded the Athena Art award, he was approached to produce several portraits for the National Portrait Gallery and a major retrospective was arranged for the National Gallery of Modern Art. The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery included a portrait of the cricketer Sir Ian Botham. This portrait attracted more publicity for Bellany than he'd ever previously achieved - although generally not positive, publicity in any form is generally healthy for sales.
In 1986, reconciliation with his first wife Helen meant they re-married and Bellany felt that this made the world right. The liver disease however was now becoming unmanageable and by the end of 1987 it was clear death was near.
In spring 1988 Bellany was operated on for a then relatively new liver transplant procedure, this also inspired works. Carried out at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge by Sir Roy Calne, Bellany surprised everyone by not only surviving but by starting to paint within hours after he'd completed the operation - instinctively first producing a portrait of the nurse caring for him, then going on to produce a set of pictures known as the Addenbrooke's series. The rejuvenation or even resurrection of the transplant further changed Bellanys outlook on life. His colour palette became brighter more golden with lots of red and he embarked on many flower pictures - a subject he hadn't touched on previously. Revitalised his painting proclivity continued and after recuperation he was ready for new challenges.
Over the following years his zest for new life and new experience was shown in his pictures. A second home was set up in Barga, Tuscany, Italy and visits to Mexico and China added to his colourful renewal.
In 2003 the then "enfant terrible" of British Art, Damien Hirst came out as an admirer of Bellany and bought several of his works as well as praising him as one of the major painters of the twentieth century.
The great Tsunami in 2004 provided further inspiration and connected his earlier sea metaphors with a modern day tragedy.
Toward the end of his time the plaudits came thick and fast. His work was chosen to be placed in the new Scottish Parliament, he received a CBE and had national retrospectives. In 2005 he suffered a heart attack which temporarily halted his output but it was once again taken up until he finally succumbed to the damage done earlier to his body and died in 2013.
Notable Public Works
- Allegory, National Gallery of Scotland (1964)
- Bethel, Southampton City art Gallery (1967)
- Celtic Feast, Sheffield Museums (1974)
- Billy Connolly, National Gallery of Scotland
- Ian Botham, cricketer, National Portrait Gallery, London (1985)
- Chinatown, London Transport Museum (1987)
- "Artist John Bellany dies at 71". BBC News. 29 August 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- "Interview: John Bellany, artist". The Scotsman. 21 March 2010. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- Mansfield, Susan (12 November 2012). "John Bellany: The resurrection man". The Scotsman. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- Works in the National Galleries of Scotland
- Tate Gallery
- John Bellany CBE RA
- Bellany in Barga
- (French) John Bellany
- Artist John Bellany dies aged 71
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