John Bellany


bellany and father

John Bellany is the son of a fisherman, a child of the sea, and his art is true to that inheritance.”

John Bellany is the most influential Scottish painter since the war. Born at Port Seton in 1942 into a family of fishermen and boat builders and steeped in Calvinism as a child. His art is profoundly religious in its reminder of’ mortality and recognition of evil.

Bellany’s life voyage has proved every bit as perilous as the sea voyages of his ancestors. Many, artists have chosen to live and work in fishing ports but Bellany was born in one. He paints a common subject with uncommon knowledge. Fishing as a way, of life is filled with uncertainty and terror. The fear is bravely unspoken but always there. In Bellany’s youth, when his father was a skipper, the boats were much smaller. The men worked on open decks and fundamentally the way things were done had not changed for centuries. So they believed in God and trusted luck, which made them deeply superstitious: and because they believed in God they also believed in hell. Working with the sea they knew God’s wrath like no one else and they knew the devil’s work. Once Bellany whistled on a boat. The crew were shocked, they feared he might have whistled up a storm. So he was brought up in a world where superstition was a matter of life and death and where each new week might be the last for his father and the men of the village.

There were more churches than pubs in Port Seton but the population’s dependence on both was grounded in fear and, of course, hope. The ‘Good Hope’ is one of the many boats Bellany has depicted. The names are beautiful: ‘the June Rose’, the ‘Harvest Queen’, the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. They are steeped in meaning like all poetry, and play a prominent role in his art.

Boats have always been an obsession with Bellany. His father was a boatbuilder as well as a skipper, so Bellany has known them inside out from his earliest years.

When John Bellany was born in Port Seton 1942, his father was away on active service in the war. Bellany’s earliest memories are of the cast coast-fishing village of Eyemouth, because his mother preferred to stay there with her parents until the war ended. Eyemouth has the largest harbour of the cast coast fishing industry, a fish market and the biggest of the two boat building yards, the smaller being in Port Seton. Eyemouth with its cliff to one side and the bay opening directly, on to the North Sea, is more beautiful than Port Seton.

Even as a child Bellany never considered being anything other than an artist.He drew boats obsessively. “The harbour was packed with all these different types of boats. That*s when 1 first started drawing, when I was three or four years old ; and they were like portraits, except they were of boats rather than of people. I think the focusing and sharpening of the eyes, the synchronisation of hand to eye, started away back at the age of four. I’d draw by the harbour because at Eyemouth the harbour comes right up through the centre of the town, so visually its just staggering. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. All that colour, all that hustle and bustle of activity, that was the core of my life in both Port Seton and Eyemouth in these days ; but it was Eyemouth where it first started.”

Dread of death was forcibly impressed on him in

Eyemouth Fishing Tragedy Memorial, St Abbs

Eyemouth Fishing Tragedy Memorial, St Abbs (Photo credit: Karen V Bryan)

h by the graveyard near his grandparent’s house. In his youth it was a wasteland, a haunting place, where fetching a football was a frightening ordeal. “Talk about death I had it right there at my bedroom window!” Death has remained the central preoccupation of all his painting, and perhaps even his phobia for rats creatures of his worst nightmare – may spring from that view over the wall. The gravestones, with their worn but detailed carvings of skulls and bones, greatly aroused Bellany’s imagination. It is to them that he attributes his liking for the diptych ( two panels – see If music be the food of love, play on 1983 and A long Night’s Journey into Day 1.987 ) and triptych forms three panels – see Allegory 1964, Cod End- 1977, The Storm 1991 No doubt the imagery of the stones was made more frightening by the constantly looming fear – of death in ordinary life; ” People were always getting drowned. There was always that dread”.

The constant danger make fishing communities especially close-knit and independent bound by religion and prone to superstition. Superstition in the fishing villages went hand in hand with religious conviction. Superstition had the profoundest effect on Bellany’s imagination. Almost all his pictures include symbolic omens of good and evil, of animals and birds, with the cards of fate constantly redealt.

Religion was the anchor of the communities. Sundays throughout John Bellany’s life were entirely devoted to religion. The Chalmers Memorial Church, where the family went to the evening service, made a profound impact on him, timbered inside like a boat, the cross-beams stencilled with a sky blue pattern of fish. For the Harvest Festival a stupendous heap of fish was shored against the table. This for Bellany was the most memorable sight of the religious year and another image he has frequently used in his painting. Hymns related to the sea were sung. The religion expounded was specific to the needs of the fishing way of life. The spiritual significance of work and religion was interchangeable.

The family returned to Port Seton in 1947 but Dick Bellany, John’s father, did not return to fishing. Because of his wife’s health and anxiety at him being away at sea, he turned to boat building. On Saturdays and holidays John worked at gutting fish and smoking finnan haddock. It was a tough job but both visually and spiritually this had a profound effect on his painting and images from these formative experiences, would recur again and again in his work.

John Bellany was the first boy from Port Seton to go to Edinburgh College of Art in 1960. William Gillies was the principal and Robin Philipson Head of painting. It was hard work. Classes began at 9am. and continued until 9pm. if the voluntary evening life class was attended. In the two-year general course before specialisation, the only compulsory drawing was of drapery and antique casts. Life drawing was not on the curriculum until the third year, so Bellany attended evening classes in it which were open to anyone. Members of the public had to pay, but for full time students it was free.

Sandy Moffat joined the course at the same time and remains his closest friend. For Bellany and Moffat in their first term their favoured style was Impressionism, the style also favoured by their teachers. However the controlled structure of the course and Bellany’s impatience to become an artist made him a troublesome student. Impressionism was soon abandoned as being too genteel for their adventurous spirits. Their new hero was Alan Davie, with whose rejection of Scottish -parochialism / bigotry they warmly identified. In their free time Bellany and Moffat began to paint, like Davie before them, in the freely expressive style of Jackson Pollock. This style was not favoured by their teachers.

The summer of 1962 marked a turning point. Troublesome students are the best and this was acknowledged when Bellany and Moffat were awarded two year Andrew Grant travel scholarships. In college they had followed the curriculum, but in their Rose street studio they had been painting in an abstract expressionist style. However they began to question whether ‘modern’ necessarily meant ‘abstract’. Bellany and Moffat travelled to London for the first time to see exhibitions by Alan Davie and Oscar Kokoschka. Davie retained their respect but it was Kokoschka, who would point the way forward to a new direction for their art. Bellany abandoned his abstract style and began to paint about Scotland from his own experience.

During this year Bellany studied the figurative masters of the past – Breughel, Bosch, Rembrandt, Goya. He began to visit the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Modem Art. His favourite twentieth century artists were now Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger. The appeal of Leger lay in his socialism as well as his art.

In his first term of his third year he met his wife to be Helen at an evening class. In April 1963 Bellany and Moffat took advantage of the Andrew Grant

travel scholarship to visit Paris for the first time. In the galleries they studied French painting since the revolution. Bellany was impressed by Chardin’s La Raie, but it was the massive masterpieces by David, Ingres, Gericault, Delacroix and Courbet that made him determined to paint on an epic scale.

Back in Edinburgh Bellany painted on hardboard on a much larger scale, but still in the colourful style of Leger. Bellany said that from Leger’s work he learned an enormous amount about composition. Leger was not his only influence – the romanticism of Gericault was becoming obvious. Bellany’s paintings for the first time depicted the life of Port Seton – see Allegory 1964, a huge triptych in oil on hardboard dominated by the garish forms of three gutted and staked haddock, with a miniaturised crowd of fishing folk in the background. The idea was born when Bellany was struck by the cruciform appearance of haddock pinned up to dry when he was working as a fish gutter , and a preparatory sketch shows that he had intended to set the scene inside a fish gutting shed.

In September 1965 John and Helen were married. Bellany was the first Scottish student to be accepted by London’s Royal College for fourteen years. When Bellany arrived at the Royal College Helen was seven months pregnant. They had travelled without a care with only their suitcases, painting gear and, his proudest possession, the model boat his father had made of Girl Margaret. As soon as the boat was installed he felt at home. This has always been the case, from bedsit to present luxury.

Although he had virtually no money, Bellany saw a wealth of exhibitions. The most influential was that of Max Beckmann at the Tate. Beckmann was a modern painter who had come through the fire of twentieth century history and addressed its horrors and tragedies. He adopted many of Beckmann’s views and compositional devices.

At the end of the year Helen went back to Scotland to have her baby. Early in 1965 Bellany completed an impressive painting of winter cold, Fishermen in the Snow. It is now owned by David Bowie. This painting has a timeless air in the manner of Breughel, the grouped figures and anchored boats. Parenthood was celebrated in The Scottish Family, where Calvinist severity if offset by the tender portrait of Helen and the newborn, tightly hugged Jonathan.

In the summer of 1967 Bellany travelled to East Germany where he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Buchenwald marked the end of innocence for Bellany. Here was an opposite reality to the love he had been brought up to think of as a God given right. Bellany was convinced that a loving God could never have condoned such evil. Moffat said “Hell obsessed him after Buchenwald”. The stoical ancestors and fishermen were replaced by concentration-camp inmates, lost souls by the score. The most harrowing is

the bitterly entitled Resurrection 1967, surely the most terrible crucifixion in British art, weirdly at odds with the fashion that year for the beads and bangles of Flower Power. It was a vision, which seemed no longer applicable in the civilised West at that time but now appears disturbingly relevant again.

Such dismay can also be more personally expressed – The Fright 1968, a nightmarish vision of matrimonial relations. a widely expressive painting which had a big effect on later work.

After Bellany graduated from the Royal College in 1968 – ‘covered in glory and honours’ -Philipson offered him a full time teaching post. However both he and Helen liked London and Bellany settled for a days teaching a week at the art college in Brighton. The biggest bonus was 4 a glimpse of the sea’ as he walked from the station. Teaching in art colleges would be his mainstay until the 1980’s.

In 1969 Bellany painted his second ma or triptych Homage to John Knox.

It brought together the principal themes in his work at the time and was heavily influenced by Max Beckmann’s painting Departure. This was the last time Bellany painted on hardboard. He now began painting on canvas, which he found frustrating for the first six months until he got used to the ‘tooth’ of the surface. The change altered his technique. His use of glazes and meticulous handling were gradually replaced by a more modern and overtly expressionist style.

Sea and fishing remained a dominant theme but the emphasis switched ‘from the world seen from without to the world seen from within’. No longer would the fishermen and the fish gutters be representatives from Port Seton, or of the world of work, but part of the debate in his own mind between issues such as life and death, good and evil, hope and fear.

Bellany’s recognition as an artist grew and his work was exhibited in prestigious galleries. However his marriage suffered. The final break up of the marriage came in 1974. He and Helen had three children. From Helen’s point of view it was a case of self preservation. ‘I thought I was literally going mad at times with loneliness’. Bellany suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew to Port Seton for six months to stay with his parents.

Bellany returned to London and from 1973 to 1978 was head of the faculty of painting at Croydon College of Art. He married his second wife Juliet Lister in 1979. By this time his increasing reliance on drink had made him ill and unreliable. This was not improved by his marriage to Julict whose health was even more precarious than his. To an outsider she was a secret in his life, largely because she was so often unwell ; and in many of his paintings of her she is often a veiled or half hidden figure. although Juliet was a very gentle person, their life together was blighted by her manic depression which required frequent periods in hospital. But at the beginning the romance

inspired a series of light and airy paintings, their marriage seen characteristically as a voyage. Mizpah 1978 is a distinguished example.. The title was taken from the famous Eyemouth boat of that name, in turn taken from Genesis -‘ The Lord watch between me and thee. when we are absent from another`.

The word Mlizpah meant a great deal to them. It stood as a’ symbol of their love. Mizpah is the name of the boat on which they embark for their new life together.

Bellany’s increasing freedom in handling the paint was encouraged by his discovery of watercolour. For an artist who paints so many subjects related to water it is a metaphor in itself and he uses it with great harmony. His washes are tinted as delicately as the bloody water on a fisherman’s slab, his application as speedily controlled as a gutting.

Juliet’s ill health doomed the marriage and Bellany’s drinking increased. His private life was falling apart and he suffered the first signs of liver failure. In 1984 his former wife Helen came to his rescue, insisted he go to hospital. John Bellany to this day has not touched alcohol.

—In 1985 both his father and Juliet died. In this difficult and tragic time Bellany’s chief solace was Helen and his rediscovered love for her. A calm settled on his art. In 1986 John and Helen remarried. Although his career prospered, Bellany’s health continued to deteriorate. Throughout periods in hospital he continued to paint and did some views of the Thames in the style of Kokosclika. His recognition grew and his work was exhibited in Australia, New York and Hamburg. In 1988 he underwent a liver transplant operation. While in hospital, before and after the operation he drew constantly – ‘the pain was indescribable but as soon as the tip of the pencil touched the paper 1 no longer felt it’. Most of the watercolours and drawings were self-portraits and a remarkable testimony to his own resilience. Within two months he was tackling large canvases. Colour flooded back into his canvases.

“As you get older you think : Painting’s just about feeling”: see – Sunset Song 1990 painted in commemoration of his mother’s death two years before. Driving back to Eyemouth on the day of the funeral he had witnessed a superb sunset which he incorporated into this torrid lament.

John Bellany’s towering example has inspired a new pride in Scottish artists. His paintings are in the collections of major museums and art galleries throughout the world.

The Boatbuilders 1962 Oil on board

the boat builders

Here we see the obvious influence of Leger. Bellany composes this human and industrial scene around the construction of a fishing boat. Our attention is drawn to the overall scene. Bellany involves us in the action of the painting willing us to become part of the drama. The huge fishing boat occupying most of the picture surface presents a strong and dramatic backdrop for the action in the foreground. It presents itself as if it were a theatre. In both style and content this painting was typical of Bellany’s work at the time. East Coast fisherfolk involved in activity was ever present in his early paintings.

Allegory 1964 Oil on board (triptych)


The idea was born from the image of haddock pinned up to dry when Bellany was a fish gutter. The fish presented themselves as a crucifix. Preparation sketches reveal that the three cruciforms were originally set inside a fish gutting shed. Bellany links together the idea of the crucifixion and the Last Supper. The idea of using fish as metaphors for suffering humanity and of Christ in particular is very old. Bellany paints using the meticulous detail of Rembrandt but in terms of atmosphere he turns to Francis Bacon’s work of the 1950’s.

My Father 1966 Oil on board

my father

Dick Bellany John’s father was the skipper of a fishing boat. He had also built fishing crafts including “Mizpah, this was to become the title of a painting later in Bellany’s career. He was also a fine model builder who, refusing to use kits carved his models from wood. Bellany portrays his father with affection and respect. Seen here in traditional fisherman’s clothes he is relaxed and proud. His gaze is fixed firmly to the right of the painting. Perhaps he is reflecting on a voyage past or one to come. Despite this strong pose it is his hands which capture our attention and imagination. On his left arm he reveals a tattoo. It proclaims, with pride, his love for his wife Nancy. His hands lean proud on his sons painting strong monumental yet articulate.

Kinlochbervie 1966 Oil on board


In this painting Bellany uses religious stories and Art History to create this powerful composition.

This is one of the first paintings Bellany did of a single boat with fishermen outlined against the sky. He had done lots of drawings of fishing boats and had included boats in several paintings, but in this work he begins, albeit tentatively, to use the boat symbolically, as a conveyer of human fate. Even here though, the boat image stands alongside that of the fish gutting.

Bellany treats two basic themes in the painting, the crucifixion and the Last Supper. The right hand fisherman in the boat carries what looks like a yoke, which gives him the appearance of a crucified figure. The Gutting table below with its monumental figures placed symmetrically along it assumes the proportions of a fast supper. Although the men are grouped together they appear in their expressions to be isolated, lost in their own thoughts. 

Pourquoi 1967 Oil on Board


This is one of several large paintings that Bellany did in 1967-68 that were inspired by his visit to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1967. The same compositional framework is used as in Bellany’s contemporary pictures of fishermen; two or three monumental figures seen in starkly frontal poses against a large monochrome background. Various things suggest that this painting should be read as a modern day crucifixion; the large right angled, white shape which looks like the vestiges of a cross’, the skull and bones and the fact that there are three figures. But instead of being crucified they look as though they are about to be shot.

Bethel 1962 Oil on Board


This painting takes its name from the fishing boat ” Bethel”. The skipper of this boat was a neighbour to Bellany’s family in Port Seton.

It was on this boat that Bellany made his first trip to the real fishing grounds, age 13. A strong horizon is reinforced by the side of the boat. Three figures stand frozen as though awaiting a gruesome fate. These horizontals are punctuated by the vertical figures.

A storm is approaching or has just passed. The two dark figures seem resigned to their fate whilst the older man, carries on gutting the fish as tradition dictates.

Homage to John Knox 1969 Oil on board


This is Bellany’s second major Triptych. The left-hand panel depicts marriage as a prison imposed by the church. The chained couple, the wife naked, the husband in the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner. Three priest like figures guard the bed, beading symbols of a marriage; a baby, a phallic fish and a bible . The right hand panel shows the day of Judgement. The dead rise from their graves to be judged for their sins, one already in the air condemned to the eternal forces of hell. These images of inner and outer darkness are contrasted with the daylit scene in the centre panel of three men in a boat on a becalmed sea; but even they seemed doomed . An Owl and a raven perch on the heads of the two men – symbols of extreme darkness. The religious symbolism of this trio is emphasised by a bat hovering over the central figure and the sacrificial suggestion of the fish. This painting owes much of its compositional sense to the triptych “Departure” 1932-33 painted by the German artist Max Beckmann.

Self Portrait with Accordion Oil on canvas 1974

This is one of the numerous Self Portraits Bellany painted, depicting him as the doomed soul. We see the canvas divided into three sections; the middle section occupies most of the picture space. Again Bellany refers to his fishing village roots, and his other love -music. His gaze is stem – vacant, restless certainly not happy. He does not play his accordion, indeed this centre section is devoid of any sense of movement Both panels, left and right, are populated by ghost like figures devoid of easy recognition These figures, perhaps depict a scene from the artist’s memory of happier times. Now they appear like a haunting nightmare. Bellany’s clever contrast in paint application enhances these nightmarish panels and thus creates a sense of the inevitable, waiting in the wings

The Accordionist Oil On canvas 1978

the accordionist

Bellany’s references to musical subjects in his paintings is second only to his references to the Sea. Again we find the artist, this time alone playing his accordion.

The artist alienates himself from the viewer by obscuring his features behind a mask. A haunted Seagulls head replaces the artist’s features, it causes us to worry. We are aware it is the artist due to the inclusion of his beard. In his hand he displays to us a playing card, a symbol of fate, taking a gamble or a risk.

It is one of the most vague paintings Bellany painted at the time. It is surely a symbol of his sense of alienation from his wife and a pointer to the drastic future, which was to lie ahead

Mizpah 1978 Oil on canvas


1979 was the year Bellany married his second wife, Juliet. This event gave rise to a group of light and airy paintings that reflect a new spirit of joy and optimism. Mizpah is one of these works. The word comes from Genesis (chapter 31 verse 49). “Mizpah”; for he said, the lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent from one another”. The word became a sort of talisman for Bellany and his wife. Other clues to the new marriage are to be found in the painting. The Puffin figure is playing an accordion which bears the inscription “Line de meil” (honeymoon). The beard which shows beneath the beak allows us to interpret a self-portrait. The seagull is clearly depicted as a female, his new wife. Dominating the whole composition is a mast bearing a net of fish including a large starfish. The effect is a crucifixion but the mood is not tragic.

Helen 1985 0il on canvas


1985 was a real turning point not only in the life of John Bellany but also in his paintings. This year saw the most dramatic development in his style, subject matter and colour. Perhaps it was the tragedy of the death of his father or the passing away of Bellany’s second wife Juliet. In any event it was to Helen, his first wife, that the artist looked to for support. In addition to this, Bellany was to become aware of the inevitable damage his years of alcohol abuse had done to his body. Hospital visits had warned of kidney failure and later death. It was perhaps this confrontation with his own mortality which finally forced Bellany to look more kindly on a world he had only seen as cynical and negative. In rediscovering his love for Helen Bellany’s paintings embraced a calm, gentle spirit of acceptance, the paintings became clear uncluttered and resigned.

In this painting we see Helen, dressed in an oriental housecoat. Her whole demeanour is relaxed but she looks strong and thoughtful. In the background we see images from past Bellany paintings. The model boat, a lighthouse with a mocking self-portrait, a lighter airy painting is directly behind her. Her name is written into the background and is framed by a golden arc.

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