Obituary: James Morrison, artist credited with helping to reinvigorate landscape painting in Scotland

James Morrison, artist. Born: 11 April, 1932 in Glasgow. Died: 31 August, 2020 in Montrose, aged 88.

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 7:30 am

James Morrison, artist. Born: 11 April, 1932 in Glasgow. Died: 31 August, 2020 in Montrose, aged 88.

In an artistic career spanning seven decades, James Morrison painted landscapes from the fields and woods of Angus, where he lived, to the islands and icebergs of the high Arctic.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

An acclaimed artist and influential teacher, he has been credited with helping to reinvigorate landscape painting in Scotland.

Jim was born in Glasgow, where his father worked as an engine fitter in a Clydeside shipyard. An only child, he was raised in Knightswood on the west of the city. His father, a passionate believer in improvement by education, encouraged his son to read and to gain a place at Hillhead Academy, where his interest in art was encouraged.

The family attended Knightswood Baptist Church, and it was in the Sunday School there that Jim met his future wife, Dorothy. They were married in 1955 and were together until Dorothy’s death in 2006. While Jim turned his back on organised religion, becoming an avowed atheist, his father’s commitment to Scottish Nationalism was one he retained for the rest of his life.

Jim went to Glasgow School of Art in 1950 at the age of 18 and enjoyed the art school environment where he was taught by artists such as David Donaldson. In the summer of 1952, he travelled to Paris where he saw at first hand the work of the Barbizon School of landscape painters and Gustave Courbet. This was important in shaping his ideas about painting: for the rest of his life, he would paint landscape en plein air, and he remained committed to the principle that the artist should paint the environment he inhabits.

This he began to do at art school, and continued when he started work as a teacher in Glasgow, painting the city’s grimy tenements and the slums falling under the wrecker’s ball. Submitting a painting of a row of blackened tenements to a group show in the mid-1950s, he was invited by the organisers to brighten it up by adding the figure of a cyclist in the foreground (an invitation he declined).

It was a time when young artists had to make their own opportunities, and Jim, with fellow painters Anda Paterson and James Spence, formed the Glasgow Group, to organise exhibitions for their peers and other young painters.

However, in 1958 it was time for a change, and James and Dorothy left Glasgow for Catterline on the east coast, a village they had visited on their honeymoon. For a low price, they bought three whitewashed fishermen’s cottages which they made into a home while both working as teachers at nearby schools. Their son John was born in 1959, followed by Judith in 1961. The Morrisons stayed in Catterline for seven years, and came to know the other artists who settled in the village during that time - Joan Eardley, Annette Stephen, Angus Neil, Lil Neilson.

Jim set about trying to paint the landscape around him but it proved challenging, and he continued to make trips back to Glasgow to paint the familiar streets. Perhaps influenced by Eardley, he experimented with painting in thick impasto, and also in ink, watercolour and casein. In the 1960s, his work came close to abstraction and he tried elements of Op Art patterning.

In 1965, the family left Catterline for Montrose after Jim was offered teaching work at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. He went on to become a full-time member of staff and head of the General Course for first year students. He was also developing a long-term partnership with the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, which began with a solo exhibition in 1959 and lasted until his death.

In the early 1970s, a significant change occurred in his painting: a shift towards realism. He evolved the painting technique he used for the rest of his life, painting washes of thin oil paint on a white gesso surface. He would later say that it look him until this point to work out how to paint landscape.

It was then he began to paint the landscapes of Angus with which he is most associated, the wide horizons, big skies, hedgerows and rivers. He worked outdoors on large boards and, while his work looks detailed and controlled, it was often done quite quickly, to complete a picture before the weather changed. He was rigorous in his approach to his art, destroying up to a quarter of his paintings because he was dissatisfied with them.

Guy Peploe of the Scottish Gallery says: “He was an extraordinarily humble man, he had a lot of self-doubt. He wanted criticism and feedback. On studio visits, we would spend a fantastic couple of hours talking about the work with the paintings pinned to the wall.”

In the 1980s, Jim began making summer visits to the North West Highlands to paint the landscapes of Assynt and Torridon, and these became more frequent after he resigned from Duncan of Jordanstone in 1987 to concentrate on painting.

In 1989, having seen an exhibition of his paintings of Assynt, Arctic biologist Dr Jean Balfour suggested he should paint the high Arctic, and he joined a group bound for Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada the following summer. This was a wild, inhospitable landscape like no other, and both the land and its people were a revelation.

He would return to the Arctic in 1992 and 1994, and made some of what he considered to be his finest work inspired by these landscapes. His son John, an art historian at the University of Lincoln, says: “It was, for him, a defining moment as a landscape painter. The works were much bigger, the colour range much smaller, the works more overtly emotional. Then that fed back into his paintings of Scotland, particularly of the West Coast.”

Jim continued to paint wherever he found himself: on trips to Greece or Switzerland, or to Botswana, where Judith and her husband settled for a time, always returning to the fields and skies of Angus. In his final years, he was unable to paint out of doors and his sight was affected by macular degeneration, but he continued painting and his solo exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in January, James Morrison: From Angus to the Arctic, included a painting done in 2019. His Arctic paintings were shown again at the McManus Galleries in Dundee just before lockdown began.

He is remembered as a gentle, generous man who was nevertheless capable of expressing strong opinions, committed to his family and (his son says with a smile) “obsessive about painting”. His work is in many public and private collections around the world. He is survived by his son and daughter, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.