Travels in the Backlist : Lund Humphries and Scotland - by Nigel Farrow

For the world of the arts, the cancellation of this summers Edinburgh Festival is one of the many regrettable consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nigel Farrow, chairman of Lund Humphries, seeks some consolation in recalling the arts and the artists that originated in Scotland and her beautiful capital city and that have been published under the Lund Humphries imprint.

Barbara Rae, 'Black Pyramid', 1978, oil on canvas, taken from 'Barbara Rae'

         As a 17-year-old I got a holiday job as a commis waiter at the George Hotel during the Edinburgh Festival. The idea was to make some money and spend it seeing the wonders of the Festival. Given that I had to get up at dawn for the breakfast service, continue on duty until after afternoon tea, and all tips were instantly hoovered up by a very vigilant Head Waiter, these ambitions were only partially fulfilled. But the visit to the big exhibition of Braque at the Royal Scottish Academy is a permanent delight in my memory. Equally impressive for all the wrong reasons was Donald Wolfit’s performance in The Strong Are Lonely at the Lauriston Hall: it has gone down in theatrical history as the peak of ham acting.


Among visits to Edinburgh since then, I especially enjoyed and valued those that involved meetings with Dame Elizabeth Blackadder and her husband John Houston to plan the publishing of monographs on their work. It was also my first opportunity to meet Duncan MacMillan - the author of the Blackadder monograph - who contributed his great knowledge of Scottish art to these and several subsequent publishing projects. Christopher Allan’s Elizabeth Blackadder Prints, a monograph and complete illustrated catalogue of the artist’s prints made between the 1950s and 2003, is still in print. When Elizabeth asked what subject she should choose for the special print that accompanied the limited edition of the book, with an eye on the market I murmured hopefully ‘Perhaps a cat or lilies?’. In the event she made a delightful print that features both.


Elizabeth Blackadder holds the very old and distinguished office of Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner in Scotland. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi held the complementary post of Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland. Paolozzi, Judith Collins’ book on this multi-faceted artist, is the first comprehensive overview of his work in all media: collage, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, tapestry and film. It appeared in the Lund Humphries list partly on the prompting of Sir Colin St John Wilson, the eminent architect who was a major collector of Paolozzi’s work. Sandy Wilson was also of Scottish descent and a good friend and advisor to the management of Lund Humphries.


Paolozzi is one of eight artists mentioned in this blog that were students at the Edinburgh College of Art: Elizabeth Blackadder and John Houston studied and taught at the College; Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Margaret Mellis, William Gear and Alan Davie were all students there in the 1930s. This gives Edinburgh an 8 to 6 win in the Lund Humphries list over the Glasgow School of Art. (Let us pause here to hope that the promise to rebuild Mackintosh’s great building ‘as Mackintosh designed it, to the millimetre’ is kept.)


Both Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Margaret Mellis moved to Cornwall around the beginning of World War Two to become early members of the artists’ colony of St Ives. They brought colour as their Scottish inheritance and found abstraction as the new religion. It is often said that the excellence of their work has been obscured by the big reputations and macho culture of the male members of the St Ives School. If so, Lund Humphries can certainly claim to have helped to correct that disadvantage: there are two Lund Humphries books that cover the oeuvre of Barns-Graham: W. Barns-Graham: A Studio Life and The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Complete Catalogue.


Margaret Mellis was a central figure in the formation of the St Ives School both in her work and through her marriage to Adrian Stokes, the art critic and artist whose writings helped to put the modernism into Modern British Art. The marriage broke down after the war and Margaret Mellis lived the last third of her long life on the East Coast of England. Here she increasingly concentrated on making beautiful small coloured sculptures from found driftwood. On the beach at Southwold we had a memorable book launch party for Andrew Lambirth’s Margaret Mellis. Andrew is also a co-author of Barbara Rae, a book on possibly the most popular artist working today with her own splendid talent and methods in the Scottish colourist tradition. Colour - almost as much as the Pictish symbols and jazz inspired compositions - is the striking impression of the paintings of Alan Davie. His work is featured in Alan Davie and David Hockney: Early Works: a book that accompanied an exhibition this year at The Hepworth Wakefield that was unfortunately locked down and out before it could reach its second venue.


Two Scottish painters who passed through both the doors of the Glasgow School of Art and the Lund Humphries list are Joan Eardley and Jock McFadyen. Their work is notable for its range of subjects from busy urban scenes to empty seascapes and for the humanity of its engagement with the world around us. Jock paints big. In the last two changes of office undergone by Lund Humphries, one of the major questions is whether there is a wall big enough to accommodate a huge McFadyen painting.


The Blackadder special edition print involved the first of several visits to the Glasgow Print Studio. This excellent centre of fine art printmaking was started by a group of artists in 1971. Prominent among them was Philip Reeves, the teacher and artist who earlier had been a founder of Edinburgh Print Workshop - the first open-access print studio in Britain. Christopher Andreae’s Philip Reeves is a well-illustrated monograph that surveys and celebrates his friend’s work in a variety of media: print, collage, painting, and found objects.


On one visit to the Glasgow Print Studio I spotted some striking prints and exclaimed to John McKechnie, the ever helpful studio manager: ‘I didn’t know he was an artist!’ I was looking at the work of John Byrne: his brilliant Tutti Frutti is not only ‘one of the best things ever on TV’ but a funny-sad masterpiece of playwriting and acting. (For 30 years the recording of Tutti Frutti was lost in the Scottish mist but it is now available as a DVD or download from Amazon.) As I found on visiting John Byrne at his home in Nairn, he is as entertaining in life as he is in print and paint. The resulting book by Robert Hewison, John Byrne Art and Life, also appeared in a limited edition with a self-portrait print as reproduced here.

 John Byrne special edition print, 'Tropicana'.


On my visit to John Byrne I stayed at nearby Culloden House Hotel, the Georgian mansion that was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s headquarters before the battle. I walked the battlefield in the evening. Culloden is the last pitched battle on British soil and in the fading light the moorland feels like haunted ground: 1500 to 2000 Jacobite soldiers were killed in less than an hour of fighting.  The battlefield now has a new immersive Visitor Centre which is one of the award-winning centres featured in a book in our architecture list: Designing for Heritage: Contemporary Visitor Centres.


Descendants of the Highlanders who fought at Culloden and suffered under the subsequent ‘pacification’, volunteered in large numbers to join the British army in the First World War: Scotland, with less than 10% of the British population, provided 13% of the total volunteers. By 1918 half the Scottish male population between the ages 18 and 45 had served and 135,000 of them became casualties of the war. Scotlands Shrine: The Scottish National War Memorial tells the story of the building and decoration of the national memorial which stands in Crown Square on the highest part of the Edinburgh Castle mound. It was Duncan Macmillan who first took me round the Memorial and over the following 15 years, in pursuit of the necessary permissions, it was his persistence and persuasive skills that led to the publication of the book in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. It has a Foreword written by the Queen: a very rare honour.


The Scottish National War Memorial is more a memorial to the hope of peace than a record of the deeds of war. Each Scottish regiment has its own bay of remembrance in the Hall of Honour but there are also displays that celebrate the contribution of the non-combatant services such as nurses, orderlies, members of the merchant navy, the Tunnellers’ canaries, and the women of Scotland who worked on the home front.

A detail of the Frieze in the Scottish National War Memorial, designed by Alice Meredith Williams, photographed by Antonia Reeve. 

For its time, the Memorial incorporates a significant number of prominent works of art by women artists - including the remarkable frieze around the Shrine. Modelled in bronze by Alice Meredith Williams, it is a procession of individual soldiers representing every rank of every unit that served in the war. A visit to Scotland’s Shrine is an experience that should not to be missed, but Duncan Macmillan’s book, with its specially commissioned photography, is a fine substitute.   

-- Nigel Farrow, 2020