Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Posted by in October's Magazine

Almost single-handedly Syrie Maugham, the wife of the famous writer W Somerset Maugham, invented the profession of interior design. Back in the 1920s her signature look of white and cream and lots of mirrors was startlingly chic. Even the Constance Spry flower arrangements were white. Fashionable craft-made Marian Dorn rugs and her clients’ paintings – something stimulating in a simple frame, introduced colour. Of Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell’s exquisite and luminous paintings Mrs Maugham would almost certainly have approved.

Cadell, along with JD Fergusson, Leslie Hunter and Samuel Peploe was one of the Scottish Colourists, a select group of painters active in the first quarter of the 20th century and greatly influenced by French Post-Impressionism. They travelled, enjoyed life and brought to Scotland a welcome colourful beaker of the warm South.


Today their work is sought-after. In May 2011 a Peploe, 1905s The Coffee Pot was sold at auction for $1.5 million setting a record in Scottish art.

Now Francis Cadell (the name rhymes with paddle) is to be honoured by a major solo retrospective, the first in a public gallery since 1942. In the autumn the National Galleries of Scotland will stage the first of its Scottish Colourist Series which over the next few years will review all the Colourists in major exhibitions.

Balmain in Paris

Cadell was born in Edinburgh, where he lived for most of his life, and studied in Paris and Munich. He is best remembered for his stylish portrayals of New Town interiors and their elegant occupants, his vibrantly coloured, daringly simplified still lifes and for his landscapes of Iona and the South of France.

The exhibition will cover Cadell’s long career and the changes in his style – from lightning sketches done at café tables, to major works prepared in his orderly studio. Today Cadell’s work remains hugely popular. His work has been likened to Manet and Matisse. There’s even a Cadell echo in the work of Jack Vettriano. And the painter Adrian Wisniewski greatly admires Cadell’s work especially his use of black because black is such a difficult colour to paint.

The Lady with the Fan and Interior: the Orange Blind are perhaps his best-known works – cool, elegant and evocative of a time long gone when ladies who lunched had hats imported from Worth or Balmain in Paris.

His salons – they could as easily be on Central Park West, in the Boulevard Hausmann or overlooking the lido at Biarritz – have an enigmatic aura. Is the blind really orange or is it screening an unseen summer sunset beyond the window? Is that the lingering scent of Jolie Madame or Diorissimo hanging in the air? Can we hear the faint clink of teacups or cocktail glasses?

Roger Billcliffe, author of a book on the Scottish Colourists, wrote that ‘the Orange Blind’ was “the masterpiece of Cadell’s post-war career, it brings together in a matchless way many of the elements of his work – still life, figure painting, and his delight in painting the spatial complexities of his elegant New Town house.” Art historian Elizabeth Cumming concurs: “he admired the elegance and colour of French interiors and treated his own spaces almost like still lifes.”

Cadell’s small cast of characters are as engaging as his sumptuous empty rooms. These glamorous, soignée women in their stylish hats and gloves don’t give much away. Are these the ladies of the house or perhaps some wealthy man’s mistress? Are they about to head off to the races, a garden party or luncheon? Or are they waiting an assignation of a completely different kind?

Alice Strang, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the curator of the exhibition, has written the exhibition catalogue. She says: “the women sitters in most of his pictures are a prop as much as anything else – as important as the vase or gilt mirror – they’re not really portraits. His most famous sitter was Bertha Hamilton Don-Wauchope who was not a professional model but an Edinburgh society lady.” Whoever these women are they don’t seem Scottish at all.

Cadell, however, was Edinburgh through and through. He was born in 1883 his father a doctor. His mother, a Boileau, was of French ancestry. It was a privileged and enlightened upbringing and his parents indulged young Francis, his brother Arthur and sister Ellen (who later became an actress). Francis’s facility for draughtsmanship was spotted early.

“His family were very supportive of his artistic talents from an early age and his mother kept scrapbooks with his drawings from the age of about four,” says Strang. The Glasgow Boy painter Arthur Melville, a family friend, said to Cadell’s parents ‘that boy should be studying in Paris’.”

At the age of 16 Francis (or Bunty as he was nicknamed) was enrolled at l’Académie Julian to study painting. His mother acted as chaperone. Paris in 1899 was just the place for a young artist. Bunty revelled in this milieu and he would have seen the work of the Post-Impressionists when they were still outrageously modern. “Like all artists visiting or studying Paris,” says Cumming, “he would have found the city a mix of the avant-garde and the old-fashioned in art. French art was by then concerned above all else with the decorative, and with art as an essential part of everyday life. This had an immense impact on Cadell (and the other Colourists). They would all see how the country’s artists since the Impressionists expressed their ideas with a vibrant sense of colour and brushwork. Artists were respected members of French society.”

Akin to Whistler

When Cadell was only 23 he had his first solo exhibition and his style was described as being akin to Whistler. In 1910 he travelled to Venice and his views around St Mark’s Square were done with a real brio that captures the high drama of that Italian city. The brushwork was fluid and free quite unlike his more famous later works.

In 1912 he visited the Scottish island of Iona and painted in plein air. The island became another inspiration and Cadell returned annually often in the company of Peploe (their work often bears a striking resemblance). “He was enchanted with the island’s brilliant light, its natural colour, history and its people (he became a friend of the Ritchies, custodians of the Abbey), and not least its informal scale,” says Cumming.

After his wartime experiences he recuperated in Iona and the place was very special to him. His pictures of its white beaches and blue skies almost always sold well. Despite Cadell’s connections in high society he sometimes found it difficult to sell his other work.

He became a founding member of an exhibiting group of like-minded artists the Society of Eight which aimed to raise the profile and sell members’ work. His clients were mostly in the West of Scotland where the main dealers were, and where there was more money and a more daring outlook than in Edinburgh. The first public acquisition of a Cadell work was in 1926 when Glasgow’s Kelvingrove bought A Lady in Black which critic Clare Henry later described as “pure Hollywood”.

But Cadell’s magical world imploded. He was the only Scottish Colourist who saw active service in the First World War and served in the Royal Scots and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Despite the horrors he saw, his paintings remained full of optimism.

By the 1920s, he was painting some of his most memorable work. He was even commissioned to do posters for MacBrayne ferries. His use of fashionable colour combinations like orange and black were a real echo of the Jazz Age. His flamboyant dress sense (he had his tailor make his wartime uniform) and gregarious nature was much admired. He was a spendthrift, nonchalant and gay, in more ways than one. He always had a twinkle in his eye. The painter Stanley Cursiter wrote of Cadell that his “wit was constant and brilliant… sardonic, Rabelaisian and lightly bantering”.

But the good times faded and by the end of the 1920s the Great Depression loomed. Cadell moved his studio from Ainslie Place to the then less fashionable Regent Terrace and finally to Warriston Crescent. The lack of success and failing reputation depressed him but he retained his good humour (and his manservant Charles). When he became suddenly accident prone a tumour was diagnosed.

He died in 1937 in near poverty. An uncashed charity cheque was found in his personal effects. He was only 54.

The Scottish Colourist Series: FCB Cadell will be shown at the SNGMA’s Dean Gallery, Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS, from 22 October 2011 to 18 March 2012, admission £7 (£5)

Kennedy Wilson

October 2011

Painting: Detail from The Black Hat: F.C.B. Cadell, 1914, City Art Centre





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