Currently on show in the Scott Gallery at Hawick Museum is an exhibition of loaned works by the celebrated Scottish artist William Johnstone, who was born in Denholm in 1897.
Regarded by the art world as one of the most original and influential abstract painters of his time his career included becoming Principal of Camberwell School of Art and the Central School of Art in London. This was a remarkable achievement for a man brought up in the farming tradition of the Scottish Borders whose early school education was sparse.
Johnstone attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1919 – 1923 and in 1925 was awarded the Carnegie Travelling Scholarship by the Royal Scottish Academy and went to live in Paris. His time in France opened his mind to different ways of thinking about the role of the painter. He was hugely influenced by the hotbed of abstract artists he encountered there - those who practiced Cubism and Surrealism. He met his first wife, American Flora Macdonald in Paris and then moved to the USA. In 1929 he returned to Britain and quickly established his teaching career going on to write numerous books which gained him the OBE in 1954 for his contribution to art education. After divorcing Flora he married again – to Mary Bonning, a student.
Although William Johnstone made his name as a painter and lived in London for the majority of his life his heart remained in the Scottish Borders. In 1960 he bought a farm near Lilliesleaf and returned to take up sheep farming. Moving several times to various farms in the ensuing 20 years until his death he managed to combine farming life with painting. Painting on increasingly large scale canvases some say he produced his best work at this time. In 1980 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Edinburgh University and published his autobiography Points in Time. He died at his Crailing home in 1981 and is buried in Denholm. His daughter, Sarah, survives him.
Scottish Borders Council’s Visual Arts Officer, Elizabeth Hume said: “This exhibition, His Land, came about because we thought it would be timely to introduce William Johnstone to a new generation of Borderers. Most gallery goers are familiar with the work of Tom Scott and Anne Redpath but not so many with William Johnstone. This is probably because most of the works are not representational. The subject matter isn’t instantly recognisable and therefore harder to understand. He believed the artist should speak to the viewer with lines and shapes rather than paint familiar subjects. He wanted to convey feelings – excitement, pleasure, sadness or even outrage.
“In today’s world his ideas would not be seen as controversial but you’ve got to remember that in pre-television and pre-internet times his ideas would have seemed incredibly radical. For me his life story is as equally fascinating as his artwork. There are so many strands.
“He collaborated with the poets Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir and his cousin was Francis George Scott – the Hawick-born renowned composer of traditional Scottish music. The museum service owns one landscape painting by Johnstone, Ploughed Field, which I’ve hung many times over the years in the gallery and I always felt that it never sat well with the rest of the permanent collection but in this exhibition it looks just right and perfectly at home.”
Lenders of Johnstone’s work for this exhibition, which is free to view, include the Duke of Buccleuch, family of the late Earl Haig, Edinburgh University, the Scottish Gallery and numerous private collectors from across the Scottish Borders who were both his friends and neighbours in the farming community.
The exhibition runs until 14 October and is also showing rare footage from the Scottish Film Archive of the artist working and photographs courtesy of Sarah Johnstone.