John Bellany CBE RA HRSA LLD (1942–2013)
John Bellany was rooted in the fishing community of Port Seton, of which he was a native son. He returned again and again in his work to the experiences of the fishing communities of the east of Scotland, their craft and their boats, filtered through his own vivid experiences and imagination. Although he roamed widely, finally settling in Tuscany, his links to Port Seton and East Lothian remained strong throughout his life. In recognition, he was created the first Freeman of East Lothian at the beginning of 2005.
John’s work hangs in many of East Lothian’s public buildings as well as the community centre and school in his home town. Ten of his works in the Council collection can be viewed here. East Lothian Council is just one of over 50 institutions in which John’s work is represented. John worked prolifically throughout his career. His first solo exhibition was in 1965 in Holland and the list of solo and shared exhibitions runs into the hundreds, in galleries and museums across the globe. Over the winter of 2012-13 the Scottish National Gallery hosted a major retrospective titled ‘A Passion for Life’.
John Bellany was born at Port Seton in 1942 to Richard Bellany and Nancy Maltman of Eyemouth. Richard was a fisherman, then on naval service, and they both came from fishing families. In 1960 John was the first from Port Seton to attend Edinburgh College of Art, where he studied painting under East Lothian’s Sir William Gillies, amongst others. In 1965 he enrolled in the Royal College of Art, London. In 1967 a trip to East Germany, and in particular the remains of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, was a transformative influence on his output. Afterwards establishing himself as an artist and lecturer (at Brighton, Winchester, Goldsmith’s and back at the Royal College) his work became ever more distinctive and often deeply personal. This was never more apparent than in the aftermath of the successful liver transplant that he underwent at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge during 1988. Within days of the operation, he asked for brushes and paint and he was off, cataloguing his recovery and his new sense of life right from his hospital bed.
John’s work, and perhaps no less his overcoming of the internal demons he so vividly portrays, inspired a new generation of Scottish artists and he was recognised as a major figure – and far beyond his home shores. Recognition came with the award of several honorary Ll.D.s from Scottish universities (amongst others) and the Queen conferred on him a CBE in 1994. When John moved to Barga in Tuscany, his output became suffused with the vivid colours he found in the Italian landscape. But, as in the words of his mother, ‘it was always boats’ and he revisited on canvas again and again the east coast fishing communities of his youth.
John died in his studio on 28 August 2013, brush in hand.