Elizabeth Blackadder is undeniably one of Scotland’s most popular living artists. Best known perhaps for her delicate studies of flowers and cats, she is easy to dismiss as a minor painter of pretty pictures. However, these subjects are probably the least interesting of the works currently on display at the Royal Scottish Academy; the exhibition, mounted in the year of her 80th birthday, takes in her whole career, and there is much to be found here that is engaging and unusual.
The exhibition begins with a selection of drawings, paintings, and prints from the 1950s, created during her early student days and the immediate post-college period. Blackadder was awarded a few travelling scholarships upon leaving college, and she used this money to travel to Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia at the suggestion her university tutor, David Talbot Rice, who had inspired in her a love of Byzantine architecture and art. There are some superb drawings here in pen and ink; I particularly liked Siena (1956) for its boxy construction and the energy of the street that snakes through the town.
Siena, 1956, Ink on paper
The paintings of this era are less successful; if I were being unkind I should say they were dreary. Perhaps a product of the staid post-war Britain they were painted in, the colours are muted, even muddy. Blackadder’s drawings reveal talent but these paintings only expose a poverty of technique.
This changes dramatically in the 1960s when Blackadder seems to discover and embrace colour. There are some excellent still lifes in the largest gallery and they hold this exhibition together. My particular favourite was Chinese Still Life with Arum Lillies (1982); a classic example of her still life work, with a table of distorted perspective hosting a collection of seemingly unrelated objects. They bring to mind Egyptian hieroglyphs, while the green background (such a difficult colour to get right) sings with the shades of red.
Chinese Still Life with Arum Lillies, 1982, Oil on canvas
Among a number of Japanese-inspired works, Self-portrait with Red Lacquer Table (1988) also stood out. The luminous red of the table, almost neon, works wonderfully in the muted setting, though I can’t help feel this would have been a better picture without the self-portrait; figures are not Blackadder’s forte.
Self-portrait with Red Lacquer Table, 1988, Oil on canvas
There are many examples of her flower pictures, which fill a whole gallery and reappear in other rooms. These studies are exquisitely painted but nevertheless are what they are: pretty paintings of flowers, and I find it difficult to be moved by them.
The cats fall into the same category, though their popularity is understandable. Many people like cats; many people have cats, so many people enjoy pictures of cats. On the whole, they are not as saccharine as images of felines often are; Blackadder’s cat drawings are robust and beautifully observed, though the cats that appear in paintings or prints seem somehow more flaccid.
Perhaps the best revelation in this exhibition is the video at the end. Though familiar with Blackadder’s work before, I had no idea what she looked or sounded like, and it was an unexpected surprise to see her working in her studio and briefly talking about her work. In my head I had an idea of an imperious New Town matron, confident in her position as a queen of the Scottish art scene, but instead I saw an adorable old woman, quietly and happily doing what she loves.
Elizabeth Blackadder runs at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh until 2 January 2012.
All images © National Galleries of Scotland