Scottish Colourist, J.D. Fergusson, may have insisted on wearing
a three-piece suit on the beach, but Chris Brickley exposes a rather less buttoned-up side to the painter
I first met Fergusson in 1913, when I took my dancers to Paris to appear at the Marigny Theatre. Armed with an introduction, I presented myself at his studio at about four in the afternoon. The door was opened a few inches and a dripping black head appeared and said, "I mean to say... I'm in my bath, can you come back in half an hour?" This memorable meeting was recorded by Margaret Morris, who would become Fergusson's partner until his death in 1961. The painter's self-avowed predilection for scrupulous personal hygiene meant that Jacob Epstein, who had called to discuss the Wilde monument, shared a similar glimpse of the painter in the rubber bath Fergusson took everywhere with him, even to the Highlands of Scotland. This precision and obsession with cleanliness was one of many contradictions in the life of this most 'Bohemian' of Scottish artists, and the man who proved the most direct conduit between the Paris avant garde and British art before the Great War.
By the time Margaret Morris met John Fergusson, he had lived in Paris for eight years. He was so 'well kent' in the cafes of Montparnasse that his arrival in the Dome or louche Café d'Harcourt would incite a chorus of "Anybody here seen Johnny, Johnny with the green neck tie..." from his circle, which included painters, poets, seamstresses and an aviator. He had once made the mistake of taking a genteel female friend to the Harcourt, but it was more suited to finding willing models among the dressmaking girls who would slip easily and unselfconsciously into poses. However, despite his Bohemian behaviour, Fergusson did not look like a painter at all. Photographs of him with the conservative Peploe show the artists on the beach in Pas de Calais in three-piece, heavy suits, ties and collars.
'The Scotsman', as he was known, also knew Picasso, and other Parisian characters such as Derain and Gertrude Stein. Meg notes that despite a repeat invitation, they visited Stein just once, as Fergusson had no wish to be launched as her discovery.
Self-taught as an artist, Fergusson was born in Leith, the son of a spirit merchant. He moved to Paris in 1907, after much agonising over whether to commit £12 on the first year's rent on a studio. He quickly discovered that he loved the ambience of Paris, in which he (perhaps ironically) found it "difficult not to work". This productive ethic and self-discipline helped him become one of the most radical British artists of the period.
Fergusson is now best-known as a painter of women, as is his Colourist compatriot Cadell, but their approaches could not be more different. While Cadell often featured women in salon interiors, they are generally little more than elegant and stylised motifs subservient to a decorative whole. Clad in the latest bourgeois fashions, their features are generic or obscured. Cadell favoured male nudes, his studies of athletes or servicemen more sympathetic and closely-observed. Fergusson, on the other hand, launched into a series of portraits in the early 1900s, depicting pretty girlfriends such as Jean Maconochie in elegant outfits in the manner of Whistler or Sargent. Nude photographs from his studio reveal the intimate nature of his Paris liaisons, yet his bond with Anne Estelle Rice, whom he met at Paris Plage in 1907, heralded a rich new seam of work. Rice was an American illustrator who, like Fergusson, enjoyed challenging social convention, and through her he met and painted many figures in the fashion world, such as the striking Elizabeth Dryden and Yvonne de Kerstratt (featured in the Blue Hat, Closerie des Lilas), who owned a couture house near the Champs Elyseés. Photographs of Rice show her to have been a rather imposing figure with an assertive gaze, and Fergusson's pictures of her demonstrate his assimilation of the style and palette of Les Fauves, who had taken the Salon d'Automne by storm in 1905. The colour is bold and expressive and form is simplified, and he begins to use characteristic dark outlining. However, between 1910 and 1912, he took a thematic cue from the Fauves, painting a series of remarkable nudes which would prove arguably the most significant and radical body of work in the Scottish Colourist canon.
Monumental pictures such as At My Studio Window, Rhythm and Les Eus (his own word, meaning 'Healthy Ones') espouse fashionable Bergsonian philosophy and depict nudes in decorative settings, either his studio with drapery and exotic backdrops or in bowers with vibrant foliage patterns. It is probably the only time he had to resort to hiring professional models. These are ambitious and modern statements with a considered intellectual component (Rhythm was shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1911). The women are not beautiful but consciously stylised, muscular and tending towards the sculptural. In the former work, the figure has forbidding, mask-like features which may reflect the lingering fashion in Paris for African art and costume. The latter oil even depicts two males in a circle of six dancers, but they are carefully shown side-on. Fergusson, though, was not a prude or modest, depicting himself nude and full-frontal with two women.
Part of the continuing success of the Scottish Colourists is their sheer 'modernity'. When we look at these nudes, the muscular, toned physiques seem almost unnatural, and are further emboldened by the conical breasts, protruding almost aggressively from the torso as in Bather, Cap d'Antibes. All familiar in our 'silicone age'. This is less in evidence in Souvenir de Saintonge, an almost tender eulogy to a past liaison, where the figure is a pleasing balance of observation and design.
Even in 1959, with the artist well into his ninth decade, a teenage French model called Magnolia, much in the Bardot style, provided the inspiration for his picture Two Nudes, as so many dancers in Meg's troupes had done through the decades when asked to 'model'.
Unlike Peploe, Hunter and Cadell, Fergusson rarely painted still lifes. But around the same time as he created these nudes, one sees a short series of striking works which, on the face of it, feature the usual motifs and studio props of flowers, lamp, crockery, drapery. However at least one of these, La Bete Violette, shows a small, unassuming pink box tucked to the right of the composition. This, we are informed by a source close to the artist, was used solely to store his prophylactics.
Chris Brickley is Head of Paintings, Bonhams Edinburgh.