Known principally as a painter of large scale oils, Aitchison’s instantly recognisable works convey an innocent spontaneity which belies their immensely skilled handling of colour and balance of delicately drawn subjects. Deceptively simple, their strength lies in bold, often contrasting colour fields, painted in such thin washes of oil that the canvas is sometimes visible beneath, upon which compressed, almost abstract figures or still lifes are composed with the greatest care.
Aitchison was born in Edinburgh in 1926, the son of a distinguished lawyer and first socialist Lord Advocate for Scotland, and a professional sportswoman. He initially studied Law at Edinburgh University and at the Middle Temple, but after briefly returning to Edinburgh, he moved back to London to pursue a career as an artist, training at the Slade School of Art under the eminent artists William Coldstream and Robert Medley. Here he studied alongside the likes of Michael Andrews, Paula Rego, and Myles Murphy, and begun a fruitful, lifelong friendship with the figurative painter, Euan Uglow.
In 1978 he was elected an associate Royal Academician, and a decade later became a fully-fledged member. From 1968 to 1984 he taught at Chelsea College of Art, whilst exhibiting his own work with Marlborough Fine Art and Beaux Arts in London.
In 1981 he was given an important retrospective at the Serpentine, followed by two further major shows at Harewood House, Leeds, and the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow. A further major retrospective was held at the Royal Academy in 2003. In 1994 he won the esteemed Jerwood Prize and continued to live and paint in his London home in Kennington until his death in 2009.
Throughout his long career Aitchison defied categorisation. Resolutely bohemian in his personal life, his background was that of the solid Scottish establishment. He rejected comparisons to other artists such as Mark Rothko or Milton Avery – as Cecilia Trevis, who curated his retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2003 said, “[h]e paints in a way quite unlike anyone else.”