Craigie Aitchison: Paintings & Prints

Browse & Darby are proud to present a selling exhibition of paintings and prints by the esteemed British artist Craigie Aitchison.

This exhibition will present a collection of works spanning the entirety of Aitchison’s career, with subjects ranging from bust and half-length portraits, to landscapes, crucifixions and still lifes. On the lower ground floor gallery there will also be a selection of screenprints and carborundum etchings offered for sale.

Known principally as a painter of largescale oils, Aitchison’s instantly recognisable works evoke 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 would be composed with the greatest care. Andrew Gibbon Williams compared him to a poet honing a verse, stating, “Superficial simplicity results from the paring away of inessential elements… there is nothing ‘naïve’ or ‘primitive’ about it.”[1]

Although Aitchison was very careful about the harmony and balance of his works, there is nothing austere about them. Their rich colour, inspired partly by a trip to Italy in 1954, lends them southern warmth which contradicts the artist’s Scottish origin. Helen Lessore, who was Aitchison’s first dealer when she ran the Beaux Arts Gallery, described him as the most Mediterranean of contemporary British artists.[2]

Aitchison was born in Edinburgh in 1926, the son of a distinguished lawyer, first socialist Lord Advocate for Scotland, and a professional sportswoman. His background led him first into a Law Degree at Edinburgh University, but when this failed to inspire him he moved 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 embarked upon a fruitful, lifelong friendship with the figurative painter, Euan Uglow.

In 1978 he was elected an associate Royal Academician in 1978, and a decade later became a fully-fledged member. From 1968 to 1984 he taught at Chelsea College of Art, all the while 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.

Among the most important works offered for sale will be the striking nude portrait Model in a Black Hat (1977) [Figure 2], depicting the model and American journalist, Lendel Scott-Ellis. Here, wearing an elaborate black hat, she holds our gaze with an almost totemic solemnity. The tension between the seriousness of her expression, the candy coloured pink and blue striped background and her roguish hat, which Gibbon Williams says “perfumes the work with the air of the nineteenth-century brothel”, all lend the work a mesmeric quality.[3]

Also included will be the late work Washing Line, Montecastelli II (2001) [Figure 1], painted at the artist’s farmhouse in Italy, just outside of Siena. Here the thunderous night sky and burnt umber earth are lifted by a strip of aquamarine in the centre, which in turn highlights the delicately drawn motifs now so redolent of the artist’s distinctive style; that of the Bedlington, bird and a washing line. The viewer’s eye is led from the dog, in a curve up to the pale moon above, which lends the entire work an air of mystery quite apart from its domestic theme.

Throughout his long career Aitchison defied categorisation. Resolutely bohemian in his personal life, his background was that of solid, Scottish establishment. He eschewed trends and comparisons, fuming at suggestions of resemblance to Rothko or Milton Avery, and yet his training and friendships were all artists known for closeness of style. As Cecilia Trevis, who curated his retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2003 said, “He paints in a way quite unlike anyone else.”[4]

[1] Andrew Gibbon Williams, Craigie – The Art of Craigie Aitchison, (Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh, 1996) p. 9
[2] Andrew Lambirth, ‘Craigie and Sheelah: Getting it Right’ in Craigie Aitchison: A Private Collection (Waddington Custot, 2013) p. 12
[3] Gibbon Williams, The Art of Craigie Aitchison, p. 87
[4] The Telegraph Magazine, 2003