Different strokes: artists’ views of Borders on show

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“TWO GIANTS of the Borders” is how a gallery director in Edinburgh describes William Johnstone and William Gillies.

The works of the former, a farmer’s son from Denholm, and the latter, from Haddington, whose first exhibition was in the window of that town’s watchmakers, are on show in the capital in the new year, at the Scottish Gallery.

Christina Jansen, director of the gallery, says the two, who were near contemporaries at the Edinburgh College of Art, are “the two giants of the Borders”.

She says the show, Painters in Parallel, will be the first exhibition of Johnstone’s work since 1997.

Ms Jansen describes Johnstone as “an uncompromising abstract painter”. As a young man, he studied informally with Borders water colourist Tom Scott RSA. Following study, Johnstone taught – in the Borders among other places – travelled and painted before teaching in London for 30 years, latterly as principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

“His instinct to defy convention and his eye for talented staff made Central a tour de force,” says Jansen in the exhibition’s catalogue.

The twice-married artist had a nervous breakdown during the early 1940s after separation and divorce from his first wife, the American artist Flora MacDonald.

He married his former student, the embroiderer Mary Bonning, in 1944 and spent two years in America between 1948 and 1950. “This was a confident time and he responded once again to America and in particular the landscape of Colorado, “ says Jansen.

Johnstone received an OBE for his work in art education in 1954 before returning to the Borders in 1960 to farm and paint, buying Potburn up the Ettrick Valley in 1965 and moving to Crailing when he retired from farming in 1970.

Back in Scotland, Johnstone became friends with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s first director, Douglas Hall (since retired and now living in Morebattle) who “was instrumental in pushing his work in to the public arena” notes Ms Jansen.

In 1969 Johnstone met Mrs Hope Montagu Douglas Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch’s widow, whose “effortless joie de vivre and unusual eye had a profound effect on him” writes Jansen. “She became a major collector and patron and also encouraged him to exhibit.”

Gillies served in the First World War before returning to study and moving with his family to Edinburgh where he shared a studio with fellow artist William MacTaggart.

The landscape painter then moved to Temple, Midlothian and, alongside exhibiting his work, became an influential teacher of several generations of painters.

Awarded a CBE in 1957, he was appointed Edinburgh College of Art principal in 1959, a position he held through the turbulent 1960s, retiring to concentrate on painting full time in 1966.

Ms Jansen notes: “He believed painting was something to be enjoyed by the painter and viewer alike.”