A stroke of genius

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The west coast had its Glasgow Boys in the 19th century, and now the Borders has its own collection of 20th century artists’ work on show.

While three of the six men are now deceased, The Border Boys in the Tweeddale Museum, Peebles, is still a chance to celebrate their paintings and sculptures which have earned them recognition across the world.

Each of the sextet came from very different backgrounds – the late Earl Haig’s family seat was Bemersyde near Melrose, while at the other end of society was William Johnstone, born on a farm near Hawick, and John McNairn’s family owned The Hawick News.

David Michie is the son of acclaimed artist Anne Redpath – born in France, but having spent his youth in Hawick – and Jake Harvey was born in Yetholm.

Finally, adopted Borderer, Bernat Klein came from the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s to set up his textile company in Galashiels.

“Nevertheless, they all share a common inspiration: nature and the landscape of the Borders in all its variations of colour, texture and changing seasons,” added Elizabeth Hume, Scottish Borders Council’s visual arts officer.

Giving his thoughts on each man’s work in the exhibition, Peebles artist Philip Hutton said the three Johnstone pieces were difficult to fathom.

He said: “No verbal commentary could open them up for plainspeaking inspection, but they come from his immersion in the soup of notions – he read J. W. Dunne, C. G. Jung, and James Frazer – about primeval times, spiritual continuity with ancestors, and a supposed Celtic strain emerging through revelations of new art.”

Philip believes Haig’s status as a painter and Earl meant he was looked down upon by some gentry, while art people thought ill of his title.

He added: “The big late ‘Haigs’ are like tiny sketches in jewel-like colour magnified so that the facets become broad splashy-raggedy patches.

“The self-sufficient beauty of the patches is in tension with the charm of the place, which is, as so often, the Tweed at Bemersyde.”

Of the late Selkirk High School art teacher John McNairn, Philip adds: “His inclination was to take a tiny sketchbook or a broad flapping sheet of hardboard onto a hillside and take it as it came, eyes open, senses attuned. He was still doing brusque-tender summary landscapes on large formats in his nineties.”

Of the remaining three, who are all still living and working, Philip told us: “Michie thought there was enough landscape already, and like his mother’s upturned tabletop still-lives, draws carpet-design formalities out of flower beds, ponds and odd corners.

“Klein’s large square abstracts, lavish in slurpy impasto oils, laid on with palette knife and squeegee, were once to be seen glimmering in the opaque centre of his glass-walled design studio near Selkirk, which nowadays lies sad and empty.

“Jake Harvey’s progress in sculpture has been towards greater compression, density and obscurity, implying a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to communicating a meaning.

“We see four recent works to contrast with the more garrulous forged steel constructions of the eighties.”

The Border Boys runs until November 2 and is free admission.