Artist who started life on a Borders farm

HE WAS the son of a Denholm farmer who went on to become one of the most important figures in 20th century abstract art.

Now one of the biggest collections of his work aims to earn the late William Johnstone recognition among his fellow Borderers.

The exhibition will include 55 paintings, at the Scott Gallery in Hawick Museum. The Duke of Buccleuch, the family of the late Earl Haig, Edinburgh University and the Scottish Gallery are among those lending pictures.

A number of pieces are loaned by the farming community, many containing personal messages from Johnstone, who never forgot his roots despite living in London most of his life.

Scottish Borders Council’s visual arts officer Elizabeth Hume said she turned detective to track down the pieces, but believes it will be worth it if Johnstone receives the local acclaim he deserves.

She said: “While he is well known in the wider art world, he is not so in the Borders, maybe because his work is so abstract.

“But he was at the forefront of abstract art and it would be great to make more people aware that we had an artist of his calibre in the region. This is a unique collection, I cannot see anything like this being complied again in my lifetime.”

Born in 1897, Johnstone received little education, but had an early introduction to painting through sessions with Selkirk watercolourist Tom Scott.

Elizabeth said: “William Johnstone became friendly with Tom Scott who took him under his wing.

“There is a lovely landscape painting of Herman Law near St Mary’s Loch which William Johnstone painted alongside Tom Scott. Both paintings are in the collection and demonstrate that he did produce representational work in his early years.

“Painting with Tom Scott helped him see that it was possible to make a career from art and led him to abandon his farming background. But it appears he later wrestled with his conscience over whether he should have given up farming.”

Having attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1919 to 1923, Johnstone was awarded the Carnegie Travelling Scholarship by the Royal Scottish Academy in 1925 and went to live in Paris. His time in France opened his mind to different ways of thinking about the role of the painter, practising Cubism and Surrealism.

He met his first wife, American Flora Macdonald, in the French capital and then moved to the US.

In 1929 Johnstone returned to Britain and quickly established his teaching career, going on to write numerous books which gained him the OBE in 1954 for his contribution to art education.

He would go onto become principal of Camberwell School of Art and the Central School of Art in London. His basic design course at the latter produced artists such as Alan Davie, Anton Ehrenzweig and Earl Haig.

By 1960 he returned to the Borders, buying a farm near Lilliesleaf.

In the 21 years until his death he combined farming with painting, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University before his death at his Crailing home in 1981. He is buried in his home village of Denholm.

Reflecting on his life and career, Elizabeth said: “In today’s world, his ideas would not be seen as controversial, but you’ve got to remember that in pre-television and pre-internet times his ideas would have seemed incredibly radical.

“For me his life story is as fascinating as his artwork. There are so many strands.

“He collaborated with the poets Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir and his cousin was Francis George Scott – the Hawick-born composer of traditional Scottish music.”

The Duke of Buccleuch was among those to have been influenced by Johnstone, having received informal classes with the painter. As well as lending three Johnstone pieces from his private collection never before seen in public, the duke also visited the exhibition earlier this month.

“He is a fan of his work and for the duke to own three of his paintings, considering he has a hugely valuable collection, shows how highly he regarded William Johnstone,” Elizabeth said.

“William Johnstone met so many interesting people in his career and influenced many.”

The exhibition, His Land, is free and runs until October 14. It includes rare footage from the Scottish Film Archive of the artist working and photographs, courtesy of his daughter, Sarah Johnstone.