Robert Colquhoun

Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) was a Kilmarnock-born painter, print-maker, and theatre set designer. Colquhoun' earlier work set him within the post-War Neo-Romantic set, which later developed into a more austere Expressionist style influenced by Picasso. Between 1933 and 1938, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art, where he met fellow Ayrshire-born artist Robert MacBryde, with whom he was involved in a lifelong romantic and professional partnership. Together, MacBryde and Colquhoun were inseparable, and soon became known as 'The Two Roberts'.  

For a time, Kilmarnock-born artist Robert Colquhoun (1914 - 1962) was able to enjoy due recognition for his work but he was to die in relative obscurity in London. Whilst the people and landscape of Ayrshire remained an inspiration for his art throughout his career he chose to live in London, cutting himself off from his former life in pursuit of his art. As an excellent draughtsman and a prolific painter and printer of haunting and unsettling images, his contribution to post war art was on an international level

Robert Colquhoun was born in Kilmarnock in 1914. He attended Kilmarnock Academy where he did well in all subjects but particularly so in art. When he was 15 financial pressures led his parents to withdraw him from school and enrol him on an apprenticeship. Fortunately however, his art teacher had recognised his remarkable talent and when he discovered that Colquhoun would not be returning to his classes, he determined not to let such talent go to waste. He set about organising financial support and so managed to persuade Colquhoun's parents to allow him to return to school. 

In 1933 Colquhoun embarked on training at Glasgow School of Art. It was here that he met Robert MacBryde, another young artist from Ayrshire. The 'two Roberts', as they were known, there established a lifelong romantic relationship and professional collaboration,  living and working together for almost 30 years. Colquhoun and MacBryde were never explicit about the nature of their relationship, but neither did they attempt to hide it. With the decriminalisation of homosexuality only coming into law in 1967 in England, and 1981 in Scotland, this was a brave move.

Colquhoun and MacBryde relocated frequently, but settled in the bohemian urban centre of London 1941, where they became associated with other queer artists such as Keith Vaughan, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud. In London, the two artists also came into contact with the Neo-Romantics - a group of artists painting visionary and imaginative landscapes peopled with heroic figures. These paintings tended to have a sombre tone reflecting the mood during and following the two world wars. For a time, Colquhoun experimented with similar landscapes but by 1943 he had returned his attention to a focus on the figure. 

It was around this time that he made the acquaintance of Wyndham Lewis and Jankel Adler. Their influence is evident in the angular style with which he began to paint his figures. Adler encouraged him to do away with models and to paint from his imagination and memory, freeing him to experiment with expressive ways of representing the figure. 

In 1945 Colquhoun visited an exhibition of Picasso's work at the Victoria and Albert and this inspired him to experiment with the kind of distortions and fragmentations typical in Picasso's work.

The people Colquhoun painted are not happy people. They have a despairing and desolate look and appear isolated in some kind of personal suffering. The angular, distorted style he had developed gives his figures a sense of restriction and emotional detachment. Sometimes he painted faces to look like masks in a similar way to Picasso, with the effect of de-humanising the figures bringing a menacing element into his work. On occasions he included sinister looking or caged animals to represent some aspect of the human condition. 

These paintings were very much about Colquhoun's emotional and subjective response to the world and his subjects. He was a sensitive character and was deeply affected by the suffering of those he came into contact with, those affected by the poverty of the 1930s and the post war years. But his work also represents the general feeling of these years, he was amongst many artists who were striving to give voice to the prevailing sense of guilt and pessimism and a nihilistic view of the world. 

Colquhoun apparently expressed this feeling well, people seem to have connected with his work and he enjoyed a period of considerable popularity in Europe as well as Britain during the 1940s. In 1943 he was given a one-man show at the Lefevre Gallery in London, his first of several. In 1946 he spent several weeks painting in Ireland and in 1948 he paid another visit to Italy. It was around this time he began producing monotype prints. 

Throughout this successful period the two Roberts were based in London and here they made quite a reputation for themselves as bohemian, nationalistic Scots with their frequent heavy drinking sessions leading to raucous behaviour. As the decade drew to a close their success began to wane. Interest in Colquhoun's work began to decline leading to financial difficulties. Under the strain this brought, their drinking habits seem to have worsened, with the inevitable negative impact on the quality and volume of work they produced. 

Eventually they were forced to leave their London flat and for the next few years they moved around the South of England staying with friends. They sold little work during this time and so a commission to design costumes and scenery for a new Scottish Ballet "Donald of the Burthens" to be shown at Covent Garden in 1951 was very welcome. Colquhoun later worked alone on designs for a production of "King Lear". 

In 1958 the Whitechapel Gallery offered Colquhoun a retrospective exhibition and he set to work producing a number of new paintings for the show. It was fairly well received but after this time he was to produce very few more paintings. Instead he focused on monotypes and drawing and seems to have found some new inspiration in this. He was working towards an exhibition of his prints at the Museum Street Gallery when he collapsed and died of a heart attack in 1962, aged just 47. 

For some years after his death the international significance of Colquhoun artistic achievements went unacknowledged in his hometown of Kilmarnock but in 1972 the town council opened the Colquhoun Memorial Art Gallery at the Palace complex on Green Street. The Colquhoun Art Prize was also established, awarded on an annual basis open to artists throughout Britain. The competition ceased in the early 1980s. 

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