John Bellany, an artist who spoke to the people
“To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?” JOHN BERGER
The art of John Bellany strikes a deep personal chord with those view his bold canvases and strange ominous drawings because it has depth without pretension, and needs no specialist knowledge to appreciate what it attempts to communicate. Bellany’s art, like all great art, is personal; something you feel rather than intellectualise over.
I was brought up in the north of Scotland where fishing boats were once a common sight in the local harbours. Beyond the sands of Thurso beach and its sheltered bay lies the Pentland Firth; the most dangerous sea passage anywhere in Europe with powerful swirling tides that can race at speeds of up to twelve knots, with seas that can open up forty foot chasms between the crests of waves. One of the guys I went to school with works on the Thurso lifeboat. He’s experienced these terrifying plunges down into the churning sea. A few years ago the lifeboat crew took a journalist out into the Pentland Firth in abysmal conditions. She didn’t think she would be returning back to shore.
On the 17th March 1969, when I was seven years old, my parents bundled me into the family’s red and white Triumph Herald. We drove across the river, through the town centre, then out along the curving sea road down to Scrabster harbour. Despite being a wee kid, when we arrived I knew something was badly wrong. All around the harbour walls, two deep lining Scrabster’s solitary street, men and women gathered, heads bowed, occasionally whispering, as we stood in the light drizzle. All eyes were repeatedly drawn to the orange and blue lifeboat parked inside the mouth of the harbour where the fishing boats landed their catches.
The Pentland Firth had kicked up one of its most vicious storms and a Liberian trawler had run into trouble, crashing against the rocks between Hoy and the Mainland of Orkney. The Longhope lifeboat had been sent from the eastern port of Hoy into the treacherous seas. Tragically, all eight of its crew drowned in the attempted rescue. The Thurso lifeboat was launched to bring the lifeboat (and bodies) back to Scrabster. And there it was. Burnt forever into the memories of everyone who stood there, watching. Women cried. Men bit their lips.
Fishing communities have always lived with the dread of boats not returning. Its part of the coastal DNA. When a boat sinks and lives are lost it affects everyone in the community. I remember when my uncle Tommo was out in his boat in Kirkwall Bay when a storm struck and radio contact was lost for over 24 hours. The family sat it out, waiting, drinking tea, keeping each other’s spirits up, hoping against hope, but fearing the worst. On this occasion the wily sailor had found shelter in an inlet among the storm-ravaged islands and waited for the gales to subside. Others weren’t so lucky.
John Bellany is from the old fishing village of Port Seton and his paintings are full of colourful fishing boats anchored in calm harbours; boats fighting for survival between menacing skies and tumultuous waves; the unspoken fears of women left onshore; and the lamentations of women widowed by the sea. These dark and wonderful sea paintings are the ones I love most, they remind me of home, they speak of the sea and the people who depend on it for a livelihood, and as works of art are there to be felt rather than discussed. Bellany draws out our own tales and connects with our emotions.
John Bellany is/was one of Scotland’s greatest artists. His life was dramatic, full, and not without heartache and tragedy. The obituaries tell the tale. He was a serious artist and a deep complex individual who, as he said in a recent interview, had painted more pictures than Turner. I’ve put some of these pictures together in a video montage (above). It’s only a flavour. These paintings become vital and truly alive when you stand in front of the originals, see the brushstrokes, and feel the hand, heart and head that produced them. These paintings and drawings are his legacy. It’s a wonderful legacy to leave behind.