Sunday, 4 April 2010

The fisherman's hues

The Scotsman, 9 November, 2002

From his window, high in a New Town flat, John Bellany can still see the Lomond hills, the "Paps o' Fife", just as he saw them when he was a boy in Port Seton.

"Every day, when we saw it looking beautiful over there, it was always 'the Kingdom of Fife'. We'd go to my grandma's on the Sunday night and she'd say: 'Aye, the lights are sparkling there in the Kingdom tonight'. I'd think: 'The Kingdom? What the minister's talking about in the church?' 'Does God live there?' I'd ask. 'God lives everywhere,' she'd say."

It seems that this whole year has been spent celebrating Bellany's 60th birthday - they carried in a cake for him in Dublin just the other day - and now in Edinburgh, a film and a retrospective will mark the artist's progress from boozy, woozy sadness into the lights and shades of an older, wiser, happier life.

So much has been written about the man that his biography can seem as familiar as your best friend's: those hard-drinking days with Hugh MacDiarmid in Milne's Bar, the harrowing trip he made to Buchenwald concentration camp, his broken marriage to Helen, followed by the death of Juliet, his second wife. Then came his illness and liver transplant; remarriage to Helen; the recovery. If the corporeal Bellany is well fleshed out these days, this skeleton CV informs every critical judgment of his work.

Conventional wisdom says his work has moved from darkness into the light of a life reborn. After all, he splits his time these days between Edinburgh and Italy and his latest paintings - Barga Rooftops or Tuscan Landscape - are seemingly filled with optimism.

It is not quite as simple as that, as he'll explain, but first he wants to think of something different to say about his life. And - perhaps inspired by the sight of the Paps - he talks about his childhood and a life swept by the salt of the sea.

Two things are central: the fire and brimstone of his Calvinist upbringing and his surroundings in two east coast fishing villages, at his parent's house in Port Seton and his grandparent's home in Eyemouth. These experiences are the "anchors of his life", drawn together, symbolically in the 1881 Eyemouth disaster - when 45 fishing boats set sail into a storm and only 26 returned. He has been revisiting that scene as long as he can remember.

"My grandfather was born the year of the disaster; it used to be the book at the side of my bed when I was a little boy; it was a topic of conversation. So, every time I go down to Eyemouth I don't just see boats bobbing around in the harbour, I see the Eyemouth disaster, I see my grandparents, I see it all there."

It is the same, he believes, with the communities of young men wiped out on the Somme - we are defined by our reactions to these terrible catastrophes.

"It's an either-or," as simple as that. "You can say, 'Ach, that was years ago now,' but it's our history, living history, if you feel it. And as a little boy, your imagination is running riot. Imagine all these fishermen you're used to seeing and then you no longer see them any more."

Memories and reflections tumble out of Bellany - "wafting out of the window with the cigarette smoke" - but he feels lucky to be blessed with the skill to distil his emotion and decant it into art. And, like the great Italian masters who depicted the Bible under the glorious light of Tuscany, this artist reveals his Christ in Port Seton.

"To have grown up in the environment I did ..." he says, lost in a reverie. "I've done some pictures of Him standing in the boat, things like that. I think of these fishermen of my childhood, there in the church, surrounded by stained glass that shows the catching of the miraculous draught of fishes; and with model boats all around the church and the fishermen really singing their hearts out, these redemptive hymns. The sea of Galilee for them is the Firth of Forth.

"When they sing: 'Will your anchor hold in the storms of night,' they will be going out in four hours and their anchor has to hold, or they're drowned. Their faith is linked to this dancing with death every day but it's closer than that because these Bible stories are going through their heads and they are the people in the stories with the disciples."

His art is "a memory, a moment, time passing, it takes on a metaphysical presence, inside looking out". And as the hymns ring in his ears, Lallans trips off his tongue and the sensations of childhood are transformed into images.

Bellany takes an exhibition catalogue and opens it at O' wha's the bride that carries the bunch of thistles blinterin' white, which transforms into colour the work of the "giant" MacDiarmid.

"I could recite the poem but that would be boring for you," he says. Instead, he explains: "It's about this man marrying a woman and this is her wedding day. He finds she's lost her virginity before he's touched her. The poem says we 'didna need your breists like stars' your 'limbs like willow wands' and it goes on about how much he loves her - we 'didna need her maidenheid'. The man's really saying 'it doesn't matter, because I love you so much. I love every part of you, I love you, and I love you inside. I'm not just marrying a maidenhead, I'm marrying the whole person'.

"But when we were younger at school, there must have been so many girls just like that who were shunned. I know what the poem's about, deeply, and I've made a painting of that. I've made it into a Port Seton situation."

When Bellany was just four, he knew he was going to be an artist and recently he came across one of his childhood drawings, drawn on the back of one of his father's Sunday School certificates. "It wasn't the scribble that children normally do, when they first start drawing with crayons," he says. "It was an excellent drawing, this little figure with the arms and the legs - which was me obviously - was looking at a big aircraft carrier and the little frigates and battleships. Little men were on top of the aircraft carrier and some rocks and things and they were all drawn really quite well. It was like a war artist's painting."

Almost from the beginning he drew boats at Eyemouth. "Painting a boat is like painting a portrait, because I had to get the likeness so everyone would know which boat it was. When I was five, I had a big book, a ledger, and I drew the boats in that. There would be my grandfather's boat, Margarets, and one which covered two pages, called the Adoration. That was the biggest boat in the harbour, this big drifter. I wish that book still existed."

With the passing years came knowledge and at 16 or 17, an understanding of the sacred and profane. He discovered a different side to Calvinist Port Seton, the boozing, the joie de vivre, the dancing.

"There was the Box Meeting, which started off in the church. The people all went along with their big flags, one for each boat, and they paraded through the streets with the box, which had all the deeds of all the boats. They thanked the Lord for their wonderful year, the box was blessed and put away for safe keeping.

"The service, luckily, finished at 12 o'clock, just as the pubs were opening, so they got slaughtered beyond belief.

"I just thought they were having fun," he exclaims in mock disbelief. "I didn't realise they were doing all the drinking, getting sloshed, as drunk as skunks and all the women dressed in fishwives costumes dancing a long the street."

After knowledge came wisdom. At Edinburgh College of Art, he would immerse himself in the National Gallery and realise that he could paint allegories of his own experience, "philosophical essays in paint". From there began the grand procession though the darkness and back again.

But even now, don't assume that because his colours are bright, the emotion is light. "It's like looking at Balzac and then someone like Maeve Binchy, and thinking: 'No, that's lightweight.' No matter what I do, I never paint lightweight paintings."

He picks up the catalogue. "These harbour paintings, because I've lived all my life in these places, all my childhood memories and childhood thought are there. I've grown up with it, that's a rock on which I've built. I'm looking from the inside out. There are people who go and do pictures of Penzance and they paint the harbour, they are painting from the outside in, they're only seeing the surface.

"It's not like somebody coming along to me and saying: 'O that's a pretty sketch.' It's never been that. It doesn't matter whether you're feeling chirpy or happy, there's a part of you which will always come through, whether you like it or not. If you're any good that is."

Bellany: A Life, Death and Resurrection is at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, until 15 November. A retrospective of Bellany's work is at the Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, 10-27 November.

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