The Scottish Colourists, Part 3 – John Duncan Fergusson

Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)
Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)

Today I am looking at the third member of the Scottish Colourist group and possibly the most well-known, John Duncan Fergusson, who was born in March 1874 in Leith, a town which is often known as the port of Edinburgh.  He was the eldest of four children of John Fergusson, a spirit merchant and Christina, his mother.  He attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh and Blair Lodge School in Linlithgow.  Following this, in 1892, Fergusson attended the Edinburgh University Medical School to study medicine with the intention of becoming a naval surgeon.  However his lack of application to his studies resulted in him leaving after just two years, at which time, he decided on a complete volte-face and decided to study art at the city’s Trustees Academy School of Art.  Once again, Fergusson did not last long studying at this academy for he left stating that he found it too difficult to reconcile  what he considered to be, their old fashioned and inflexible teaching methods and their rigid curriculum which had been set in stone.   He left the art school and decided to set himself up in his own studio in Picardy Place, Edinburgh and simply teach himself how to paint.

Fergusson knew of the work of the Glasgow Boys and decided to do as they had done, go and study art in Paris which was, at the time, looked upon as the art capital of the world.  In 1895, aged twenty, he enrolled in the life-classes at Académie Colarossi and revelled in the lifestyle of his fellow artists and the whole Paris café society scene.   Fergusson enthusiastically adopted the lifestyle of a Bohemian artist, mixing with the likes of Picasso and Matisse and he could often be seen frequenting the legendary cafés of the time, such as, Le Pre-Catalan Restaurant, the Cage Harcourt and the La Closerie des Lilas and it was in these places, surrounded by his artist acquaintances that he drew so much of his inspiration.   He easily settled into this unrestrictive café society of the Left Bank.  He was surrounded by the work of the Impressionists and would visit the public and private galleries such as Salle Caillebotte at the Musée du Luxembourg, where their works were on display.   Fergusson loved the French capital and for the next ten years spent his summers in Paris and the rest of the time in Edinburgh, where he had established a close productive working relationship with fellow Scottish Colourist, Samuel Peploe.   In 1897 Fergusson exhibited some of his work at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the following year, spent time in central France, painting at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, a small commune seventy kilometres south of Paris.   This River Loing setting often featured in the works of Alfred Sisley.  In 1899 Fergusson decided to go to Morocco and follow in the footsteps of Arthur Melville, the Scottish painter, who was famed for his Orientalist works, and who is now looked upon as being one of the most powerful influences in the contemporary art of his day.

Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)
Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)

It was during a painting trip at the seaside resort of Paris-Plage, in the summer of 1907 that Fergusson met two American ladies, Anne Estelle Rice and Elizabeth Dryden.   Elizabeth Dryden was an American writer and critic who had been sent to Paris in 1905 by her employer, the Philadelphia department store magnate, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, to write fashion reviews for his Philadelphia department store trade magazine.   These reviews would then be illustrated by her friend Anne Estelle Rice, who was a sculptor and artist and who had worked as an illustrator on a number of magazines.   Both women featured in a number of paintings by Fergusson and he became great friends with them and Anne Estelle Rice later became Fergusson’s mistress.  In his 1908 painting of Elizabeth Dryden entitled Mademoiselle Dryden, Fergusson has depicted her clad not in the latest fashion but wearing a simple red scarf to keep out the chill with a painter’s smock worn loosely around her shoulders.

Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)
Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)

After his fully clothed portraits of Rice and Dryden it is quipped that from then on all his sitters had to remove their clothes and be in a state of undress!  In 1910, the English writer and critic, John Middleton Murray visited Fergusson’s Edinburgh studio.  He was about to launch a new literary, arts and critical review magazine.

Rhythm magazine cover
Rhythm magazine cover

Murray wanted to name the magazine after one of Fergusson’s paintings and have a drawing of it on the front cover.   Fergusson’s painting of a female nude was entitled Rhythm and that became the magazine’s title.  The cover of the magazine was elephant grey with Fergusson’s strong image of a naked woman sitting under a tree with an apple in her hand printed on it in black ink.  Fergusson became its art editor and through his many contacts in the art world was able to persuade artists such as Derrain, Picasso, and Delauny to provide illustrations for the magazine.  Anne Estelle Rice was also a regular contributor to the periodical.

Fergusson loved life in France and all the opportunities it afforded him to paint.  In the summers Fergusson would go on holiday and would often meet up with Peploe and his family in Brittany or Cassis in the south of France and for a short time Fergusson lived at Cap d’Antibes.

On his return to Paris he accepted the position as teacher at the Académie de la Palette and set up his studio in Montparnasse.  Fergusson was very happy with life at this time.  His long term partner Margaret Morris, whom he met in 1913, quoted Fergusson’s words describing his satisfaction with his Montparnasse studio and life in general in her 1974 book,  The Art of J.D.Fergusson:

“… [it was] comfortable, modern and healthy.   My concierge most sympathetic.  Life was as it should be and I was very happy.  The Dome, so to speak, round the corner; L’Avenue quite near; the Concert Rouge not far away – I was very much interested in music; the Luxembourg Gardens to sketch in; Colarossi’s class if I wanted to work from the model.  In short everything a young painter could want…”

Fergusson had met the dancer, choreographer, Margaret Morris in 1913.   She is now recognised for her pioneering work in modern dance.  She ran a dance school in London and that year had taken her dance troupe to Paris to dance at the Marigny Theatre on the Champs Elysees.  Fergusson and Morris later married and he became Art Director of all her MMM (Margaret Morris Movement) schools.  Fergusson and Morris were to remain together for almost fifty years.  The two built up a collection of friends from the literary greats of the time such as the novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the American ex-pat poet, Ezra Pound and the English writer and painter Wyndham Lewis.  Fergusson now had two homes and two distinct lives.  He had his base in Paris and the painting trips to the south of the country and he had the chance to stay with friends back in Britain, whether it was Samuel Peploe and his family in Edinburgh or his new friend Margaret Morris in London.

Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)
Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)

With the outbreak of the First World War he returned to Britain and, for the next four years, had to suffer the financial hardship brought about by the lack of sales of his work during the period of conflict.  After the war, he set up his own studio in London and this remained his base for the next ten years.  He exhibited his work on a regular basis and in 1928 he had four major exhibitions: in Chicago, London, Glasgow and New York.  In 1929, he along with Margaret Morris, returned to his beloved France and he set up his studio near the Parc de Montsouris, in Paris,  but always in the summers they made the trek south to live at Cap d’Antibes.  In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Fergusson and Morris return to Britain and set up home in Glasgow and it was here that Fergusson spent the last years of his life.

Throughout his life Fergusson had rebelled against formal academic art and he now found himself a slightly beleaguered figure, who was neither a part of the academic fold nor was he welcomed by the Royal Scottish Academy.   Fergusson and his wife, Margaret Morris were leading lights in the Glasgow artistic scene and Fergusson did have his followers as many much younger artists were drawn to him and his art.  In 1940, he decided to form the New Art Club, and out of this emerged the New Scottish Group of painters of which he was the first president.

John Duncan Fergusson died in Glasgow in 1961, aged 87.   Throughout his life, whether he lived and worked in Paris, Antibes, London or Glasgow, his art was infused by his rebellious and independent nature.  He always maintained his belief in freedom of expression and his fervent commitment to a modern, non-academic art world.  He was a lover of colour which was summed up by a quote from him, recorded in William MacLellan’s 1943 book entitled J. D. Fergusson, Modem Scottish Painting.  Fergusson was quoted as saying:

“…Everyone in Scotland should refuse to have anything to do with black or dirty and dingy colours, and insist on clean colours in everything.   I remember when I was young any colour was considered a sign of vulgarity. Greys and blacks were the only colours for people of taste and refinement. Good pictures had to be black, grey, brown or drab. Well! let’s forget it, and insist on things in Scotland being of colour that makes for and associates itself with light, hopefulness, health and happiness…”

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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