In my blog today I conclude my look at the group of early twentieth century Scottish artists, who would later be grouped together and known as the Scottish Colourists. The fourth member of this group was George Leslie Hunter. Hunter was born in Rothesay, a town on the west coast Scottish Isle of Bute, in 1877. He was the youngest of five children, born to William Hunter, a chemist by trade and his wife, Jeanie Hunter (née Stewart). His initial schooling was at Rothesay Academy. In February 1892, Hunter’s elder sister Catherine died and this was followed shortly after with the death of his elder brother. Both iwho were in their early twenties were thought to have died from an influenza pandemic which had been sweeping the country. Although his mother and father had been toying with the idea of emigrating, these tragic events were the final push they needed to leave Scotland and in September that year they set sail for California via New York to start a new life. The family arrived in California where Hunter’s father bought an orange farm east of Los Angeles. George enjoyed life in America and spent most of his time sketching and enjoying the favourable Californian climate. He did not undertake formal art training, and was largely self-taught. When he was nineteen years of age he managed to get work as an illustrator for some local magazines. The father’s farming venture lasted just eight years before Hunter’s parents decided to return home to Scotland. However George, who had developed a love of art, was enjoying life in America so much that he decided not to return with his parents but instead decided to stay on and in 1900 he moved to San Francisco where he became part of the Bohemian lifestyle of the Californian city. The following year he had some of his artwork exhibited at the California Society of Artists exhibition.
To earn money Hunter illustrated work for the Californian magazines, Overland Monthly and the Sunset magazine. The latter was a promotional journal for Southern Pacific Transportation Company, designed to combat all the negative publicity regarding the “Wild West” life in California. In 1904 Hunter went to New York with friends and then on to Paris and it was whilst in the French capital that Hunter took up oil painting and became determined to become a professional artist. On his return to California in 1905, he started to build up a large collection of his work which he intended to exhibit at his first solo exhibition which was to be held at the Mark Hopkins Institute the following year. However tragedy struck in the form of the great Californian earthquake in April 1906 which devastated San Francisco and destroyed his studio and most of his artwork.
Hunter returned to Glasgow and rejoined his mother. He continued his self-education as a painter and carried earning a living as an illustrator. Many of his initial oil paintings were of the still life genre. He liked to experiment with these works, revelled in the use of colour and often would incorporate the technique used by the Dutch still-life masters, such as Willem Kalf, Jan Davidsz de Heem and the great Willem van Aelst.
These still life painters often composed their colourful depiction of floral and fruit arrangements with a drab and dark background to afford the greatest contrast. They used the chiaroscuro technique to dramatic effect and for Kalf it was his delightful way in which he combined in his paintings humble objects such as simple kitchen utensils with luxurious objects such as crystal glassware and exquisite silverware. Hunter would probably have seen examples of the Dutch masters in the museums of Glasgow and would have found them inspirational for his work. Although this may be construed as “copying” by Hunter and could be looked upon as a form of plagiarism, in fact it was not, for he was simply studying the great works of art and taking what he had seen back into his own works.
Hunter met fellow Colourist, Samuel Peploe, through mutual friends, the artists, Edward Archibald Taylor and his wife Jessie Marion King when he was in Paris in 1910 but it was over a decade later before the two became close friends. Hunter’s professional artistic career really started in 1913 when he was fortunate to be introduced to Alexander Reid, an influential Glasgow art dealer. That year he held his first solo exhibition in Glasgow at Reid’s gallery. Three years later, in 1916, Hunter exhibits more work at the gallery and later showed at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts. The review of the exhibition in the March edition of the Bailie newspaper commented on Hunter’s work:
“…He has three of four examples of still life that are superlatively strong…. they show a mastery of form and colour that takes one back to the triumphs of the Dutchmen…”
It was through exhibitions like these that Hunter connected with a group of affluent collectors who would continue to buy his works of art over the next fifteen years.
During the post-First World War days, Hunter became influenced more and more by the works of the modern French painters he had seen whilst visiting Paris, in particular Matisse, Cezanne and van Gogh. In 1922 he went on an extended tour of Europe, visiting the French Riviera, Florence and Venice. Glasgow art dealer Alex Reid and Parisian gallery owner, Ettienne Bignou, were developing a business relationship around this time and decided to stage an exhibition of the works of Peploe, Cadell and Hunter, entitled Les Peintres De l’Ecosse Moderne at the Galerie Barbazanges in June 1924. Following this Hunter held a joint exhibition the next year with Peploe and Cadell at the Leicester Galleries in London.
During the period between 1924 and 1927 Hunter carried out a lot of his work in Fife and around Loch Lomond. Whether it was due to the cold climate of Scotland or just his desire for the chance to savour the bright light and warm weather in southern France, he became restless and left Scotland and based himself in the small Provencal village of Sainte-Paul-de-Vence. From there he would set off on daily sketching trips around the many picturesque Provencal villages. Most of the paintings he completed were sent back to Alex Reid in Glasgow for him to sell. In 1929 he made the trip to New York for his exhibition at the Ferargil Galleries, which was critically acclaimed as an outstanding success. From New York he returned to France but in November 1929 he suffered a breakdown and his health began to deteriorate and he is forced to return to Glasgow where he was looked after by his sister.
During the last couple years of his life Hunter concentrated once again on painting scenes around Loch Lomond and the village of Balloch which is situated at the southern tip of the loch. He had painted scenes in this area five years earlier but now his later works show a greater clarity and are unfussy in composition. In his work, entitled Reflections, Balloch, Hunter has concentrated the main focus of the work on the sparkle of light and reflections on the surface of the loch. Many of these later works featuring the loch also incorporated houseboats and this series of paintings has been acknowledged as some of his best. His fellow colourist Samuel Peploe praised it at this time, saying:
“…that is Hunter at his best, and it is as fine as any Matisse…”
In 1931 Hunter travelled to Paris for the last time so as to be present at the highly successful exhibition Les Peintres Ecossais from which the French government bought a landscape of Loch Lomond for their national collection. Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, of which he played a leading part, he began to make tentative plans to move from Scotland and go to live in London. His spirits were high, he believed his luck had changed and he viewed the future with great optimism. He was quoted at the time as saying:
“…I have been kicking at the door so long and at last it is beginning to open…”
Sadly before he could savour what he believed would be the start of a new life, he died in a Glasgow nursing home in December 1951, aged just 54.
This is my final blog about the four Scottish Colourists. It cannot be emphasised enough the importance France played in their art. In the book Scottish Colourists 1900-1930, one of the authors, Elizabeth Cumming, a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, commented on this fact, writing:
“…Without their French contacts and experience, none of the Scottish Colourists would have developed their art as we know it. For all, visiting and living in France invested their ideas with a new vision. For Cadell, it meant developing an empathy with stylistic sophistication. For Hunter, visiting the south of France especially injected light airiness into his landscapes. For Peploe, two years of life in Paris opened a door to the intellectual possibilities within traditional subjects. And for Fergusson, living in France for far longer than any of the others, it became the crux of his existence…”