John Bellany: The Italian Connection, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh – Clare Henry


John Bellany died 10 years ago. Internationally renowned, charismatic, chaotic, iconic, heroic, influential, above all a rebel, his life was tortuous, full of drama; his paintings memorable. 

He is being celebrated in both his hometowns of Edinburgh and Barga, Italy. Edinburgh saw his young, famously wild side. In Barga, conviviality and family reigned supreme with his beautiful wife, Helen, central to both. Her compelling and totally honest book “The Restless Wave” tells how they met at Edinburgh College of Art in December 1962. She was 19, he was 20. They married in 1964, divorced 1977 and, after a decade of despair, tragedy, guilt, illness and more, remarried in January 1986. Life with Bellany was ever turbulent.

Edinburgh Open Eye Gallery has long associations with Bellany going back to the early 80s. Their Festival show contains work from 1970s to the end of his life. Bellany painted right up to the end. Here is a memorable 2012 self portrait in black tie, ready for an Academy, dinner, no doubt, but paintbrushes still in hand. The show also features a huge outstanding triptych, ‘Voyage to Barga” shown in Bellany’s last National Gallery of Scotland retrospective, 2012.

Helen & John Bellany 1995
Helen & John Bellany 1995 Photo: Clare Henry

I knew Bellany both drunk and sober. My first 1980 interview in his self appointed location, a pub of course, resulted in an outspoken review. “Bellany’s paintings, large, rich coloured, thick in paint, free in brushwork,.. their subject matter symbolic, often deriving from childhood Port Seton harbourside days with fisherman, lighthouses, half gutted, fish accompanied by strange bird or skull-like heads transmuted into oppressive predatory macabre images. Large works like ‘Charmers Memorial’, are characteristic Bellany – uncomfortable and disturbing as the artist intends. The exhibition contains several bleak self portraits and five portraits of his wife which vary in their success, some muddy and overworked. Overall I felt a sense of disappointment, one of déjà vu. Little real development is apparent from the Bellany of three years ago. Is he stuck in a rut? Nevertheless, it is always nice to welcome the famous home.” Wow. The arrogance of youth!

By 1986 I was lauding his Festival retrospective as “A triumphant show which firmly and forever establishes the artist as a 20th century master. Potent, intense, personal yet universal: Bellany’s paintings encompass all humanity’s evils and weaknesses, hopes, despairs, sadness and joys. His work reflects his own tumultuous life… Now on the crest of a wave, he has looked death in the eye and survived. It is Bellany’s crowning glory, a validation of over 20 years’ determination to adhere to his Scottish roots.”

Bellany was a charismatic enthusiast with a wonderful personality, warm, welcoming, and as Helen writes, “with an abundant and infectious love of life.” But his driven purpose was the paint, all day, every day. ‘’John lived to paint. There was no other way of living”, says Helen. Her book chronicles the drinking, the 1988 liver transplant, the damage done to their three children. Yet her love was steadfast. Simply put – she saved his life. This remarkable woman not only made his career possible, but also many years of real happiness for them both.

Clare & John Bellany 1983 in New York
Clare Henry & John Bellany 1983 in New York

Their move to Italy in 2000 was typically fast and furious. “We saw 5 houses, decided on one and moved in 2 months later, family and all. No time to renovate or fix things. John wanted to paint. That was all.” They made friends instantly, though John never spoke a word of Italian! “When we went to Tuscany we knew nothing of Barga’s Scottish connections, but it added a lovely dimension.” The beautiful medieval walled city set among the Appenines reminded John of Scotland. All was well.

This show, selected from the vast Bellany Estate, celebrates this fortuitous ‘Italian Connection’ with its joyful explosion of colour, paintings of Italian ports Viareggio and Vivorno, views of the beach at Lerici, the Tuscan hill town of Correlia, even Corky the stroppy cat. A delight.


FESTIVAL EXHIBITION: John Bellany (1942-2013): The Italian Connection, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh,  August 1st- 26th 2023

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