Barbara Rae, b.1943

The paintings and prints of the Scottish artist, Barbara Rae, are consistently absorbing, challenging, compelling. Her mastery of colour, whether resonant and rich or low, dark, sombre and subtle, is outstanding. Her images have a powerful capacity to convey something profound about the personal act of experiencing and responding both to one’s inner world and the more objective, outer, world.

Born in Falkirk, Rae studied at Edinburgh College of Art between 1961 and ’65. These were important years at the College. It was a time when a degree of questioning self-confidence flourished, after a post-War decade of relative introspection and artistic politeness. The art historian, Bill Hare, described Scottish art of the late 1940s and ‘50s as distinguished by, ‘a tint of French Fauvism, a stroke of German Expressionism’ followed by, ‘a later dash of Abstract Expressionism’[1]. In fact, this seems to be a rather summary dismissal of some very interesting artists of the period. It is true, however, that in the 1960s – though Scottish art continued to be inflected by European as well as transatlantic Modernism – there was also a delighted celebration of still newer ideas.

Of course, it can justifiably be claimed that artistic practice throughout the UK in the 1960s was infused with an enthusiasm for adventure. One of the big differences between English and Scottish artists and students, however, was that the latter were starting to be very conscious of, and to cherish, their Scottish identity. This often implied an attachment to the Scottish landscape and people and it certainly meant that many ambitious artists stayed and worked in Scotland and felt no desire to rush southwards. It engendered a renewed taste for the celebratory colour and handling of the ‘Scottish Colourists’[2], who had dominated the 1920s and ‘30s. It also meant that many Scottish artists found strength in their links with mainland Europe, forged by shared culture and history, in a way that English artists rarely understood.

One of the most important figures in promoting this degree of self-confidence was the influential and prolific William Gillies, who was Head of Painting at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1946 and then Principal, from 1959-1966. His links with the College went back even further: after serving in the First War, he had been a pupil at Edinburgh in 1919-22, followed by study in Paris, under André Lhote, and in Italy. From this time, and for the rest of his painting career, the influences of painters such as Matisse, Bonnard and the Cubists can be discerned, with intermittent explorations of abstraction, perhaps echoing paintings by Paul Klee and Joan Miro. Indeed, Gillies may well be amongst the painters whom Bill Hare had in mind when dismissing the post WWII art scene in Scotland.

Nevertheless, what becomes ever clearer when looking at Gillies’s work is that he was firmly attached to the Scottish landscape and people. He was also acutely alert to the power of colour, tone and mark-making, to the challenge offered by manipulating perspective, scale and picture plane. Gillies remained tethered to the visible world, tending to concentrate on landscape or still life. His lyrical watercolour landscapes were often executed on the spot. But his oil paintings can embody voyages of discovery. They are deliberate, introspective, experimental, often pared-down to a tightly-constrained range of colour and mark, striking in their reductive simplicity. Gillies himself described how he concentrated on, ‘simple planning and tonal relationships as subtle and evocative as I could make them’[3]. Many of his paintings are now in public collections[4] and it is not hard to discover powerful works which date from the 1950s and ‘60s which reveal why Gillies – who remains a somewhat under-rated figure – was an important influence on Scottish students who studied at the College in the 1960s.

Thus, we return to Barbara Rae, whose encounter with Gillies’s paintings may well have influenced her own work. There were also other tutors and fellow students at Edinburgh who made an important contribution to the artistic and intellectual mix, including Elizabeth Blackadder[5] and Robin Philipson[6], and the young John Bellany. Clearly, the College was a stimulating and exhilarating environment in which to study.

Rae left the College of Art in 1965 and she was awarded post-graduate scholarships to travel and study in France and Spain. One legacy of these journeys remains a passion for travel. Another is a taste for the brilliant light and colour of the South: in her mature work, it is impossible to ignore her sensuous relish for colour and brilliance, with complementary tones reverberating against each other, or bright hues shimmering as if beneath a heat haze. But Scotland, with its cooler light, also remained vital. It is the hue and habit of the North that we see in many paintings and prints, which do not startle the eye, but require study and contemplation. Here, the dark, subtle and sombre tones reveal themselves to the gaze and the mind more slowly, their closely-toned relationships conveying an almost musical play with chords and harmonies.

More often than not, the starting point for Rae’s work is the landscape - frequently of her favoured locations in the western parts of Ireland, Scotland, or southern France and Spain: those areas of Europe where the light is peculiarly luminous and where the quotidian shift from light to dark can be startlingly sudden or, in contrast, slow and lingering.

Her paintings often start as exquisite sketches made on the spot[7]. The final work is then built up with washes of colour – oil, watercolour, acrylic, usually mixed – with hints of metallic gold, or silver paint, layers of textured collage, and areas that are splattered, rubbed or polished. Rae’s emotional and intellectual engagement with the particular image is communicated in the expressive contrast between broad and generous strokes of colour, which suggest a panoramic grasp of space and time, and the sharp, stabbing marks, scratchings out, scrubbed surfaces and deft, wandering scribbles, which often enliven the surface of the picture plane and seem to invoke the immediacy of the individual human hand.

As for the image which prompted the final painting or print - it is rare that there is more than a hint of a specific place or feature. But each picture is invested with a strong and distinctive character, gleaned from a particular effect of atmosphere, a startling horizon, a shaft of light, a fold of hillside, or from a pattern of roads and boundaries, tilled and planted fields and copses, poles and pylons, distant buildings and boats - the imprint of primordial geology and of human habitation and use. See, for example, the paintings both large and small, which Rae includes on her own website: Evening Sun above Polopos, painted in Spain, in 2008, or the tiny Lacken Strand, of the same date, a vivid evocation of a small village on the western coast of County Wicklow, Ireland.

From the late 1960s until 1996, Rae taught in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow: indeed, at the Glasgow School of Art she was an impressive and influential teacher of drawing and painting for twenty years, from 1975. The fact that she combined this with a continuing commitment to her own painting and exhibiting is just one sign of her energy and determination. But it has been from the late 1990s to the present day that her output and reputation has come to more complete fruition.

Barbara Rae was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1983. She was made a member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1992 and a Royal Academician in 1996. She has also enjoyed many solo exhibitions, in Scotland, London, Dublin and France, as well as further afield, in Europe and America. Rae has become a leading figure in the contemporary art world and in 1999 she was awarded a CBE and received, from Napier University, Edinburgh, the first of three honorary Doctorates from Scottish universities. Her work is represented in many private, public and corporate collections.

There is nothing about Rae’s paintings and prints which suggests that she has, in these later years, rested on her laurels as an artist. Her work is ever more dynamic, pulsing with vitality, never superficial, profound in its poetry and its invocation of timelessness. It is sometimes dark and quiet, compelling contemplation, or startlingly brilliant and visceral. Rae is, clearly, preoccupied by the emotional and intellectual life which gives birth to a picture and with the expressive qualities of medium, brushmark, colour, tone, scale and spatial manipulation which help to embody its substance and meaning - and in this, she continues the habit of the best of the Scottish artists; or, one should say, the best of modern artists.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013


[1] Bill Hare, Contemporary Painting in Scotland, 1992, p.9.

[2] Continuing the taste for rich colour and pattern so often found in the Glasgow Boys, the Scottish Colourists included John Duncan Fergusson, Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell. Their work fell out of favour in the late 1930s and ‘40s.

[3] Quoted on the BBC Your Paintings website, from Ian Chilvers & John Glaves-Smith, ‘Gillies, Sir William’, A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, OUP, 2009.

[4] See the marvellous BBC Your Paintings website for an image of these, and many more of Gillies’s pictures.

[5] Blackadder, and others including Gillies, Robin Philipson and Anne Redpath, became identified as the so-called ‘Edinburgh School’.

[6] Blackadder became a Dame in 2003 and Philipson received a Knighthood in 1976.

[7]Barbara Rae: Sketchbooks1987-2010, by Richard Cork and Gareth Wardell, was published by the Royal Academy in 2011. It is a remarkable and illuminating study of Rae’s working practice.