Leslie Hunter - The struggle to make a lasting impression

Scottish Colourist George 'Leslie' Hunter has been compared to Matisse but died still trying to develop a distinctive style. Adrian Hamilton finds much to admire in the first major show of his works in 50 years

Of the four "Scottish Colourists" who have come to be seen as Scotland's special contribution to 20th-century painting, George "Leslie" Hunter was the most individualistic and the most self-destructive. Born in Rothesay, brought up in California, he returned to Scotland as an illustrator, embraced French Impressionism and post-Impressionism with a fervour that outdid any of his fellow Scottish painters and died still struggling to find a style that wholly expressed him or his ambition.

The exhibition now on at Edinburgh's City Art Gallery is the first comprehensive show of his works in over 50 years. Why, one wonders, has it taken so long? It is not as though the Scottish Colourists are out of fashion. Although they fell into disfavour in the immediate post-war years when modernism and abstraction were all the rage, since then their belief in colour and landscape has brought them back into vogue and on to the market at ever higher prices.

Nor is it as if Hunter was a minor member of the group. True, he was not part of the art scene in Scotland in the early years, having gone with his family to America and then stayed there when they returned. But he was soon taken up by Samuel John Peploe and John Duncan Fergusson and a coterie of collectors, who rated him highly even if they were sometimes abashed by his bohemian ways. Yet, in the revival of interest in the group, he has taken a somewhat laggardly role. Part of the reason is the unevenness of his output. Passionately intent on achieving the special, he reworked his paintings, often to ill effect at night when returning from a convivial evening out. And sometimes the works, particularly some of the landscapes, just didn't come together at all.

But his struggles to find a style is also part of his attraction. Modern art appreciation has raised originality to the point of beatification that would never have been considered essential or even that important in previous centuries when the art of painting and the achievement of balance, harmony and meaning were considered paramount.

What makes Hunter, and this show, so enthralling is the total commitment of the artist to learning and developing the lessons of the art that was exploding on the Continent at the time.

He started out as an illustrator in San Francisco, where his studio and most of his work was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906 just as he was preparing his first solo show after an extended period of two years in Britain and France. The surviving sketches of the city's Chinatown and fishermen have a light touch and a keen eye. Returning to Scotland, bereft but determined to make a new start, he threw himself into European art, old and new, with enthusiasm.

His chosen genre was the still life, which may also help explain his fall from modern favour. Even today gallery goers find still lives an old-fashioned and restricted genre. For the Impressionists, however, it was a welcome avenue of experimentation. Manet (pace the snootiness of many curators and critics) painted a series of sublime flower studies when sickness made larger works impossible. Renoir described the still life as both easier than using models and also much more open to adventure in colour.

Hunter took the point. Whilst his beach and street scenes were often too tied to his illustrator's apprenticeship to be truly individual, with his still life he explored colour with panache. At first it was contrast. Taking the black of Manet and the Dutch still-life masters, he set vases and fruits of striking vividness against a plain dark background.

That is, until he grappled with Cézanne when, like so many of the artists of his time, he saw the point of colour as shape and deconstructed planes as perspective. The brush is freed up, the colours brighten and perspective is eased. It's not plagiarism or copying. It is an artist looking and taking what he has seen back into his own works with some brilliant effects during the First World War years when he worked on his cousin's farm in Lanarkshire and had few opportunities to travel.

If renewed visits to France and a tour of Italy after the war allowed Hunter to work more in watercolour and landscape sketches, it didn't really allow him to express himself with the force he sought. There are some lovely sketches of cottages and houses in Fyfe, but the views of Venice are skilled but uninspired. Until, that is, he discovered Matisse. Like Hunter, Matisse had delved deep into Cézanne to understand what he was doing with art. He'd then taken it on with colour and a radical depiction of space. Hunter was now to do the same, replacing dark backgrounds with the rich textures of fabrics so beloved by Matisse and making his colours ever more vivid and contrasting. The still lives he painted in the 1920s are joyous, the landscapes approached with an entirely new freshness as Hunter moved to live in Provence before illness finally forced him back to Scotland and a relatively early death aged 54 in 1931.

Did he finally achieve the greatness to which he aspired? Probably not, certainly not as far as he himself was concerned. He was full of optimism in his final year, chosen as a central player in a successful exhibition of "Les Peintres Ecossais" in Paris, taken up with a girl half his age and made plans to move to London. "I have been kicking at the door so long," he said, "and at last it is beginning to open."

But then that was always his spirit. He was ever wanting something that bit beyond him. To revere Cézanne and Matisse is also to know how far short you fall in imitating them. But the effort also produced some wonderful works of his own. "Everyone must choose his own way, and mine will be the way of colour," he famously said in 1916. Although they shocked some of his more conservative fans at the time, the art he produced after the First World War shows a confidence and an energy that sets him apart from his fellows in the group.

His later studies of flowers and fruit have an openness and freshness that is quite brilliant. So, too, are his last paintings of Loch Lomond. Not for nothing did the French pick an oil of Houseboats, Loch Lomond for their national collections.

Looking at the Loch Lomond paintings, Peploe commented "that is Hunter at his best, and it is as fine as any Matisse". Hunter himself would have shied from that claim. But Peploe was right; at his best Hunter did produce some wonderful paintings. The beauty of a show like this is that you can follow him on his journey to get there.

A Life in Colour: Leslie Hunter Scottish Colourist, City Art Centre, Edinburgh (0131 529 3963/2; edinburgh museums.org.uk) to 14 October

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