Etched in memory

James McIntosh Patrick Fine Art Society, London
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The Independent Culture
There is little doubt that James McIntosh Patrick, whose 90th birthday is being celebrated at The Fine Art Society in London, is Scotland's most popular living painter, admired on the west coast, adored on the east, and virtually sanctified in his native Dundee. Popularity, though, has a price, and for Patrick the price over the last 50-odd years has been a lack of serious attention from the art establishment. I doubt if this bothers him too much. He's 90, after all, and until quite recently, he was out painting every day, but it is a strange truth that the qualities that appeal most to a local public are also those that have counted him out of the wider picture.

It wasn't always so. In the late Twenties, he was the rising star of the London-based etching market. Ten years later, after the effects of the Wall Street crash had collapsed the demand for prints, his meticulously detailed landscape paintings were an annual sensation at the Royal Academy, frequently selling straight from their walls to museums around the world. This birthday exhibition, a small but representative collection, includes a good group of these early etchings and paintings alongside a selection of later work.

The star of the show is an early portrayal of Glencoe, painted in 1934, but based on an etching made several years earlier. It is an extraordinary picture, all silvery greys with layers of paint scrubbed thin to suggest a shimmering winter light. The mood is deliberately dramatic and a little eerie - melodramatic, some would say, but not those who have been to Glencoe in the dead of winter.

This, the ability to conjure the mood of a place, is the key to Patrick's art, whether it be the strangeness of Glencoe or the sunny calm of a picture such as Midsummer in East Fife. It is the quality that has made him so popular with those who see a world that they recognise in his work, a world of farms being farmed and rural life being lived. Ironically, though, most of the early landscapes on which he built his reputation were invented in his studio, assembled from his sketchbooks with a building from here and a backdrop from there and the details of winding roads and curling walls invented to lead the eye in and out of the picture.

It is this element of invention perhaps which gives the pictures from the Thirties a lingering oddness - a haunting, frozen feel. From the selection in this exhibition, it's hard to tell when that quality began to disappear, but my guess is that it went soon after the war. Boreland Mill of 1950 is painted much like its predecessors, stone by stone and leaf by leaf, but the difference is that by 1950, he had taken to working directly in front of his subject and his pursuit of plein-air realism was inevitably at the expense of the faintly unreal quality that was such a strength of the earlier work. The later pictures which stem from this pursuit are less to my liking, although undeniably Patrick has continued to succeed in tasks he has set himself throughout his long career, especially that of capturing shifting light and the essence of a place.

Before its recent arrival in London, this exhibition was shown at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where, when I visited in March, there were constant crowds of happy fans. He remains something of a hero in the North, but his 90th birthday is an event worth celebrating on both sides of the border.

The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-629 5116) until 6 June