Alastair Michie: Painter and sculptor

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The Independent Online

Alastair Michie was a talented painter and sculptor who took up art belatedly in the early 1960s. During the previous decade he had pursued a successful career as a freelance designer and illustrator. The change seemed inevitable for someone from an important Scottish art family such as his. His mother, Anne Redpath, was one of the greatest Scottish painters of the 20th century, his father, James Michie, an architect and his youngest brother, David, became a celebrated painter and teacher.

Alastair Michie was born in St Omer, France in 1921, the eldest of three sons. His father worked first for the War Graves Commission in northern France and then as private architect to a rich American inventor in Provence, but the recession of the early 1930s prompted a return to the Scottish borders. At school, Alastair won a scholarship to study architecture in Edinburgh where he sought to follow his father's vocation.

His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served with distinction as a night fighter pilot in reconnaissance aircraft over Germany and occupied territory. Reluctant to return to further studies after the war, Alastair Michie applied a natural talent as draughtsman to a career as illustrator and designer, first in London and then in Wareham in Dorset, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

The turning point in his professional life came at the 1962 Venice Biennale, where he encountered the expansive scale and energy of the American abstract expressionists, notably Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. This triggered a desire in Michie to become a painter in a way that his mother's example had not. Redpath kept her artistic practice rigorously separate from family life and although something of her natural facility for colour and texture was evident throughout her son's mature painting, Alastair Michie was adamant when declaring that "my mother's work did not influence me". Michie spent an evening with Rothko after his friend John Plumb's opening at the Axiom Gallery in London in the late 1960s, an experience that confirmed his belief in the power of abstract art to touch the raw nerve of universal emotion.

Michie's architecture and design background led his work toward a careful, constructive approach; drawn to what he described as the "architectural movement" of Kline's blacks, Michie frequently used black or white, highlighted by a spare use of pastel shades, as the dominant compositional element in his work. But in common with Manet and with Spanish art in general, which had so influenced Scottish colourists like F.C.B. Cadell, he made positive use of black as a colour replete with sensational as well as structural qualities.

Since structure and design took their place alongside more evocative, poetic and informal aspects in his work, Michie's decision to sculpt seemed natural. The two disciplines cross-fertilised, sharing an interest in the shapes of boulders, found objects, landscape features or of shrapnel and other wartime fragments that Michie discovered on Studland beach in the 1950s. An early bronze, Nemesis, was inspired by a bone found there. Later sculptures, cast in bronze or aluminium at an industrial foundry in Bridport, west Dorset, revealed a mixture of organic and architectural form. Michie's experience of war informed all aspects of his repertoire, ranging from the Shrapnel series to pieces based on the ancient Greek wheel of death and to a large 15ft bronze, Endeavour, commissioned by British Aerospace at Filton, Bristol, with a thrusting aerodynamic shape that recalled Michie's flying days.

It was upon his work as a painter, however, that Michie's reputation was mainly founded. He enjoyed a major solo show in São Paulo, Brazil in 1972 and the modern art museums in both São Paulo and Rio acquired his work. In 1982 he became a Royal West of England academician and served as council member between 1984 and 1994. Through the support of the RWA sculptor Peter Thursby, Michie also became a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1994.

In the early 1990s, Michie followed his mother in exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. His desire to emulate his brother and have a regular London gallery was not fulfilled, although he enjoyed a major solo show at the Mall Gallery in 1996 and a less successful show with Archeus Fine Art in 2000. He sold best from his studio, a large wine vault below the splendid Queen Anne house in Wareham where he lived with his second wife Sally from 1961 onwards.

Michie belonged to a generation of later modernist artists who shared an optimistic but never naïve world-view conditioned by an understanding of human nature gained during wartime. A sophisticated, urbane man with a quiet, wry sense of humour, he overcame a strange mix of privilege and disadvantage to pursue a difficult career.

Peter Davies

Alastair Michie, painter, sculptor and illustrator: born St Omer, France 9 December 1921; married 1944 Hazel Greenham (three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1970 Sally Greasley (one son, one daughter); died Wareham, Dorset 2 May 2008.