John Houston: Painter and teacher whose greatest subject was the Scottish landscape

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The Independent Online

The artist John Houston contributed greatly to the cultural life of Scotland over the last half-century, through his bold, expressionistic painting and his long commitment as a teacher to several generations of students at Edinburgh College of Art.

With his wife, the artist Elizabeth Blackadder, he travelled extensively, but the land and seascape of his home country became his greatest stimulus. Occupying an age in which artists have largely turned away from traditional subject matter, Houston was resolute in his commitment to an art based on direct observation, from which he produced paintings conveying an extraordinary range of emotion.

Houston was born in Fife in 1930 and grew up in Windygates on the east coast of Scotland. He was a keen sportsman in his youth, his early artistic promise matched by his ability in football; he played for Dundee United – briefly as a professional – until he suffered a bad knee injury in 1951. He had begun as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in 1948, at an especially lively and optimistic point in that institution's history, when new entrants were mixing with older, world-wise students and staff rejoining after the Second World War.

Although Houston had gone to Edinburgh with the intention of studying design (a career as a stained glass and mural artist seemed a possibility), his interest in painting quickly grew within the hard-working environment of the college's school of drawing and painting, headed by William Gillies, who was an exemplary landscape painter.

Postgraduate and travelling scholarships allowed Houston to extend his studies, and together with his fellow student the artist David Michie (who became a lifelong friend and with whom he later shared the Royal Scottish Academy's prestigious Guthrie Award), Houston spent the winter of 1953-4 in Italy. As well as visiting the great museums in Florence and Milan and pursuing the work of his Italian contemporaries, Morandi and Sironi, in the private galleries there, Houston made drawings and subdued gouaches of the Italian landscape, beginning to establish an approach which would underpin the subsequent development of his art.

At Edinburgh, Houston had been affected by the concern of his tutor Robert Henderson Blyth for the drawing and structure of a painting. While he worked outdoors around Sienna throughout a particularly harsh winter, Houston's understanding of Blyth's lessons grew as the young artist engaged with his foreign surroundings and drew the stark, clearly defined landscape in such a way as to give structure and solidity to his compositions, as had Giotto and Masaccio centuries earlier.

Houston began his teaching career at Edinburgh College of Art in 1955, and in the following year married his fellow Edinburgh student, Elizabeth Blackadder. Their handsome Victorian home in Edinburgh, painted white, filled with good food, hung throughout with paintings by their contemporaries and sensitively decorated with objects brought back from around the world (in particular from Japan), reflected their diverse visual interests and the couple's central place in the city's artistic community.

Throughout his professional career, Houston managed to combine teaching with a prodigious output as an exhibiting artist, a workload which he felt able to sustain because of he and his wife's equal commitment to art, and the loving support received from Elizabeth through more than 50 years of marriage. Houston's first solo exhibition was held in 1957, in the 57 Gallery in Edinburgh, one of the first independent artists' spaces in the city, co-founded and organised by Houston with a fellow group of painters. This was followed in 1960 by an exhibition in the city's long-established The Scottish Gallery. From then on it was possible to follow the painter's development through the regular, almost annual, exhibitions he held there.

In all his art Houston felt a need, akin with most Scottish painters of the 20th century, to maintain a connection with the real world. In the mid-1960s he brought the human figure into play within his compositions as he sought to move his art on. As with his treatment of landscape, the figure provided a clear base, a sort of container, upon which Houston could experiment in a painterly and intuitive way.

International recognition came in 1969, when he was appointed artist-in-residence at the Prairie School in Wisconsin under the wealthy patronage of Mr and Mrs S Johnson (of Johnson Wax). There, the monotonous horizon and broad sky further simplified his approach, and he started painting what he referred to as "sky pictures".

On his return to Scotland this was put to use in some of his most spare, pellucid and atmospheric paintings, of the sea and sky around Harris in the Hebrides. These reductive works coincided with the growing dominance of conceptual art, which badly shook his confidence as a figurative painter, but by the end of that decade he set to work with renewed energy, producing land and seascapes often grand in scale and dazzling in colour and form. Such paintings were a highlight of the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy (of which he was made an Academician in 1972) and of the artist's continuing exhibitions in Edinburgh, and also in London and internationally.

In 1986 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the conductor Sir Alexander Gibson (Scottish National Portrait Gallery), and he also completed more informal portraits of himself and his wife, and painter friends such as John Bellany. In 1989 he retired from Edinburgh College of Art and in the following year was appointed OBE. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary degree by Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University, and in 2005 another, from Aberdeen University.

In 2005 a retrospective was held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; this featured his rarely exhibited sketch-books, filled with delicate and close observations of the countryside under different climatic conditions. From these, Houston was able to develop in his studio finished paintings which went far beyond a simple representation of his original subject matter. He will be remembered and greatly missed as one of the most original interpreters of the Scottish landscape of the 20th century, as well as for his modesty and gentle charm.



John Houston, artist and educator: born Buckhaven, Fife 1 April 1930; staff, Edinburgh College of Art 1955-89, deputy head, School of Drawing and Painting 1983-89; OBE 1990; married 1956 Elizabeth Blackadder; died Edinburgh 27 September 2008.

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