Obituary: David Donaldson

David Donaldson celebrated his eightieth birthday on 29 June. This event was marked with the publication of his biography, and shortly afterwards with a major retrospective exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh which is currently at Glasgow School of Art. Both the book and exhibition present the wealth, energy and sheer joy of his painting, and it is a tragic irony that, in the midst of these celebrations, the art world learnt of his death.

David Abercrombie Donaldson was a man of contrasts. He was born in 1916 of working-class parents in the industrial lowlands of Scotland. In his own words he was "a wee bastard who was bairned up a close in Coatbridge". Yet, in a distinguished career as a portrait painter, he mixed with the highest of British society culminating in a commission to paint a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen in 1966.

Among the formal honours received by him were Associate Member and then Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy, and honorary degrees from Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities. In 1977 he was appointed Painter and Limner to Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland. His paintings are in the Royal Collection, in most of the major public collections in Scotland, and in private collections across Britain, Europe, Australia, the United States and South Africa.

Without any formal qualifications, Donaldson entered Glasgow School of Art at the age of 15, and he stayed there until his retirement at the age of 65. He progressed from student to part-time tutor to - finally in 1967 - Head of Drawing and Painting.

His own students and colleagues remember him as an inspiring and brilliant teacher who always taught by his own example. "For Christ's sake Morrison you hang pearls round that!" one student recalls being admonished in a life class.

The same student remembers the colour that Donaldson brought to his life and to his painting in the drab years in the early 1950s when rationing still lingered on. Although Donaldson could be difficult he had a genuine regard and fondness for his students.

He believed that art should be taught by artists and he had a strong dislike of bureaucracy in all its forms. Rather than working for formal examinations he believed that students should just get on with painting. This was, indeed, just what he had done.

These principles led to clashes with the authorities when, as Head of Drawing and Painting, he was forced to see in changes to the structure of teaching. He fought, without success, against what he saw as a threat to the integrity of his principles.

Despite these turmoils however he is remembered as one of the few Heads who always kept the door of his studio open - for anyone. Furthermore he was "fantastic company" and any other colleague arriving early to the studios would be welcomed by him with streaky bacon rolls and mugs of very strong tea.

In his own work it was the sheer quality of paint and colour that Donaldson loved. He had both a delicacy of touch and an exuberance that rubbed off on everything he painted, whether figures, landscapes, still lifes or allegorical paintings. Both his commissioned portraits, of which there are a great number, and the many paintings of himself, his wife, daughters and models, have a directness and humanity stemming from his relationship to that other human being in his studio, the sitter. He would paint directly on to white canvas, without the use of preparatory drawings.

In the many self-portraits painted during his career he has presented us with insights into the complex character that he was. From the very beginning humour, usually directed at himself, was a strong element. In Me, 1935, a painting done whilst he was still a student, Donaldson portrayed himself as a clown wearing an enamel chamber pot on his head. In 1974, in Self-portrait with Cactus, he wears nothing other than a chef's hat with a cactus sprouting out behind. Although we are presented with ridicule we laugh with the artist and not at him. In a later work, Self- portrait, 1986, Donaldson faces us naked in his studio but for a red rose. The humour is still there but the painting strikes a sharper note of self-examination. However, his Self-portrait in Winter, 1978, is the most deeply self-searching of the series.

It is a quite a small work (head and shoulders only) and uses no other prop than a flat black cap. In the vein of Rembrandt or Goya, Donaldson has painted himself during the difficult teaching years at Glasgow School of Art when he tried to stand out alone against the changes that were being forced upon him. However, even in the severity of the portrait Donaldson's love of colour remained with him. The delicate touches of pinks and purples enliven his cold face and give a velvety richness to his black jacket and cap. Insight into the artist though this might be, it is first and foremost just a very fine painting.

His landscapes of Scotland or of the South of France, again done directly and en plein air, describe the sensuous quality of sunlight, deep shadows or a stiff breeze through olive groves. His allegorical paintings look back to his Scottish background with its deeply rooted knowledge of the Bible and the poems of Burns. Yet in all these works it is Donaldson's sense of the joy of life and living that comes across most strongly.

Another sad irony is that David Donaldson's biographer, W. Gordon Smith, died just the week before he did. However, Gordon Smith's book and the retrospective exhibition at Glasgow School of Art, which continues until 30 August, bear testimony to Donaldson's life and work.

David Donaldson is survived by his wife, Marysia, his son, Sebastian, and his two daughters, Sally and Caroline.

Joanna Soden

David Abercrombie Donaldson, painter: born Chryston, Strathclyde 29 June 1916; ARSA 1951, RSA 1962; Head of Painting School, Glasgow School of Art 1967-81; Her Majesty's Painter and Limner in Scotland 1977-96; married 1942 Kathleen Boyd Maxwell (one son), 1949 Marysia Mora-Szorc (two daughters); died Glasgow 22 August 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn