Obituary: David Donaldson
Tuesday 27 August 1996
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.
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.
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