I went to see the final week of the big Cadell exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh last week. Born in Edinburgh in 1883, Cadell was the youngest of the group known as the Scottish Colourists, and exhibitions of the work of fellow Colourists Peploe and Fergusson will be held at the Gallery of Modern Art in autumn 2012 and 2013 respectively.
This is the first solo exhibition of Cadell’s work to be held in a public gallery in seventy years - that's a long time to wait. The word that you'd probably use to describe Cadell is 'stylish', with his portrayals of Edinburgh New Town interiors (often his own lavish apartments of shiny floors and minimalist furnishings) and the sophisticated society that occupied them. Equally stylish, and very much of their time, are his vibrantly coloured, daringly simplified still lifes and figure studies of the 1920s and his evocative depictions of the island of Iona.
Initially living in Paris, and studying in Munich, a trip to Venice in 1910 seems to have loosened up his technique and turned up his colours. Could anything be more vibrant, sun-soaked and life-affirming than this picture of St Marks Square with the punchy vermillion of the fluttering Italian flags?
FCB Cadell St Marks Square, Venice (Oil on board, 1910)
In these years before the first world war, Cadell also visited Iona for the first time (which he would return to practically every summer) and began a career as an artist of note. He developed an elegant palette based on white, cream and black enlivened with highlights of bold colour.
Enlisted during World War 1, Cadell produced the 'Jack and Tommy' series of watercolour drawings, with their pared-down, simple, expressively humourous lines.
He uses the negative space and the colour of the page itself as part of the design of the image.
Building on this, following demob, Cadell's work becomes more art deco and graphic, with a greater interest in pattern-making. He used tightly-cropped compositions, usually approached at an angle, flat application of paint and the use of increasingly brilliant colour for his interiors, still lifes and figure studies.
FCB Cadell Portrait of a Lady in Black
FCB Cadell Still Life with Lacquer Screen (Oil on canvas, mid 1920s)
Cadell painted the actual chairs that he owned in his flat a vibrant vermillion, and they feature frequently in his paintings as flat, accenting colour-notes, like props in a stage-set. Elegant models are placed leaning enigmatically against the mantle-pieces in his flat, with fan, hat and dress like flat black cut-out shapes, and you get the feeling that this is a small moment of drama from part of the larger theatrical stage-set of Cadell's life.
Each year Cadell returned to paint Iona, with its white sands, turquioise seas and remarkable light. Usually small and portable in size, his paintings had an absorbant ground, so that the paint has a chalky, dry look to it, with scumbled textural brushwork. This is one of my favourites, and I had a postcard of this for years on my wall.
FCB Cadell, Iona Croft (Oil on canvas board 1925)
With all the reflected light from the white sands and the white walls of the croft, the tones of this painting are predominantly blue, except for the joyous central burst of the red tin roof. There's something very appealing and cosy about it, very happy; you want to go there.
However, although outwardly successful, Cadell’s financial position, and his health, deteriorated. Despite a post-war recession and a decline in the art market, Cadell still tried to cling on to his lavish lifestyle. Even with loyal patrons, he was forced to move home three times between 1928 and 1935. His last years were dogged by ill-health and Cadell died in Edinburgh in 1937.
Cadell's work is full of exuberance and life and optimism. It has a tremendous joy about it. It shows a delight in paint, and colour and mark-making, in design and the good things in life; from elegant furniture, to a beautiful woman in lovely clothes; the solitude of a quiet interior, the beautiful light on a summer beach; to a single perfect bloom, or a simple red chair.