In 1994, the year Damien Hirst made his first glazed ewe, away from the herd, pickled in formaldehyde, artist Elizabeth Blackadder, who died at the age of 89, has finished a work called Still Life With Cats. The cats were painted in oil on canvas, and joined many other works in Blackadder’s work, along with arum lilies, Japanese fans, and candy boxes.
Just the difference in age does not explain the gap between Blackadder’s art and Hearst’s art. Painters of her generation – Bridget Riley Born in the same year, 1931 – he worked in a determinedly modern style. This was not Blackadder’s way. When she and her husband are artist john houstonThey visited New York in 1969 on their way to paint Wyoming landscapes, and took trips to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso and Matisse, not Bullock and Warhol. Modern art institutions returned the compliment: there are only half a dozen or so darkening in tet, all but one of them are lithographs, a few on display at all and none newer than 1963. The British Council’s collection contains only two Blackadders, and the Arts Council has none at all. However, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
At first glance, a painting like Oncocellus iris (1996), in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, is not so much outdated as defiant as well. where Georgia O’Keeffe Painting with flowers was defined by making oils of lilies resembling vulvas, Blackadder’s watercolor iris may have been drawn by an extraordinarily skilled aunt. A second look shows something more complicated. Blackadder’s eye is not so subtle as it is geometrically designed: this is a botanical painting, not a floral painting. Arranging her flowers on paper is just an arrangement, not an arrangement.
In an atypical expansive moment, Blackader ventured that “the space between the flowers [in her work] No less important than the flowers themselves ”, adding that her images invented themselves over time. The two-dimensional sculpture of irises owes more to Matisse than, for example, to the painter of flowers Mary Butler. If blackadder’s flowers are representative, the spaces they create are abstract.
D = ughter of Thomas and Violet Blackadder, she came from a family of Falkirk engineers. Her father’s factory in town, the Blackadder Brothers Garrison Foundry and Engine Works, was built by Thomas’s grandfather himself in 1851. Elizabeth was born in her shadow, in a sandstone villa at 6 Ware Street.
Later in her life, she refused to talk about her art. If I had been forced to do so, I would have spoken in the kind of logical terms that conceptualists like Hearst would have had in tears — “I paint the midst of my flowers black,” Blackader might say, adding, in a rare blast of confession, “Okay,” kind of Dark blue.” However, she admitted that she had an early teacher. She recalled in a BBC interview for her 80th birthday: “My father was an engineer, but he painted a lot, mostly boats.” “From a young age, he helped me draw.” He died Blackadder’s father when she was ten years old.
Another childhood influence was familial, too. During the wartime German bombing of Clydebank, Falkirk on the bombers’ flight path, her mother sent young Elizabeth to her grandmother’s home in Loch. “I have been sent as a gardener for everyone [her] Friends,” Blackadder recalls sarcastically. As a teen, she knew Linnaean’s names for all the local wildflowers, and pressed more into the album. This double inheritance was showing up in her work as an artist.
After leaving Falkirk High School, she joined the new Joint Fine and Applied Art course at the University of Edinburgh in September 1949, with Byzantine David Talbot Rice as her teacher. Blackadder found herself exposed to a Byzantine obsession with style, a taste that is both formal and decorative. Another discovery was the Italian primitives, in particular Piero della Francesca. In her final year, she spent at Edinburgh College art, I met Houston, a fellow student. When Blackader won a first-class travel grant, the pair set off for Italy. They married in Edinburgh the following year, 1956, a partnership that lasted until Houston’s death in 2008.
Blackadder paintings of the period appear to be moderately old-fashioned, albeit in a variety of ways. Tuscan Landscape (1958), in pen and ink, has the expressive thorn of Graham Sutherland from the previous decade. A late 1950s self-portrait resembles, and may have been painted before, Gwen John in her Edwardian youth. Blackadder only found true sound with the storming of jazz and pop colors into British figurative painting in the mid-1960s, even if he was characteristically quiet.
If she is considered a very artist because of the sudden shifts in her work, Flowers and a red table (1969) comes close to being one. Although Blackadder’s trip with Houston to New York that year—usually, I went to extend his paintings rather than draw hers—spent looking at a modern, rather than contemporary, red pillow and flower table that is essentially a color palette. Cut from its representative elements – an titular flowerpot, a piece of printed cloth – Blackadder’s portrait may be that of Barnett Newman. Who is afraid of red, yellow and blue.
The flatness of the figures and their removal to the lower edge of the canvas indicates a reconciliation with what was happening in New York, though they may have been equally derived from the Indian miniatures that Blackadder and Houston began to collect, or from the Scots. Colored people whose spirit hovered around Edinburgh College of Art when they were students there.
It seems unlikely that these tensions will be absorbed in her work by the throng of fans who buy her clones on nutlets and tea towels in museum gift shops. As with the gun scenes (which Blackadder also painted), cats and flowers have a constant following. What Blackader said about this audience is similarly unknown. Although she refused to analyze her work, it was rooted in art history and underpinned by a steely wit. On the other hand, having a middle-class fan base brings its own rewards.
The first woman to be elected to both the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy, she became a lady in 2003 and was appointed Her Majesty’s Painter and Painter in Scotland In 2001. It’s hard to imagine this latest honor being awarded to Riley. Keeping her political views as quiet as those of her own art, Blackadder nonetheless accepted a commission to design an official Christmas card for Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in 2012.
Like the cats in her photos, she’s kept elusive, representing herself with the things she has—fans, kimonos, tortoise combs—rather than showing her whole face. Even the selection process for these engagements has been kept secret. When asked about it in 2011, he sounded sore. Then Miss Jean Brody replied, “It’s just things in the house, really.”