A Scottish Impressionist – George Devlin


The artist George Devlin was born 19 years after World War I ended but grew up in its bitter shadow. His father lost an extraordinary six brothers in the trenches (the number puts Saving Private Ryan in a new perspective) and was himself badly gassed; it helped make Devlin Snr a committed Communist, thought he never talked about the war.

That background may go some way to explaining why his son, born in Springburn, Glasgow, in 1937, had a youthful energy and zest for life that carried through until his death last year. With his father still weak and coughing and out of work George Devlin threw himself into the milk and paper rounds; but as a top student in his class, he defied both his father and headmaster to go to art school. He painted en plein air, in all weathers, in the footsteps of the Impressionists in France and on snowy Munroes.

George Devlin Scottish Gallery

George Devlin painting at St Abbs, 1979

George Devlin’s last exhibition of his paintings was barely more than a year ago, in the Roger Billcliffe Gallery in Glasgow.   “He went to the opening only ten days before he died, he had to be there, and he could hardly speak because the tumour was pressing, but he stood up and welcomed everybody,” said his widow Marie Devlin.   “He had an extraordinary amount of energy, and he was in the driving seat right up to the end.”

At the Scottish Gallery’s Memorial Exhibition this week she faced the hardest task:  attending an exhibition of his works without her husband beside her.  “He was quite a man.  It will be so strange to be in a room, with George’s paintings, without George,” she said.     “That will be rather difficult.”

Marie Devlin singled out Winter Trek, Badenoch as her favourite piece in this show.

George Devlin Scottish Gallery artist

Winter trek, Badenoch, by George Devlin

Devlin sometimes painted Impressionist landscapes in firmly Impressionists paintings but here he takes that firmly into the Scottish winter landscape, where he  roamed with backpack and brush; the smaller Towards Ben Lomond is also a strong Scottish snowscape.

Devlin lived a colourful life and it shows in the paintings. He spoke good French and Italian, a smattering of Dutch and Hausa; he travelled and worked and made friends widely, from France and Italy to the Sahara and Nigeria. The jobs he took to make ends meet ran from bus driver to barman and (briefly) bouncer.

The exhibition is not a retrospective but represents mostly a final body of paintings completed before his death from cancer in 2014 at the age of 76.   Some were meant for the 2014 Billcliffe show but were not finished in time.     Barring a few earlier works, they are mostly in the Impressionist style that he found and flourished in through in the later years of his career, particularly after the birth of his daughter Nuala.

The Scottish Gallery’s director Guy Peploe described Devlin on his death as “ one of the best British landscape painters of the modern era”. He worked firmly en plein air and in Scotland that often required all-in-one ski suits, fingerless gloves and hand-warmers. For night views of Venice he worked with a head torch, with his kit in a shopping trolley, and concerned Italian restauranteurs supplied this raggedy, paint-stained man with sweets, while Venice’s finest would stop to question their strange Scottish visitor .On windy days he secured his canvases with climbing carabiners; when it snowed at home he’d be off in the car in his beloved Blane Valley.

Critics can be cagey about Devlin’s painting, even when they like the man. “I have always found his landscape paintings a little too easy on the eye, but they undoubtedly gave a lot of people much pleasure,” said one Scottish art connoisseur. The blues in some of the French works in the exhibition seem simply  too loud; the colours are lively but startlingly strong in Receding Storm, the Minch. But in Summer Breezes, Fife, he exactly catches the lively motion of the Scottish sky. (He aims for it again, in Elie, Fife, on what must have been a particularly rare and brilliant day.) 

Summer Breezes Fife George Devlin Scottish Gallery

Summer Breezes, Fife, by George Devlin

Devlin had major portrait commissions that ranged from from Archbishop Mario Conti to  Alexander Cairncross, economist and Chancellor of Glasgow University.   He was commissioned to paint the Nobel Prize winning pharmacologist Sir James Black for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, on Sir James’ insistence.   Many of these paintings disappeared, as portraits will, into private collections.   But ehe exhibition includes a portrait of his daughter Nuala on her graduation.

George Devlin artist Scottish Gallery

Graduation Ball, Miss Nuala Devlin


“It was all because of this  blue silk dress that Nuala came in to show her Dad, and he took just one look at it and that’s how it happened,” said Marie.   “He wasn’t particularly fast at portraits, sometimes would spent a whole sitting over a hand.”   Nuala jokingly said she would never show him a dress again; the work belongs to her, and is not for sale.

Devlin was a “Dux” school graduate but went to the Glasgow School of Art strongly in defiance of his headmaster.   He lapsed into a final coma after chemo-therapy on the day of the fire at the Mackintosh building; touchingly, Marie told him of the fire but kept from him the details of the destruction of the library.

She vividly describes the genesis of one work in the show, Le Somail.    As a 30th anniversary present the couple had taken a riverboat trip  in southern France; George singled out the spots where he would return to paint. “The thing I associate mostly with these  paintings was the sound of the leaves because it was quite a breezy day, the canvas had to be tied on to his easel, because it kept blowing off. It looks like a tranquil painting but not when he was painting it I look at it now and I can remember the sound of it.”

Le Somail, by George Devlin, oil on canvas 81/82 cm

Le Somail, by George Devlin, oil on canvas 81/82 cm


She often sat beside her husband while he worked, settled to reading  an iPad or book. “I always started with great intentions of drawing but can never stand anyone looking at me while I draw,” she said. The timing of the the show matches the mood of artist. Devlin felt Scotland was too green in the early summer; his favourite time was the turning of the colours in early autumn. It is reflected in Autumn Day, a lovely period abstract in muted colours that is one of the earlier pieces, and other landscapes in the show.