John Bellany at Open Eye

An early drawing by the late John Bellany has been at the top of my wish list for years, but they’re not exactly easy to find.   So it was a wistful pleasure to see several strong examples in the Open Eye’s festival show selected by his wife Helen.


I interviewed Bellany a couple of times back in the day, once with a memorable visit to his apartment on the top floor in the Old Town close by the Dean Bridge, and its attic studio crammed with work.

One drawing that always stuck in the mind was of his grandmother, from 1967, in crayon, featured in the book by John McEwen.   It was one of several favourites he picked out when we met, as well as a portrait of his grandfather from 1957, painted when he was just 15.   I had to settle for some photographs, ephemera from our interview, which he wrote over in a wonderfully spidery hand.

Peaking through the Open Eye’s door while the festival show was being set up, there was the fear it would be laden with the later works in which Bellany’s style became diluted and repetitious amid his prodigious later output.   But it boasts some magnificent pieces, both paintings and drawings.

Managing an artist’s estate well is vital as I understand it to maintaining both reputation and the market.   It’s a personal selection and the figures on some are certainly pitched high, as if Helen Bellany is reluctant to let them go.

John Bellany Open Eye

Fisherman II 1964 ballpoint drawing by John Bellany

The fishermen’s sketches are marked at a bold £20,000.  But they come from a period of which the critic Brian Sewell, while he lacerated the later Bellany work, said he “painted such pictures as to make us think him a painter with Rembrandt”.    Bellany’s oevre is rooted in the fishermen’s lives from Port Seton and Cockenzie, where his father and grandfather were fishermen.

Helen first met John Bellany at Edinburgh College of Art in 1962 when she was aged 19.  She was married twice to the man she described as a “roary lion”, whose angry talent was nearly drowned by his drinking days.

Two years after his death, she writes in a very personal foreword to the catalogue, she set out “to make my choice of paintings and drawings that have particular significance for me in the life I shared with John.”

John Bellany Open Eye

Helen, 1962, pencil on paper, by her late husband John Bellany

Going through the huge body of work left behind “was a daunting task but one of sheer exhilaration and life affirming inspiration for me and our family”.

“The dazzling skill and versatility of his drawing has truly astounded me while I have immersed myself in his life’s work,” she writes.  “This is nothing new to me. I recognized it immediately before I first met him, when we were students together, and my admiration has never dimmed. So many drawings, of such a range and of such mastery and so few of them have ever been seen.”

The exhibition includes a softly painted later watercolour of Helen from 1986, at a relatively modest £7,000.

Open Eye John Bellany Helen

Helen at Cannes, 1986 watercolour, by John Bellany

On the high end of the large early paintings – approaching museum pieces – is this powerful 1974 piece.

John Bellany Open Eye

Self Portrait with Dog 1974 by John Bellany