John Bellany’s Drawings

A Sign Manual of God 

Duncan Thomson, former keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, on disegno and Bellany.

From the start of his student days in 1960 John Bellany was overwhelmingly aware of the role that drawing would play in the great range of figurative painting he would soon launch himself into.

His fellow student Sandy Moffat had a similar belief in the efficacy of drawing and recalls John’s repeated admonitions to ‘keep drawing’. There is some irony in the fact that here were two artists resolutely, even disruptively, opposed to the academic conservatism they felt held sway in Scotland, who were in practice dedicating themselves to the Renaissance tenet of disegno, a value pereceived as the graphic foundation of all the visual arts – ‘a sign manual of God’ as some called it.

Juliet by John Bellany

Juliet, 1979, by John Bellany

It was a definition that would have appealed to John, something that encompassed the idealising, vaunting ambition that would underlie all his later work. His skills were evident from the very beginning and the current exhibition at The Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh has a number of his earliest studies of the nude figure.

[See note below, for the National Gallery’s definition of disegno]

These are an onslaught on appearances (for example, ‘Life Drawing, Mr Gold’ of 1962), never mere ‘copying’ but heavily scored with short interlocking lines of graphite. These are structures erected by the imagination with that degree of idealisation that disegno was concerned with, but at the same time an almost feverish attempt to register the truth of what was seen.

Moving on from these monumental life studies there is a group (‘phase’ would be too time-laden a term) of densely worked, intensely dark drawings, sometimes in ink, often in that black, slightly greasy material that is called conté crayon, many depicting Helen Percy, a fellow student who would become John’s wife.

Their descriptive richness, often of closely packed, interlacing black lines, has an inner logic of its own, that while it speaks of notions like ‘likeness’, suggests bigger things than the mere moment – an angst that overwhelms with possibilities, the matter of the great paintings that we measure his life’s work by.

These drawings of the mid-1960s have to be seen as among John’s greatest achievements. Although it would be wrong to try and fit what John did with his graphic materials into clearly demarcated periods, there does seem to be a later, more lyric group where the lyricism flows from the contact of the marking material with certain types of deeply grained paper.

It is not entirely clear how consciously John, whose aims were always expressionistic rather than aesthetic, thought about the inherent qualities of the raw ‘stuff’ of his art, but there does seem to be a dialectic of rough versus smooth in the papers he used. At any rate, there are a number of later landscape drawings and other subjects where a pencil line of utter fragility travels across the heavy grain of the paper with a breathtaking poignancy.

In The Open Eye exhibition there are three outstanding examples of this kind of work – not landscapes but a drawing of sea-bird heads and two portrait studies, one of his late second wife Juliet, the other of his father.

The first of these, ‘The Bird Call’ of 1978 is in red conté, precise, delicate, totally economic in its markings, and totally animal – avian – in its essence. The drawing of ‘Juliet’ (1979), in charcoal is more diffuse but with the same sublime delicacy, although deliberately scuffed in places – all effects that adumbrate a hidden narrative of anxiety and vulnerability.

John Bellany Open Eye

Bird Call, 1978, John Bellany

By comparison, the image of his father of 1985, also in charcoal but with some of the qualities of crayon, is robust and forthright, some of the markings laconic in a ‘careless’ way, part of a familial strength which is settled and accepted. In these drawings especially, but in all John’s graphic work, there is always a suggestion of ‘event’, of a narrative, but in no literary sense, that constantly leads onwards, like a grappling with the undercurrents of the sea.

– Duncan Thomson.

Editor’s note:  Delighted to have this piece from Duncan.   From the glossary of the National Gallery, I add this definition of disegno:

Disegno, from the Italian word for drawing or design, carries a more complex meaning in art, involving both the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design.

From the Renaissance this ability to invent, or create, put the artist on a footing with God, the ultimate Creator, and was a means of raising the status of painting from craft to art.