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Scottish Painters (1959)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Scottish Painters (1959)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 25/10/1959
12 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerPeter Newington
CommentatorAllan McClelland

Cast: Robert MacBryde, Robert Colquhoun

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A double portrait of the painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, seen at work in their Suffolk studio while discussing their paintings.

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Scottish Painters (BBC, tx. 25/10/1959) was one of the first films that Ken Russell made for the Monitor arts strand, and his most personal project up to then. In the late 1940s, he had worked in a Bond Street art gallery, where he first encountered the painters Robert MacBryde (1913-1966) and Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962). Having had little previous exposure to real artists, the young Russell was fascinated by their dishevelled appearance, itinerant lifestyle and seeming lack of interest in what became of their work once completed, even though at that time they were very successful.

Russell was never formally introduced, but when started working for the BBC over a decade later, he felt the urge to pay them tribute, both as a reminder of his bohemian days and an acknowledgement that they were finally over. He tracked them down to their Suffolk studio (actually a rented cottage) and was shocked to realise that they had experienced a similar reversal of fortune to himself, but in the opposite direction. Indeed, within the next seven years both painters would be dead at a relatively early age.

This personal motivation for making the film was revealed in Russell's 1989 autobiography A British Picture. By contrast, the documentary itself consists purely of short interviews with each painter, followed by a montage of their work, with Russell's camera slowly tracking in to fine details and pulling back to reveal the wider context, accompanied by suitably languid music (for instance, Debussy's arrangement of Erik Satie's 'Gymnopédies').

The only acknowledgement of the outside world comes at the start, when we're told that Suffolk's appeal was partly thanks to its proximity to London galleries - though there's a hint of their predicament at the end when the commentary reveals that they'll happily move if they can find a studio for even less than a pound a week.

Scottish Painters was the first of Ken Russell's films about visual artists. Over the next thirteen years, he would depict architect Antonio GaudĂ­ (BBC, tx. 3/12/1961), pop art (Pop Goes the Easel, BBC, tx. 25/3/1962), 'Douanier' Henri Rousseau (Always on Sunday, BBC, tx. 29/6/1965), the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Dante's Inferno, BBC, tx. 22/12/1967) and the short life of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in the personally-financed feature film Savage Messiah (1972).

In 1992, the Royal Court Theatre presented John Byrne's play Colquhoun and MacBryde, with the painters played by David O'Hara and Ken Stott.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. MacBryde (1:34)
2. Colquhoun (1:19)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years