Born: September 24, 1931;
Died: August 24, 2021.
BELOVED for her beautiful paintings and prints of cats and flowers, Elizabeth Blackadder, who has died aged 89, was a shy, dedicated artist who made history as the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy.
She was without doubt one of Scotland’s greatest artists.
She trained at Edinburgh College of Art, and taught there from 1962 until 1986.
At 25 she married a fellow student, painter John Houston, whose ebullient personality balanced her reticence. In 1954, with money from a Carnegie scholarship, they spent three months travelling Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy, where she focused on classical and Byzantine art.
In the 1960s they visited France, Spain and Portugal, but their trips to Japan in the 1980s were to have a huge, major influence on subsequent work.
I first visited her at her Edinburgh home in 1981. “Most people use their bedrooms for sleeping but in Blackadder’s large Victorian house the entire upstairs acts as a studio” ,I wrote. “Drawers are full of tubes of paint, surfaces are cluttered with brushes, there is a magpie collection of decorative bric-a-brac waiting to be incorporated in her next painting and corners are stacked with frames and canvases.”
Blackadder was 50 then, already one of the most distinguished artists of her generation. Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery had celebrated her with a major retrospective exhibition of more than 100 oils and watercolours.
The show toured to Sheffield, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Liverpool, and in July 1982, to the Royal Academy in London. She was at the top of the tree. Incredibly, that was 40 years ago. Mid-career, she was a famous name. Yet she remained as modest as ever.
Their large garden was an important source of inspiration all her life. She was an enthusiast for lilies and iris, and the garden was a symphony of colour and shape, to be drawn, etched, and painted incessantly.
Watercolours of her home-grown flowers – tulips, fritillaries, camellias, gladioli, often accompanied by her favourite cats – quickly became her most popular images. Watercolour was well-suited to conveying her sensitive brushwork.
“I make no claims to botanical accuracy”, she said. “I choose the plants which appeal to me and which I find visually exciting in terms of shape, colour and structure.”
The results were breathtaking – evocations of fascinating forms, acute observation coupled with strength of composition and delicacy of line that transforms these blooms into memorable beauty. She especially loved orchids, because they keep their shape.
Printmaking was a major part of her oeuvre, yet until 1984 she had never made an etching. Glasgow Print Studio director John Mackechnie invited her to “come, try your hand”. The result was a new dimension.
She took to the complexities of etching with its difficult spit bite, soft ground and acid like a duck to water, producing a series of 20 very lovely, delicate Oriental-style orchids, iris, and hibiscus.
She never looked back, and her superb draftsmanship enabled her to capture delicate blossoms, intricate petals, and wiry roots with ease to produce immensely attractive and much in demand pictures.
Stuart Duffin, the master technician who worked with Blackadder over 36 years, told me: “She was more than a colleague and artistic collaborator. Since 1985 we have co-produced around 150 original etchings and a good handful of woodcuts and monotypes together at Glasgow Print Studio.
“I have many ‘Elizabeth stories’, as you might expect, such as the time her cat left paw prints on her etching plate – but we just etched them anyway! I have been more than blessed by having known her for so long.”
Blackadder was born in Falkirk in 1930. Her father died when she was ten, but her mother determined her daughter would get a good education.
Her love of flowers and art came early. As a teenager she began meticulously collecting local flowers, compiling pressed specimens and labelling them with their full Latin names. She loved her art classes but also enjoying dissecting and drawing plants as part of botanical studies. She spent her sixth year in the art room at Falkirk High.
In 1949 she joined Edinburgh College of Art on the new Fine Art degree. She graduated with first-class honours in 1954, gaining a postgraduate scholarship. Her tutor William Gillies was a big influence. In 1962 she was given the RSA Guthrie Award for the best work by a young artist.
Blackadder travelled to America and Canada, for shows like one in Toronto in 1982. She told me then: “It will be exciting to get started on new things, new ideas, new landscapes, new pictures”.
Souvenirs of her travels appear in many of her paintings. These source materials range from mechanical birds to Indian purses, exquisite boxes and packets of Oriental tea: “We spend a lot of time going round Chinese supermarkets”.
Many characteristic still-life pictures include these disparate objects, carefully placed and spaced upon the surface, abstractions, formal exploitations with their own ambiguous atmosphere where decoration is substance, not veneer. “The objects are really an excuse for using pattern and shape and colour,’ she explained.
Although she worked from sketches and notes when painting landscapes, her still-lives “just grew. I like them to be flexible. I don’t plan. If I’m struck by the unusual combination of shape or colour of two objects that happened to be together, I paint that and then that dictates where the next thing goes – and so on. It just follows.”
This quiet modesty and deceptively simple approach sums up Blackadder. She claimed to have been lucky but behind it was a lot of hard work. She was a hugely prolific artist, working and exhibiting all the time, painting in the evenings after a full day’s teaching at Edinburgh College.
In London she showed frequently with the famous Mercury Gallery, directed by Gillian Raffles. She especially loved the Zen gardens of Kyoto, making significant paintings of subtle seas of raked pebbles. In many ways her work depicts the principles of Zen, which give paramount importance to the idea of empty space.
Blackadder always loved pattern. Early on, Indian designs took her eye, to be followed increasingly by Japan. Yet her paintings never tipped over into decoration.
Michael Walton said: “She was thought of in college as a living treasure: quiet, modest – never putting a foot wrong. Yet underneath there must have been this dynamo, professionally producing this seamless stream of wonderful, seemingly effortless work.”
Artist Victoria Crowe echoes him. “Libby Blackadder was a fantastic draftsman. I love all her drawings, and of course her analytical plant drawings. A fabulous talent, and an unassuming person who made a unique contribution to Scottish art.”
In 1982 Blackadder was awarded the OBE for her contribution to art, and made a Dame of the British Empire in 2003. In 2001, she was appointed Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner in Scotland.
Blackadder’s middle name was Violet. What a fitting flower: shy, small, yet powerful of hue, and much-loved. As she herself was.