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My Favourite Scottish Work of Art: Neal Ascherson

By Neal Ascherson, 11.03.2021
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J D Fergusson, The Blue Hat, Closerie des Lilas, 1909 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland. Photo credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

I think I could find ‘better’, more astonishing Scottish paintings. I could even accept that The Blue Hat, Closerie des Lilas might not be the best work that J. D. Fergusson ever completed. Fergusson himself might think so too. But that is not the point. The whole of this beautiful painting speaks to the whole of me, body and soul, past and present, flesh and blood and memory, as no other image does.

It all belongs together. The great blue flash of the hat speaks to the blue glimpse of the woman’s blouse, to a stripe on the wall and to a feeling that it’s a lovely early-summer day outside. The brilliant little flash of green below it speaks to the second of the two drinks she seems to be having, the smaller one with something mysterious and green in it (crème de menthe?) and a cherry the colour of her lips. What is she really like, under that blue hat? You remember past wonderings, across café tables for two. Her eye is just a little dark criss-cross, telling nothing. But the hand raised to adjust the rose in her lapel lets one white finger fall deliberately apart from the others. And look at that ear, so modest but so bare and unprotected. This is also a sensuality painting.

Scottish? I can hear an Edinburgh voice saying to the painter: ‘That’ll be you getting a long way away from Leith, laddie!’ Fergusson had been coming and going to Paris for more than ten years when he painted The Blue Hat. But there’s fresh amazement still blazing out of it: escape into a bright place of new colours, frank enjoyment, ecstasies which didn’t need to be hidden. So it’s a grateful painting - grateful for what John Maclean would soon demand for ordinary Scottish people: ‘Life, and all that life can give us!’ It’s all on offer in The Blue Hat.

Neal Ascherson appearing on the television programme 'After Dark', 10 July 1987.

Neal Ascherson (b. 1932) born in Edinburgh, is one of Britain's finest writers in an undefinable genre that fuses history, memoir, politics and meditations on place. A scholar at Eton, he saw combat in Malaya during National Service before going up to King’s College, Cambridge, where his tutor Eric Hobsbawm described him as "perhaps the most brilliant student [he] ever had." A career in journalism followed including a stint on the Scotsman. His books include the award winning Black Sea and Stone Voices an exploration of Scotland’s identity from its deep past to its early stirrings as a modern nation in search of independence. 

J D Fergusson, Self Portrait: The Grey Hat, 1909 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland. Photo credit: Perth & Kinross Council

John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874-1961) was born in Leith to a wine merchant father who underwrote his youthful determination to become an artist, leading to two stints at Paris Académies in the 1890s. On his return to Edinburgh his close friendship with Peploe led to a shared commitment to painting highly accomplished works that echoed the techniques of old masters and French moderns. The two would go on to become key members of the quartet known as the Scottish Colourists.

Fergusson’s full time move to Paris in 1907 plunged him into the social and artistic ferment with its exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse and Braque. Within months he was showing radical new work, influenced by the Fauves, at the progressive Salon d’Automne. In time Fergusson allied himself to a splinter group of the Fauves known as the Rhythmists, becoming founding art editor of its journal. Les Eus is seen as a key work of the Rhythmist movement.

The love of his life was Margaret Morris, one of the most innovative dance choreographers of the early 20th Century, whom he met in Paris before WW1. Having spent much of their time between Lodon and France, Fergusson and Morris settled in Glasgow in 1939, where he was revered as the Grand Old Man of the Scottish avant-garde. Explore works by Fergusson in the Fleming Collection here.

Other artworks in the series 'My Favourite Scottish Work of Art' have been selected by Brandon LoganJock McFadyenSam Ainsley (twice), Andrew O'HaganDenise MinaCaroline WalkerJohn ByrneSir James MacMillanJoyce W CairnsSir Tim RiceAlison WattIan RankinJoanna LumleyNeil MacGregorKirsty WarkMichael Portillo and James Naughtie.