Falkirk-born artist Dame Elizabeth Blackadder dies, aged 89

Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, one of Scotland’s greatest artists and the Queen’s Painter and Limner in Scotland, has died at the age of 89.

By Jill Buchanan
Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 9:07 pm
Updated Wednesday, 25th August 2021, 1:14 pm

Her work spanning over six decades saw her produce stunning landscapes, still life and flower paintings, working both in watercolours and as a printmaker.

The Falkirk-born artist died peacefully in her Edinburgh home on Monday.

Her husband, Scottish colourist John Houston, to whom she was married for over 52 years, had died in 2008.

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Dame Elizabeth Blackadder.

Prior to a major exhibition of her work in 2011 to mark her 80th birthday, Dame Elizabeth was described as a “national treasure” by John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland.

He said: “Elizabeth Blackadder is, quite simply, one of Scotland’s greatest painters. She has revitalised long-established traditions of landscape, still life and flower painting in this country; she could be described as one of our finest painters in watercolour or equally lauded for her work as a printmaker."

As well as the major event at Scottish National Gallery, further exhibitions to mark her landmark birthday were held, including in Falkirk’s Park Gallery.

‘Journeys from Home’ ran in partnership with the exhibition ‘Journeys Together’ running at Stirling University, which showcases her paintings and those of her late husband.

Born in 1931 into a family of engineers who owned the Garrison Foundry, close to Macfarlane Crescent, she was brought up in nearby Weir Street, in a house built by her grandfather. His lengthy trips abroad not only sparked her own interest in foreign travel but also in collecting objects which later appeared in many of her still life paintings.Although not obviously apparent, her roots in art came from close relatives. Her draughtsmanship qualities she attributes to her father, who died while she was quite young, but had been an excellent technical draughtsman, while a cousin studied at Glasgow College of Art but was tragically killed during the war.She previously recalled: “But my own interest in art really started when I was sent to live with my grandmother during the war at the Holy Loch in Argyllshire. I was very interested in botany from an early age and would paint plants, particularly wild plants that I saw.

https://www.falkirkherald.co.uk/education/watch-parents-fear-for-childrens-safety-at-no-wall-falkirk-primary-school-3357198“I learned a lot from doing my grandmother’s garden and that of her old friends. When I came back home, I went to Falkirk High School and announced that I wanted to study botany. They told me that I couldn’t study science and art, but I managed to get a Higher botany.”Some of her earliest work was drawings carried out along the banks of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals.She remembers her art teacher at the high school, James Scott, being a great encouragement to her.

It was the father of another schoolfriend, Professor Thomas Ferguson, who was instrumental in the young Elizabeth changing her plans to study in Glasgow to instead go to Edinburgh for a joint course where she could attend both the university and college of art.

“It was a great time and there was some very interesting people. There were people who were coming back from the war and picking up their studies, so for a young person coming from school it was very exciting to be part of.”A successful student, she picked up two travelling scholarships which allowed her to begin the trips abroad which proved to be the inspiration for much of her work.It was also when she was studying at Edinburgh that she met her future husband, John Houston. They married in 1956 and were able to travel the world together, incorporating the colours and atmosphere of the places they visited into their work.Italy, Greece, Istanbul and later Japan were just a few of the places which influenced the young painter.

She said: “I remember taking my mother with me to Venice – then putting her on the train back to Falkirk. I used to collect a lot of objects when we travelled and still have most of them in the studio.”Back in Edinburgh, she worked as a librarian in the university’s fine arts department, before joining her husband as a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art where she taught painting and drawing from 1962 to 1986.Her travels also produced many of the items which appeared in her still life works which have proved so very popular with collectors.When she and John were first married they moved into a flat above the celebrated painter Anne Redpath. “Polish people had it before us and they had painted everything green, the walls, even the marble fireplace, ” she smiled.The couple later moved to an imposing sandstone house in the capital, where they worked side by side in their own studios until John’s death. The large garden gave her much of the inspiration for her nature studies, as well as a playground for her cats, who also feature in her work.Over the years she received many accolades: the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy and Royal Scottish Academy, an OBE in 1982, then a Dame in 2003; and in 2001 she was appointed the Queen’s Painter and Limner in Scotland, the first woman in the 300-year history of the office. However, unlike the Poet Laureate, it doesn’t come with a requirement to produce work for special occasions or even paint portraits of the Queen.

However, despite achieving the highest honours in Scotland’s art world, she always appeared somewhat surprised and almost embarrassed by the fuss, preferring to spend her time in her studio doing what she loved best.

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