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The Last Bohemians: Robert Macbryde and Robert Colquhoun

An excerpt from biography of the neo-Romantic artists, Robert Macbryde and Robert Colquhoun by Roger Bristow.



In April 1971, a huge mural suddenly and mysteriously appeared on the face of a stone quarry in the upper slopes of Craigie Hill, a well-known beauty spot several miles outside Kilmarnock, a large semi-industrial town in southwest Scotland. The artist ­ or possibly artists, for the mural was over 55 metres (60 yards) long ­ was unknown. It was a vigorous abstract work executed in household oil paints. What was especially intriguing about this enormous painting, however, were the words daubed on a nearby boulder proudly dedicating the work 'TO THE GREAT COLQUHOUN ­ OUR GREATEST LOSS'.

The words referred to the artist, Robert Colquhoun, who had been born and raised in a working-class family living in Kilmarnock prior to the Second World War. With his close companion, Robert MacBryde, with whom he was to spend his entire adult life, he had achieved enormous success and international acclaim as an artist before sinking into obscurity and eventually dying at the age of forty-seven, nearly nine years before this astonishing mural appeared. His devoted partner, MacBryde, who had been brought up in nearby Maybole in even more modest circumstances than Colquhoun¹s, outlived his friend by a mere four years before his life, too, was cut tragically short in a street accident in Dublin.

The unexplained appearance of the mystery mural excited considerable interest in the local press. The mural and the subsequent article that it provoked were beneficial publicity for a small but vociferous lobby of Colquhoun devotees who wished to propose the founding, in Kilmarnock, of a memorial to their local artist. To this end, they were successful. The local council was sympathetic and the town¹s large and prestigious art gallery and museum ­ The Dick Institute ­ offered its support. Even more fortuitous was the fact that Colquhoun¹s sister, Sheila, his sole surviving close relative, had recently unearthed a bundle of over three hundred of her brother¹s early works. (Colquhoun¹s mother had died in 1969, his father in 1970 and his brother, John, in 1971.) These were to form the basis of the Colquhoun Memorial Gallery when it was decided that a fitting tribute to the artist¹s memory and reputation would be the establishment of a permanent site showing these and other of his works (and a few of MacBryde¹s) that the Institute had purchased.
Robert Colquhoun was to receive the recognition in his home town that, in spite of great success elsewhere, had eluded him in his lifetime and the years following his early, tragic death.

Regrettably this posthumous honour was short-lived. Five years after the inauguration of the Memorial Gallery, Sheila Colquhoun (now Wilson) withdrew the loan of the collection of drawings. Even the annual memorial prize, now seen as an unnecessary extravagance by an increasingly cost-conscious council, was discontinued.  The apparent indifference, once again, to the work and reputation of Colquhoun was symptomatic of the British art establishment¹s wider disregard for him and for MacBryde. This, however, had not always been the situation.

At the height of their success, in London during the mid- to late-1940s, Colquhoun and MacBryde, or the 'Two Roberts' as they had become widely known, were quickly acknowledged as two of the most talented of the younger British painters to emerge during the early, angst-ridden years of the Second World War. For a few brief years their reputation as 'The Golden Boys of Bond Street' remained at its zenith. Not only was their work regularly shown to great critical acclaim at the Lefèvre Gallery in London ­ one of the most prestigious showcases at that time ­ but their extraordinary charisma and the strength of their individual characters gave them a near-mythical status. MacBryde, with his animated features and beguiling charm and Colquhoun¹s rugged handsomeness and stoic allure made them extremely appealing. At a time when male homosexuality was not only illegal but also actively persecuted, they made little attempt to disguise the fact that to all intents and purposes their relationship was a marriage. This public display of courage and honesty combined with their burgeoning reputations and undeniable talents ensured that they had a constant stream of admirers, both male and female, who regarded it as a pleasure and privilege to be in the Roberts' company, enjoying the widely-revered generosity and charm for which the two artists soon became famous. The large circle of friends that grew around them included the painters Michael Ayrton, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Minton as well as the poets George Barker and Dylan Thomas, all of whom would attend the regular Saturday and Sunday soirées that the Roberts held at their fashionable studio in north Kensington. This was quickly recognised as the meeting place for many of the most exciting and creative people in London at that time.

As early as June 1943, when still in his twenties, Colquhoun was described by the critic Robert Melville in his review in the weekly magazine The Listener as 'the most promising young painter England [sic] has produced for a very long time.' By 1947, the artist Wyndham Lewis, who had succeeded Melville in his role as art critic for the magazine, wrote in a review of a mixed exhibition at the Lefèvre Gallery containing examples of work by both Colquhoun and MacBryde that Colquhoun was 'generally recognised as being one of the best ­ perhaps the best ­ of the young artists'. He further went on to say 'Perhaps I should have said Colquhoun and MacBryde for they work together, their work is almost identical and they can be regarded almost as one artistic organism.'

These were not the words of one man dogmatically swimming against the tide of current opinion (as Lewis had sometimes been known to do), for he was only echoing similar opinions stated by other eminent art critics including Neville Wallis and Eric Newton. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, wishing to extend its collection of contemporary British painters, sent Alfred Barr, then Director of Collections, to London to purchase works from some of the new wave of British artists. He selected five works ­ by Francis Bacon, Edward Burra, Lucian Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

Contemporary art enthusiasts in America would have been familiar with the work of these painters having seen some of the many touring exhibitions of recent British painting that were organised by the British Council; works by Colquhoun and MacBryde were regular and prominent features of these exhibitions.

By this time, works by the Roberts were in the collections of the Arts Council, the British Council, the Contemporary Art Society and the Imperial War Museum as well as being represented in the private collections of some of the major art patrons of the time. Success then seemed to have come to them speedily, but the road to that period of public esteem and its material benefits had been at times intensely hard, deeply stressful and fraught with risk.




Roger Bristow, the author, lives in West Cornwall. The Last Bohemians is available from amazon.co.uk: