John Bellany was born in the Scottish fishing community of Port Seton, north of Edinburgh. During the war years, while his fisherman father was away on active service, his mother spent protracted periods with her parents, Mr and Mrs Sonnie Maltman - also fishing folk, in the Berwickshire harbour town of Eyemouth. The years spent with his maternal grandparents were to have a formative effect on Bellany’s life. At his grandparents’ house in Eyemouth he was haunted by skulls on the seventeenth century gravestones in the old cemetery behind their street. A book recounting the Eyemouth maritime disaster of 1881 (the year of his grandfather’s birth), when the entire fishing fleet was destroyed by a hurricane thereby reducing the local population to women and children, lay on the table next to his bed. The dominant cultures of fishing and harsh Presbyterianism were all pervasive. Not long after his return from the war, Bellany’s father was advised to give up fishing by his doctor: anxiety about his safety was ruining his mother’s health. Dick Bellany set up his own boatbuilding yard in Port Seton and made model boats which have provided numerous references for his son’s paintings. Bellany’s earliest drawings were of boats, the individual characteristics of which everyone in the fishing community had learned to recognise in detail from a great distance.
Bellany attended the Edinburgh College of Art (1960-5) and the Royal College of Art, London (1965-8). He was inspired by the Scottish artist Alan Davie (born 1920) and the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) to attempt to create a specifically Scottish art. Rejecting the new fashionable wave of abstraction, he embraced figurative painting, engaged with the grand themes of life and death, good and evil and quickly developed his own symbolic language in which animals and humans merge and combine. Throughout his oeuvre, fish, birds and the sea recur. A talented draughtsman, Bellany turned to his immediate circle for his earliest portraits, painting an accomplished portrait of his grandfather at the age of fifteen. Over the years he has painted his parents, his sister Margaret, his grandparents, his wives and children as well as artist and curator friends and, more recently, commissioned portraits of well known public figures such as the sportsman Ian Botham.
The red crayon drawing, My Grandmother, and a pencil study made around the same time, also titled My Grandmother (see Tate T11752), have a particular significance for the artist and until recently hung in his dining room in Essex. These early drawings, made on trips back home during his years as a student in London, depict his maternal grandmother, Mrs Maltman. Bellany focused on the detail of her face, head and neck, using a concentration of fine lines to portray the wrinkles on her skin and her wispy hair. Her intense gaze out of the drawing at the viewer is particularly expressive. The contours of Mrs Maltman’s shoulders, arms and left hand are delineated minimally using spare line. Bellany painted his grandmother a year later in a painting entitled The Bereaved One (1968, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), which shows her propped up in bed with her open bible on her lap. As in the red crayon drawing, she is depicted full-frontally, looking directly at the viewer. Another painting, My Grandmother 1971 (collection the artist), features the same scene rendered more expressionistically. Although the figure sitting up in bed is recognisable as Mrs Maltman by her features, the scene has transformed into a nightmare vision: the headboard has expanded to become a huge black tomb-like frame behind the small, figure draped in white and three bird and skull-like figures, harbingers of death, hover in the large red space above and behind the bed. In 1985 Bellany made a posthumous portrait of his grandmother, sitting in the same position as in the drawing, My Grandmother, with the same title (My Grandmother 1985, Maxi/Hudson Collection).
John McEwen, John Bellany, Edinburgh and London 1994, reproduced p.65 in colour
John Bellany: New Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1985, pp.3, 18 and 28-9
John Bellany, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London 2004