James Cowie 1886-1956
T03549 An Outdoor School of Painting
Oil on canvas 864 X 1651 (34 X 65)
Inscribed ‘J.Cowie' b.r.
Purchased from the artist's daughter Dr Barbara Cowie (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: Dr Barbara Cowie 1956
Exh: RSA, Edinburgh, April-Aug. 1943 (136 as ‘Frieze'); The Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, Oct. 1943-Jan. 1944 (642 as ‘Frieze'); Four Scottish Painters: James Cowie, John C. Lamont, Archibald A. McGlashan, Robert Sivell, Scottish AC, Edinburgh, 1948 (2 as ‘Students Painting in the Open Air. A Frieze'); James Cowie 1886-1956 Memorial Exhibition, Scottish AC tour, Glasgow Art Gallery, March 1957, Paisley Art Gallery, April 1957, Perth Art Gallery, April-May 1957, Dundee Art Gallery, May-June 1957, Aberdeen Art Gallery, June 1957, Arbroath Art Gallery, June-July 1957 (26 as ‘Frieze - An Out-of-Door School of Painting' 1938); James Cowie: the Artist at Work, Scottish AC tour, Collins Exhibition Hall, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, April-May 1981, Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries, May-June 1981, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, July-Aug. 1981, City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Sept.-Oct. 1981, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, Oct.-Nov. 1981, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Dec. 1981-Jan. 1982, Fine Art Society, Jan.-Feb. 1982 (28 as ‘Frieze- An Outdoor School of Painting')
Lit: Richard Calvocoressi, James Cowie, RSA, 1886-1956. The Artist at Work, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1978, pp.9-10; Richard Calvocoressi, James Cowie, Edinburgh 1979, p.15 pl.34; Cordelia Oliver, James Cowie, Edinburgh 1980, p.58
The memorial exhibition catalogue of James Cowie's work records that this picture was ‘begun in 1938 from studies made at Hospitalfield but never completed' (p.11). Cowie held the post of Warden of the Patrick Allan-Frazer School of Art at Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, on the east coast of Scotland, from 1937 to 1948. The figure at the easel, stripped to the waist with back turned, is believed to be the painter Robert MacBryde (1913-1966) who, with his friend Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962), was a student of Cowie's at Hospitalfield in the summer of 1938. The other three male figures are in fact separate portraits of the same person, Wastel Cooper. Cowie's daughters, Ruth and Barbara, modelled for the two female figures. From Cowie's sketchbooks it seems likely that the figures were observed indoors and not in the open air. An oil study for the painting (Calvocoressi 1979, pl.35) includes tall partitions suggesting a studio background. This sketch also demonstrates that Cowie changed the composition in other ways: the girl standing in the centre foreground, for example, was originally a young man, his back turned towards the spectator; and the right-hand male figure in the final painting is also a later development (in the study there are two figures adopting different poses). At the extreme right of T03549 a third girl lies asleep on the grass, her head resting on a book. Cowie used this figure again in a painting of 1946, ‘Noon', (Scottish Arts Council, Calvocoressi 1979, pl.41) which contains an explicit sexual charge.
The wooded background was probably based on the park surrounding Hospitalfield House. It reveals more than one lightly sketched-in standing nude, evoking a classical Arcadian landscape. Cowie's interest in formal devices such as frames, windows, stretchers and other geometrical structures is explored in ‘An Outdoor School of Painting', where the inclusion at regular intervals of canvas and easel gives a sense of focus and balance to the complex horizontal rhythm of inward and outward turning heads and bodies. In its processional format, no less than in its thin dry paint texture and use of pale colours, T03549 resembles a fresco. The original title of the picture was ‘Frieze'. Cowie greatly admired quattrocento painting and would frequently try to emulate its techniques. In 1950 he was commissioned by Edinburgh Corporation to paint a mural (something he had always wanted to do) for the Usher Hall. The project appears to have come to nothing, although Cowie exhibited a sketch entitled ‘Music (Study for a Mural)' at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1951.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.503-4