William Johnstone


1927–8 and c.1948

Not on display

William Johnstone 1897–1981
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1381 × 2416 mm
Purchased 1981

Catalogue entry

T03292 GOLGOTHA 1927–8 and c.1948

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 54 × 96 (137 × 244)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: Painters in Parallel, Edinburgh College of Art, August–September 1978 (121); William Johnstone, Hayward Gallery, February–March 1981 (14, repr., as ‘Golgotha’ 1927–9)
Lit: Douglas Hall, William Johnstone, 1980, pp.48, 52 and repr.p.60 (as ‘Golgotha’ 1949–50); William Johnstone, Points in Time, an Autobiography, 1980, pp.116 and 322; Paul Overy in William Johnstone (exh. catalogue), Hayward Gallery, February–March 1981, p.6

'Golgotha’ was begun in Scotland in 1927, shortly after the artist's return to his home town, Selkirk, following a period of some eighteen months' study in Paris. Although it was not exhibited until fifty years later, this date is given in his autobiography and was confirmed by him in an interview at the Tate Gallery on 18 September 1981, a recording of which is in the Archive Department. He also wrote a note about the Gallery's two paintings, dated 29 September 1981. In general, despite this recent information, the work from this early period of Johnstone's career is difficult to date with complete accuracy since he habitually both reworked much earlier paintings, and made completely new works by partly painting over older ones. He has recalled that ‘Golgotha’ suffered minor damage from the blast of a bomb when in store at the South London Art Gallery during the war, and that when it was eventually returned to his studio and stretched it was repaired by one of his former students, Arthur Lucas (who later became chief restorer at the National Gallery), and that he retouched it himself at the same time.

From the autumn of 1925 to early 1927 Johnstone lived in Paris, studying drawing and attending the painting class of André Lhote. His paintings followed several styles, including both late cubist and abstract. He attempted, on his return to Scotland, to unite these various styles and find his own personal subjects, and was not concerned either to exhibit or to sell his work. ‘I remember the excitement, as a young man, of the many experimental paintings which Flora and I worked on in Selkirk after our studies in Paris, most of which were either re-painted, destroyed or sawn up into more portable sizes. I had already begun to move away from neo-abstract paintings with an undercurrent of cubism into imaginative, surrealist paintings more true, perhaps, to my Celtic background’ (Autobiography, pp.321–2).

He looked for a native Scottish tradition, and studied the incised drawing on Pictish monuments. A clear example of such influence of Celtic rhythms is the first version of ‘Painting, Selkirk’ 1927 recorded in a photograph before reworking (Douglas Hall, 1980, p.26). In other slightly later paintings, such as ‘Garden of the Hesperides’ (reproduced in colour in Studio, cxxv, 1943, p.13), the design is partly abstract and partly a group of nudes in a landscape. Johnstone painted a number of ‘studies of space and rhythm’ and also a group of pictures with vestigial figuration, but records (Autobiography, pp.115–6) that the motivation for the pictures began to be subconscious and to represent his feeling of disillusionment after the war.

'The culmination of this period of painting were three large (54 × 96in.) pictures called “Point in Time”, “Golgotha” and “Valley”. These paintings grew out of my horror of the disease of war, of the anticipation of future tragedy - they were never intended for drawing rooms.’

These works were produced in isolation in his studio at Selkirk, where his only contact with another artist was his first wife, Flora Macdonald, a sculptor and painter who had studied carving with Bourdelle. ‘Point in Time’ (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) was painted first, and was followed by ‘Golgotha’. The artist recalled how he and his wife carefully transferred the design of ‘Golgotha’ from a very large drawing onto canvas. The third painting, ‘Valley’, was repainted in about 1961. ‘Point in Time’ is similar in colouring to ‘Garden of the Hesperides’, with light blues and reds with heavily contrasting dark areas, and there is a suggestion of figuration in the design. The right-hand side of ‘Golgotha’ shows some similarity in design to the same area of ‘Point in Time’, and one shape is repeated in both paintings, but the design in general, as well as the colour, is remarkably different: the colouring of ‘Golgotha’ is predominantly a monochromatic brown, and the design is a static composition of horizontals around a central disc, and does not have the rhythm of ‘Point in Time’ and other works of 1927–8.

'Golgotha’ was retouched by Johnstone after the war, when he was living in Royal Avenue, Chelsea (1948–53). Like the years 1927–8, this was a productive period. Most of his painting done then was abstract, characterised by a background of geometric areas of warm colour with a contrasting foreground of painted black lines, usually not following the design of the background. It is in this style that he repainted the black lines of the original composition of ‘Golgotha’. The lines that are now visible seem to have been painted all at the same time, and are comparable to those in a number of paintings of about 1948 (e.g. Hall, 1980, pls.25, 26, 28, 31). The second photograph of ‘Painting, Selkirk, Summer 1927’ (Hall, 1980, pl.12), showing it after having been repainted about 1950, illustrates the radical alterations which he carried out on one of his other early works, and it is a deliberate part of the effect that there is a disjunction between the surface drawing and the design in colour beneath.

Johnstone confirmed that it was at this time, about 1948, that he copied freehand the design of ‘Golgotha’ over a recent painting of the same size, with which it had no connection in design (Hall, pl.336 and Hayward Gallery, 1981, cat.no.28).

The title ‘Golgotha’ refers to the account of the burial of Christ in the Gospel of St John (19, vv 38–42), though this is not represented directly in any way in the painting. The artist's note on this work (29 September 1981) mentions his upbringing as the son of a farmer, and the association he made between the landscape and religion, and the way that this became related to his experience of the 1914–18 war: 'Faced every year with the sowing of seed and harvesting of crops, with the birth of lambs and calves, and the inevitable death, I learned that whatever tragedy happens there will always be a rebirth, a regeneration; I sensed the primeval eternity of the land that was here long before I was born and would continue long after I was dead. The land itself taught me a deep faith.

'Although I was only in the army at the end of 1918, the whole long horror of the war was deeply bitten into my being.

'I came back to Scotland with Flora Macdonald in 1927. She was an American art student who had been studying with Bourdelle, whom I had married in Paris. In Selkirk we were able to work out many of the ideas we had seen and heard about in Paris. So I began to work on “Point in Time” as an anti-war picture, stemming from thoughts of the poisonous results of the disease of war. Then, following the same theme, I began “Golgotha”. This was, perhaps, a less active and more reflective picture. It conveyed a symbol of light, of resurrection growing out of death: of light after darkness: of rebirth, of hopefulness; perhaps a hope of immortality crept into it.’

'Point of Time’ and ‘Golgotha’ are exceptional as the only abstract paintings on such a large scale produced in Britain at the time they were begun. Johnstone and his wife were working in isolation in Scotland and were not in contact with any of the artists in London interested in abstraction. The two paintings are in effect derived from the cubist tradition, and the artists from whom he learnt included Lhote, Léger and Julio Gonzalez. There is a feeling of a landscape and figure subject in both paintings. The degree of abstraction in ‘Golgotha’ is possibly masked by the overpainting after the war, and it is likely that the paintings are in part abstracted from figurative subjects, but less consistently so than in ‘Garden of the Hesperides’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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