William Johnstone was expected to continue the family business and take over Greenhead Farm from his father once he came of age. Instead, he went to art college. Duncan Macmillan has suggested that ‘if to become a painter he left the land, being a painter brought him back to it’. However, Johnstone’s autobiography makes clear that he never truly overcame the guilt he felt for betraying his father.
Workshop dates to 1920, the year after Johnstone enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art with the assistance of an ex-service grant. After spending his teens working on the family farm, he was conscripted to the army in 1918, and spent much of his service as an agricultural labourer. Workshop portrays men preparing to slice a hewn tree trunk into planks, and demonstrates the artist’s continuing interest in manual labour and industry. Indeed, it can be read as the work of a young man caught between two worlds: at once enamored with his new life as an artist, yet also tormented by his abandonment of his former, prescribed livelihood.
William Johnstone recalls that he never felt particularly inspired by his teachers at Edinburgh College of Art, whom he believed lacked passion. The only staff member under whom he enjoyed studying was Henry Lintott, a painting tutor and founding member of the Edinburgh School. Lintott was a significant portrait artist who usually portrayed sitters within atmospheric, dimly-lit surroundings with soft light illuminating their form, and minimal detailing to the background in order to concentrate attention on his subject. Johnstone’s 1922 portrait Violet, painted three years into his College studies, may therefore constitute an acknowledgement of the work of his preferred teacher at College. Johnstone only turned to portrait painting in around 1921-22, and this oil therefore offers an exciting insight into the artist’s early essays in a new genre.
Stylistically, these two paintings demonstrate William Johnstone’s early assimilation of modernist ideas, which are not apparent to the same degree in Lintott’s painting. This might be indebted to a broader ideological shift at the College led, naturally, by certain teachers: John Duncan, in particular, was an enthusiastic proponent of modern art, and while he is not mentioned in Johnstone’s autobiography, perhaps his influence at the College encouraged the young Johnstone’s experiments with modernist principles. A 1925 Carnegie Travelling Scholarship would enable him to paint in Paris for several years, precipitating fruitful investigations Cubism and abstraction.
The auction also features two works on paper dating to later in Johnstone’s career, when he had achieved renown as an important modern Scottish artist.
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