Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937) was the youngest of the four artists known as the ‘Scottish Colourists’, along with J. D. Fergusson, G. L. Hunter and S. J. Peploe. He was born in Edinburgh and trained at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Academie der Bildenden Künste in Munich.
Cadell visited the Hebridean island of Iona for the first time in 1912. Such was the inspiration which he found in its light, natural beauty and expansive views, that he returned there regularly until at least 1933. His trips could last from three to five months over the spring and summer, when weather conditions were at their best. Initially he stayed at the St Columba Hotel, but later he rented various cottages, most frequently Cnoc cùil Phàil, which had views over the Sound of Iona to neighbouring Mull.
The congeniality of working conditions on the island is revealed by the many joyous paintings, watercolours and sketches Cadell created there. He preferred to work outdoors, responding directly to his surroundings. He was happy to be watched during the creative process and became a well-known figure in the community, nicknamed ‘Himself’.
One of Iona’s distinctive features is its beaches of white sand, which sparkles underneath the soft Hebridean light and through which varied rock formations emerge. This can be seen to particularly beautiful effect in the North End, to which Cadell was repeatedly drawn. In addition, he depicted other beaches and sandy coves, including at Port Bhan, views across and beyond the island, such as to Ben More on Mull and architectural features like the Abbey and Village. He took pleasure in the rhythms of daily life, portraying the islanders at work on crofts, visitors relaxing in idyllic circumstances and boats under sail and at the jetty.
Often working on easily transportable boards measuring 15 by 18 inches, Cadell came to adopt a technique used by his friend John Duncan, of using an absorbent white ground. As a result, many of his Iona paintings carry the carefully inscribed legend on their reverse of ‘Absorbent Ground Never Varnish.’ Peploe was to follow suit when Cadell introduced him to the island in 1920, resulting in his own repeated summer visits for the rest of his life.
As well as painting en plein air on Iona, Cadell also made sketches and watercolours whilst there. These enabled him to capture moments of island life and fleeting sights which combine acute observation with an immediacy of technique, realised on an intimate scale.
As Jessica Christian and Charles Stiller have pointed out: ‘He worked very quickly to capture the essence of a scene and could finish a watercolour in as little as twenty minutes, some of these rapid, vibrant sketches being especially effective.’ (Jessica Christian and Charles Stiller, Iona Portrayed: The Island through Artist’s Eyes 1760-1960, The New Iona Press, Inverness, 2001, p. 59).
Executed with swift, confident brushstrokes, his technique made the most of the texture and colour of the paper support, sometimes deliberately leaving areas bare as contributions to the overall palette and image. Cadell’s prowess in this medium was recognised by his election to the Royal Society of Scottish Paintings in Watercolour in 1935.
Iona played a key role in Cadell’s career. It provided more than twenty years’ worth of enjoyment, professional inspiration and vital income from the sale of the work he made there.
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