On 11 December several pieces by the Scottish Colourist, George Leslie Hunter, were offered in our Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction. Head of department, Nick Curnow, takes a closer look at the life of Hunter, focussing particularly on his still life work.
Hunter lived an erratic life, plagued by tragedy and struggle. He battled with physical and mental illness throughout his life and in a very bittersweet set of circumstances died relatively young, just as he felt his career was taking off, following the purchase of one of his paintings by the French State for their national collection. When informed of the sale, he reportedly claimed ‘I have been kicking at the door so long, and at last it is beginning to open.’ Yet despite all of these setbacks his paintings remained full of joy, life and most importantly, colour.
"Everyone must choose his own way, and mine will be the way of colour" - George Leslie Hunter
Born in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, Hunter’s family then emigrated to California, so his formative years and influences are markedly different from the rest of the Scottish Colourists. Though, like Fergusson, Hunter was self-taught. His work as a freelance illustrator in the States funded a trip to Paris around 1905, and he returned permanently to Scotland following the destruction of what is thought to be virtually all of his paintings and possessions in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. After a financially difficult few years, he came to the attention of the art dealer Alexander Reid, who organised his first solo exhibition in Glasgow in 1913. This was the beginning of a successful partnership with Reid and an on-going series of exhibitions. The economic freedom Reid’s support and contacts provided allowed Hunter to travel extensively between London, Scotland and France, for the rest of his life.
In the early stages of his career, until the end of WW1, while the other three Colourists were regularly in Paris and creating some of their most innovative pictures, Hunter remained focussed on the work of seventeenth century Dutch masters, as well as the paintings of Chardin and Manet. He was committed to painting still-life compositions of flowers, fruit and glassware against dark backgrounds, and during his early visits to Paris, viewed Post-impressionist painting by artists such as Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse with horror.
After the War, however, Hunter developed a deeper understanding of Cezanne’s radical approach to painting and began exploring the same principles in his own work, moving away from naturalistic depictions and using different approaches to demonstrate the ‘weight’ of an object. From 1919, he experimented with his still-life paintings, creating balanced compositions with textural surfaces, and pale background colours highlighting the vibrancy and freshness of the fruit. Despite using cool colours alongside contrasting bold shades, he masterfully balances them into a coherent, harmonious artwork. Specific items, such as a distinctive black vase from Still Life (Illustrated right, Sold for £61,250), appear repeatedly in these paintings. By 1923-25, in paintings such as A Still Life with Fruit and Flowers on a White Cloth (Sold for £94,850), he was experimenting with different compositions, focussing on a darker background, with distinctively patterned curtains and a panelled door adding interest and texture to the backdrop and allowing him to create pattern across the entire surface of the painting. This allowed him to combine his developments inspired by Cezanne’s view of form with the flattened, design principles demonstrated by Matisse into his own vision and style of still-life painting.
Hunter was never satisfied with a particular style or approach for long and was always looking ahead, claiming "I cannot go back. It is impossible for an artist to retrace his steps. He must go forward." So he continued to develop his style, writing to Reid in 1928, "I am working in a thin fashion." This was a completely new approach for Hunter, which he developed following a period of working mostly on drawings. He used this thinned paint technique, with areas of exposed canvas, to create expressive still-life and landscape compositions, including Still-Life of Mixed Flowers (Sold for £22,500). For the most part, Hunter’s experiments in creating his own style and approach from the principles of European Post-Impressionist art were extremely successful creating lively, vibrant paintings. However, he did sometimes struggle to finish works and to negotiate a successful composition, this was not helped by recurring health problems and his unfortunate habit of attempting to ‘improve’ paintings after a night on the town.
During this period of committed artistic development in the 1920s, Hunter also exhibited for the first time with the artists now known as the Scottish Colourists, Peploe, Cadell and Fergusson: in Paris in 1924, London in 1925 and finally in 1931, again in Paris.