Modernist Pioneer

George Leslie Hunter

Scottish Art specialist, Nick Curnow, looks at the position of the Scottish Colourists in the European Modernist movement of the early 20th century, with a particular focus on the still life work of George Leslie Hunter.

Recent scholarship has affirmed the position of the four Scottish Colourists in the development of Modernism in the early 20th century. Works such as this from the high-point of Hunter's career in the mid-1920s represent the unequivocal evidence of their involvement. Academics now agree that the Colourists have been somewhat erroneously written out of the art history of the period, when in fact their presence during and immediately after the fermentation of Modernism, and their understanding of the artistic developments in Paris ongoing, was unrivalled by their English counterparts.

Hunter was in Paris as early as 1907 where he became a fervent admirer of Cezanne and a devotee to the principles which underpinned the artist's practice, particularly as regards form and perspective. Further visits in the early 1920s and exposure to the increasing strides Matisse was making - pushing colour to the extreme as both a formal and decorative device - resulted in Hunter assimilating these qualities into his own work. By 1923-26 he had emphatically hit his stride as an artist, creating a style that was progressive and distinctly his own. Thanks to a series of critically and commercially well-received exhibitions in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and Paris he was, by this time, a relatively well recognised and celebrated Modernist.



George Leslie Hunter Still Life
A STILL LIFE OF FRUIT AND FLOWERS WITH PERSIAN CURTAIN | Signed, oil on board | 68.5cm x 56cm (27in x 22in) | Sold for £221,000 (inc buyer's premium)


Scratch the surface and the high regard in which his work from this period was held is not difficult to glean. There are telling exhibition reviews discussing his "recognised position among the younger generation of artists," and praising his "daring and harmonious" compositions. In a letter to a friend in 1924, Hunter references a particularly notable commendation from the prominent Parisian art dealer Etienne Bignou: "Bignou told McNeill (a collector) he thought Matisse the only man in Paris the equal of Peploe and myself." The recording of history can be both biased and fallible, but the primary evidence clearly indicates that Hunter's status was prominent in certain influential circles of the time.

When considering a work like the example illustrated here and due to be offered in our next Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction on 07 December, such praise is easy to understand. One of a series of much-celebrated still lifes, it features some of his recurring components; a highly patterned and decorative Persian curtain, a gleaming mahogany table top, an arrangement of roses, and an elegant porcelain fruit dish. It's an ambitious composition, but each element is expertly balanced. Hunter had spent much time developing a sense of line to match his masterful use of colour, and this work demonstrates the summation of those efforts. He succeeds in drawing the viewer's eye across the varying passages of paint, from decorative, textured impasto to broader fields across which the eye smoothly travels.

Given what we know about Hunter's struggles with ill physical and mental health, and the disheartening opposition all of the Colourists faced from the staid art institutions of Scotland, paintings like this sing with the confidence of hard-won and well-deserved recognition from the art world's progressive elites.




Dates for Your Diary



Scottish Paintings & Sculpture | 07 December 2017 | 6pm
Meet the Specialist

Nick Curnow | 0131 557 8844 |


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