Robert Brough’s art is often overshadowed by the trauma and tragedy of his untimely death; after suffering horrific burns in a train collision outside of Sheffield. A great friend and protégé of Singer Sargent, the older artist rushed to be with his friend in his final days and following his death curated a memorial exhibition in celebration of the young artist’s talent. Brough’s life was cut short during a steep upward career trajectory, he was very much a rising art star; working alongside Sargent and having recently been made an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy.
Brough displayed a talent for both art and music from a young age, and was greatly encouraged by the family’s neighbour, the painter Sir George Reid. With this support Brough found an apprenticeship as a lithographer in Aberdeen and used his earnings to fund trainings at Gray’s School of Art in the city, before applying to the R.S.A. Schools in Edinburgh in 1891. By the end of his first year, he had been awarded three prestigious prizes, thus beginning a notable career. Brough completed further training in Paris, enrolling at the Acadamie Julien in Paris with Scottish Colourist S.J. Peploe, before travelling on in search of Sisley at Moret-sur-Seine and then Gauguin at Pont Aven in Brittany. By 1894 he had returned to his native Aberdeen and his steady progress was being closely monitored by the local press, ‘When only three-and-twenty years of age Mr. Brough created some sensation and scored an undoubted triumph with two pictures shown at the Grafton Exhibition of the Society of Portrait Painters. His reputation already extended far beyond the confines of his native land. He had important pictures in Munich, Moscow, and in other leading Continental Galleries’ (1895, Aberdeen Daily Journal). Then by 1897, and the age of 25, he was in London working on society portraits alongside Sargent.
Close engagement with the offered works by this intriguing artist reveals his true talent and dexterity; his lightness of touch and sophistication across mediums particularly apparent. ‘Breton Women by Street Light’ is an atmospheric oil sketch, as Brough depicts the transient nature of early evening, as the light starts to glow through the windows, and skilfully captures the distinctive way that the white lace coiffed headdresses of the Breton women pick up touches of this reflected light. Brough achieves this with consummate ease, the paucity and economy of brushstrokes letting ones imagination fill in the gaps. The painting was included in the Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum’s 1995 exhibition devoted to the artist. In ‘Herd Girl,’ Brough reveals his ability in pastel, a tricky medium. The beauty of the girl is softly and deftly captured, while the brighter colours of the distant landscape seem to almost swirl around her, though highlights of these richer tones are picked out in her hairband; harmonising the figure with her surroundings. Brough creates a rich, warm surface to the work, smudging the pastel in certain areas, but leaving his gestural pigment lines visible in others, creating a striking and unusual contrast.
Brough’s talent and approach was beautifully summarised by his friend and mentor, Sargent: ‘. . . the grace, the fluidity, the lightness of touch that are so delightful in Brough; that very rare quality of surface that seems to make the actual paint a precious substance.’
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