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James COWIE 1886 - 1956

ARSA 1936, RSA 1943

Biography

Born on a farm in Aberdeenshire, James Cowie progressed from local school to become art master at Fraserburgh Academy in 1909 before enrolling at Glasgow School of Art in 1912. After graduating, he taught for 20 years at Belshill Academy near Glasgow and it was here that during the 1930s he painted haunting portraits of his pupils. He made careful preparatory sketches in pencil or watercolour for these oil portraits and this drawing ‘The Firefighter’ may have been created for a larger portrait. Cowie was interested in the technique of painting, studying the methods of the Quattrocento artists as well as later innovators like French artist, Degas. He experimented with many media – oil, watercolour, pastel and gouache – sometimes combining all in one work.

He had an extraordinary ability to draw, grasping the essentials of a portrait or a landscape, and some of his portraits represent an aspect of British art rarely found in Scotland. At other times he moves towards a Surrealist approach, especially in his still life, which combine objects with art historical references. He has favourite objects – Tangara figurines, windows within windows, reflections. The visionary quality of his landscapes reflects his interest in the work of Paul Nash. He disliked the free Expressionism of fellow artist William Gillies and his followers, preferring a constructive, literary approach.

After a short period as Head of Painting at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, he moved to Hospitalfield at Arbroath, the postgraduate art school, where he painted and taught in the summer months. As a teacher he influenced a whole generation including Joan Eardley. He died aged 70.

The portrait of the firefighter in the Gracefield permanent collection is a fine example of his pastel portrait drawing skills.