[1] John Bellany RA, Self-portrait of John Bellany RA, oil on board, 1966 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] John Bellany RA, The Pianist Entertains, oil on canvas, 1987 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] James Hunkin, Black and white photograph of John Bellany RA, silver gelatin print, May 2000 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - August 2016


John Bellany RA (1842 - 2013)

John Bellany grew up in the East Lothian fishing community of Port Seton, and both the sea and his strict Calvinist upbringing were to be the greatest influences on his life and work. His maternal and paternal grandfathers and his father worked in the local fishing community and he once said that "I love to paint. At heart, however, I am a mariner".

The most prolific and acclaimed Scottish artist of his generation, his paintings explore the complexity of the human condition, employ bold primary colours and proliferate with marine imagery.

In 1965 he moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, from which this early self-portrait dates [1]. The sea and religion are signified by the seagulls circling in the distance and the crucifix visible around the artist's neck. This work was previously owned by Carel Weight RA who donated it to the academy, and was head of the Painting School at the Royal College of Art during Bellany's time as a student there.

During the 1980s, Bellany went through one of the darkest and most tumultuous periods of his life, spurring a series of paintings of which The Pianist Entertains is one such work [2]. He suffered liver failure, the death of his second wife and father and survived a major liver transplant operation, after which he immediately began painting again, much to the amazement of his surgeon. The Pianist Entertains features several autobiographical elements. In the top left hand corner, the detail of the fishing boat The Star of Bethlehem is a reference to his childhood and the theme of fate is explored through the group of characters sitting around the table playing cards. The two cards facing upwards are the Ace of Hearts, symbolic of love and the Ace of Spades, in the form of a Celtic cross, symbolic of virtue.