James Howie (1931 - 2011) was an artist whose awe-inspiring Scottish landscapes are now being seen by some as masterpieces of their genre.
When in 1982 the renowned Glasgow art critic Denys Sutton was invited to choose the finest 25 living painters of the 20th century his choice included Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon and a comparatively unknown 50-year-old Dundonian who eschewed the conventional art scene and often sold his works for knock down prices just to meet his bills.
Later in 1982 the director John Schlesinger made a television programme about him in which the artist explored his attitude and relative lack of commercial success in a world where reputation is perhaps too much based on brand image gained through teaching and self promotion in the south. He explained: “I find London to be cluttered with man-made things. Nature is the force behind everything I do and in Scotland there is more evidence of nature. Either one paints as a vocation or as a career, it is probably impossible to mix the two.”
He was later offered and refused a chair in a leading Scottish art college on the grounds that the teaching would interfere with his painting.
Born in Dundee, the son of a printer at DC Thomsons, he loved the city dearly. After school at the Harris Academy where he excelled in sports he was at the city’s college of art where he concentrated on learning complex techniques in glazing. He also studied at the Liverpool College of Art before visiting Paris on a Royal Scottish Academy bursary.
After national service latterly as a sergeant running an educational facility in Liverpool he spent time in Ibiza and then in an advertising agency in Jamaica and worked for a while in London, learning in particular the art of canvas stretching and frame making. Mr Howie spent two years in Spain and returned to Dundee to lecture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art from 1962 to 1966. He was also a former artist-in-residence at the Gardner Centre for the Arts at Sussex University, and at Dudhope Arts Centre in Dundee
He perfected his style in 1983 when he spent a year on the waterless island of Formentera where he mixed his own paints, made his own gesso from rabbit skin and chalk and experimented with traditional glazes.
Here he perfected his painstaking layering of thin washes and glazes, scraping back and layering again and again so that in the end the finished canvas had an absolute smoothness and supernatural luminosity. Some of his paintings often took him months to create and he would alter them again and again until they sang a song that chimed with his.
Mr Howie exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and his work has been acquired by a number of public bodies, including the McManus in Dundee, the Glasgow University Art Collection, the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. His paintings also hang in private collections around the world.
He had a studio at WASPS in Meadow Mill for 15 years and, said fellow painter Jonathan Hood, acted as mentor for many young artists.
“He was a fantastic painter and he worked very meticulously on his paintings,” he said. “Painters in Dundee learned so much from him not only painting techniques but the whole meaning of the thing.”
His signature works were large canvases with colours drawn from the soft pallet of the semi-wilderness but often with large dark areas for contrast.
Some termed these works gloomy and introspective but their ambers often glowed and their greens shone and others saw them as expressions of stubborn hope in the face of adversity.
Such works sold well but often at prices that didn’t reflect the demand, for he was a lousy businessman, and there would be many who would wait for years to get their hands on a Howie and would be exasperated to find his exhibitions had sold out at the private view.
He was never part of the art establishment, his semi figurative works sometimes dismissed as being unfashionable and simplistic but it bothered him not a whit. He made no pretence of his almost biological need to paint, and more than once compared it with his other great need – to dance.
But it would be wrong to portray him as being just an insular artist for he was well read and politically aware and although naturally cheerful he was incandescent at some of the art initiatives that came to Dundee due to what he once termed the “dodgy men in silly glasses sent to put us right”. He was an efficient operator in the snake pit of art politics.
He loved to dance and could often be found dancing in Dundee night spots and indeed gained such a reputation for it that the legendary Dundonian song writer Michael Marra once included a reference to his dancing in a popular local ballad Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Taybridge Bar.
From James Howie’s Obituary in The Herald and The Dundee Courier