Strictly drawing room

It was a dealer’s stroke of genius, but art historical sleight of hand, to group together as “the Scottish Colourists” the four Edinburgh artists Samuel Peploe, John Fergusson, George Leslie Hunter and Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell in 1948, more than a decade after the deaths of three of them. Ever since, the quartet has occupied a convenient saleroom niche but the independent achievement of each one has been obscured. Cadell, the youngest and most Scottish, has particularly suffered: there is not a single work by him in Tate’s collection and his last retrospective was in 1942. Yet his synthesis of post-impressionism and modernism within a distinctive Edinburgh setting, and the pleasure offered by his rich, extrovert, diverse use of paint, as displayed in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s new exhibition, is thrilling.

All the colourists leapfrogged London’s feeble pre-war avant-garde to study in Europe but Cadell went first and furthest – to Paris, then Munich, then Venice. He returned in 1910 to paint Edinburgh drawing rooms with the textural swagger of Sargent, the delicate playfulness of Whistler and some of the expressive sensuality of Munich painter Lovis Corinth – notable in “Self-portrait”, which includes a giant palette like an angel’s wing almost the size of the painter’s body, jutting surreally across the surface, with the artist’s head framed by one of his own still-lifes.

Overriding these influences, what makes Cadell’s Edinburgh authentic is the cool northern light, the geometric rigour and repressive gentility of his Georgian interiors, and a 20th-century mood of instability. In “Afternoon” (1913) a still life of silver and porcelain in the foreground is isolated from a conversation piece featuring two elegant women in black, who in turn are unconnected with a sumptuous white female figure beneath a handsome mantelpiece. Within one tense composition, three paintings are held together by a dizzying series of reflections in a tall mirror, in the black polished floor and in the silver, with pale pink flowers and brief dabs of emerald, lemon and red giving flamboyance to a palette dominated by black and white.

This rarely seen masterpiece is set here in the context of Cadell’s Venetian apprenticeship and you see at once how the creamy paint, fluid brushstrokes, flicker of light on marble and mosaic, and sparkle of water, in works such as “Florian’s Café, Venice” and “St Mark’s Square”, have all been transferred to accomplish the feathery reflections of silver, glass, marble fireplaces animating Cadell’s depictions of Edinburgh’s New Town. A collection of virtuoso pre-war paintings – “The Black Hat”, “The Mantelpiece in Summer”, “The Model”– features women standing against mirrors that unsettlingly reflect some, but not all, of the flowers, silverware, candlesticks, fans, amplifying their grandeur. Others play on pictures within pictures – a seascape interrupted by a floral composition, beneath an oval mirror, caught in a sliver of light from a long casement in the rhythmic verticals of “Interior with Pink Chair”, for example – to question the nature of representation and reality.

The only colourist to make Edinburgh his subject, Cadell established himself in 1920 in some splendour at 6 Ainslie Place, installing a large chandelier of cut crystal to cast flecks of prismatic colour across a glamorous double living room, and a gold Japanese screen that offered multiple possibilities for experiments with flatness. The flower and leaves in “The Rose and the Lacquer Screen”, the anemones and chair in “Still Life with Lacquer Screen”, the fan and jug in “The Blue Fan”, are all as flat, stylised, formal, as the cropped screen. Cadell maintained the obsession with reflections and surfaces – the glass vase reflected in a polished table top in “Roses”, the gold legs and scarf shining in the black floor in “The Gold Chair” – that makes him so exquisitely a painter’s painter and also singles out his development from that of the other colourists.

‘The Blue Fan’ (c1922)

Although Cadell posed models in Ainslie Place – he admired, Peploe’s son remembered, “men who were masculine and women who were elegant” – only the muscular nude male portraits “Negro (Pensive)” and “The Boxer” are vibrant; the women have the static grace of still-life elements. Cadell’s real subject became the flow of space as marked by recessions and intersections of planes of wall, door, window: a geometry of line and colour defined by a block-like application of paint, hard, static, reminiscent of Matisse at this time.

“Interior: The Orange Blind” is a still-life of a richly reflective silver tea service, plus a double figure painting – again the pianist behind the folding doors and the lady in a broad-brimmed black hat are disturbingly separate – composed to explore the complexity of pictorial architecture. The shadows of the windowpanes make a formal grid, while the blind, drawn against the winter sun and glowing orange, is the focal point, contrasting with expanses of jade and black in the chaise longue and screen.

Only such lavish crème-de-la-crème settings – one recalls the strict yet sensuous world of Miss Jean Brodie – rendered these abstractions of pattern and design remotely saleable in 1920s Edinburgh. Cadell earned £2,500 in 1922 but after the 1929 stock market crash his fortunes plummeted; he earned £290 in 1931. He made ends meet with summer landscapes of the island of Iona, but he had to sell the principal floors of Ainslie Place and move upstairs to the servants’ quarters.

Eventually vacating these too, he was homeless, staying with landed friends and repaying hospitality with paintings. “Interior, Croft House”, looking through from one room to the next of his patron Ion Harrison’s country home, the walls lined with his own canvases, is a joyful painting about painting. You would never know it was the work of a man on his uppers, already suffering from cancer.

Cadell wanted painting to look easy. Admiring Whistler’s “amateurishness”, he dressed like a dandy, socialised ferociously, hid his difficulties (and his male lover, introduced for 20 years as his manservant), and died at 54 with an uncashed cheque from an artists’ benevolent fund found among his few possessions. This show, inaugurating a series of retrospectives devoted to each colourist demonstrates Cadell to be an original, much underrated British modernist master.

FCB Cadell, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, to March 18,

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