Still life force

Samuel Peploe spent a lifetime striving to create the perfect still life. It was an unfashionable thing to do in the first half of the 20th century, and would be an inconceivable way for a painter to forge a reputation today. But a few artists are so obsessively single-minded, and mine a narrow field with such virtuosity, subtlety and individuality, that conservatism becomes radicalism. Peploe, as the National Gallery of Scotland’s new retrospective stunningly demonstrates, was the greatest still life painter in British history, and a daring prewar British modernist.

SJ Peploe is the third in a series devoted to the Scottish Colourists, following a significant reappraisal of Francis Cadell last year and an exhibition of Leslie Hunter launched in Edinburgh in July and now at London’s Fleming Collection. It concludes next year with a focus on John Duncan Fergusson, allowing the distinctive strengths of each of the quartet to be appreciated for the first time.

If the Colourists had a leader, it was Peploe, who left Edinburgh for Paris to absorb lessons about the seismic shifts taking place in European painting. Methodical, cool and sober, he responded initially not to the fireworks of Matisse or Picasso but to Manet, father of modern art and the impressionist for whom the studio tradition was most important.

In the acutely weighed still lifes “The Coffee Pot”, a brilliant counterpoint of glinting silver and glass on a bright white tablecloth against a dark background, rich in after-dinner atmosphere, and “The Lobster”, the livid creature placed with lemon and bone-handled knife on a table barely distinguishable from a gloomy ground, enlivened with a streaking red signature nodding to oriental calligraphy, Peploe emulates Manet’s technique of first painting in light areas, then adding darks and half-tones while the paint was still wet, to create lush, oily surfaces. Unlike anything else in British art at the time, such works won him an immediate following in Scotland.

Peploe’s letters recount that the openness and flair of French life unlocked the expressive side of his inhibited, cerebral personality, shaped by a Presbyterian upbringing. Canvas by canvas, we watch an artist in the making here as, enthralled, Peploe quickly assimilated the lessons of modernism. “Girl in White” (1907) has the thick creaminess and fluid handling of Whistler via John Singer Sargent, whom Peploe met in Paris. The patchwork of roofs and fields of “Ile de Bréhat” (1911) emulates Cézanne’s solid geometry of forms. “Tulips and Fruit” (1912) echoes the stabbing, furrowed strokes and pronounced outlines of Van Gogh, as well as Matisse’s flat patterning. The spatially compressed “Still Life” of the same year, painted using a broad brush loaded with acid yellows and emerald greens, with the forms sharply edged in blue, is an experiment in cubism. All are joyful, chromatically bold yet calmly reasoned compositions.

Then in 1912 Peploe, just turned 40, came home. Family reasons – he was the only Colourist to marry (happily, a Hebridean postal worker) and have children – probably urged a return that was reluctant: “You’ve no idea how stupid and beastly it is here. There’s nothing but healthy-looking people with golf clubs,” he told his wife. Yet the seclusion was decisive for his art. In Edinburgh during and immediately after the war, Peploe devoted himself to developing more formal still lifes, meticulously wrought, rhythmically satisfying, with effects suggestive of Edinburgh’s cool clear northern light but also distilling recollections of heat and brightness. Corresponding to the return to order of French art, these works are nevertheless original and independent of it.

Supremely balanced arabesques of drooping flowers against a cobalt background draped with lengths of fabric in “Still Life with Tulips” and “Tulips and Fruit” dominate sinuous linear pictures with Fauvish hues – tulips, Peploe wrote, have “so many colours: orange, pink, different pinks, a strange one – pure brick red – which is my favourite; so sensitive to warmth; the tulip with the strange hot smell which seems to stir deep memories, long-forgotten cities in a desert of sand, blazing sky, sun that is a torment; mauve ones, cool and insensitive.” More sombre are the beautifully lit forms and shadows in “The Ginger Jar”, while the multilayered, angular painting-within-painting designs of “Flowers and Fruit (Japanese Background)” and “Interior with Japanese Print” recall the stylised deco interiors of Cadell, the only artist Peploe visited in Edinburgh.

‘Still Life’ (c1912)

Cadell’s interest in mirrors may have influenced Peploe’s innovation in the 1920s – the use of an absorbent gesso ground to give increased reflective qualities, demanding that paint be worked speedily. Peploe now restricted his props – blue and white porcelain vases, a fan, a few books – and replaced the dancing tulips with static roses in pale pink or upright lilies in cold whites. His niece recalled how he “would arrange and rearrange these groups [of objects] for perhaps three days before he was satisfied that the balance and composition were perfect, then he would paint them quite rapidly”. The summary approach, looser brushwork, muted colours, unvarnished surfaces and chalky effects that emphasise the flowers’ fragility, characterise these masterpieces from Peploe’s last decade: “Pink Roses in a Japanese Vase”, “Roses”, “White Lilies”.

“There is so much in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what not – colours, forms, relation – I can never see mystery coming to an end”, Peploe wrote in 1929. It is hard not to see intimations of his own mortality in the final works here, the abstracted, condensed “Roses and Fan” and “Martagon Lilies”: overripe flowers in soft, fleeting brushwork, fields of vision so concentrated that not even studio background is implied, cropped compositions capturing a moment between full bloom and decay – apparently at snapshot speed but, in fact, warily, painstakingly staged.

Peploe died in 1935; he always disregarded worldly success and the Scottish market had already swallowed most of his paintings. Long overlooked in narratives of British art – Tate has only one work – he surely embodies the truism that most great artists are culturally specific as well as universal. As his grandson Guy Peploe writes in the catalogue here, “it is as if the independence of mind and intellectual probity of the Scottish Enlightenment had been put to use to serve ... visual splendour”.

‘SJ Peploe’, Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until June 23

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.