In August, Edinburgh’s City Art Centre opened its doors for a surprising exhibition: a major retrospective by an artist no one had heard of. Edwin G. Lucas lived and worked in Edinburgh all his life, and produced an extraordinary body of modern painting but, when he died in 1990, was entirely unknown in the art world.
The work on show is a rich and confident oeuvre exploring many of the facets of modern painting including cubism, surrealism and abstraction. At a time when much of the Scottish art establishment was still suspicious of modernity, and most artists with an experimental bent were heading for the continent, Lucas created these paintings without leaving either Edinburgh or his full-time job in the civil service.
The story of how he did it is told in the accompanying book by City Art Centre curator Helen E. Scott. It is a reminder that talent alone is no guarantee of recognition or success, and that an artist who emerges in the wrong place, without the right connections, might find it difficult to attain his or her moment in the sun. But it is also a reminder that public or critical recognition is only one part – perhaps a lesser part – of what making art is about.
Edwin G Lucas was born in Leith in 1911 and grew up in Juniper Green; the landscapes of the Pentlands and the Water of Leith feature again and again in his work. At George Heriot’s, he showed aptitude for art, but his family stopped him applying for art school, determined that he would not suffer the fate of his artist uncle, George Handel Lucas, who had struggled financially. We don’t know the extent to which Lucas tried to appeal this decision. However, when he left school in 1929, he took a job in the Estate Duty Office, which enabled him to study for a degree in Law, and continued to paint. At first, he painted landscapes in watercolour in his spare time, submitting them to artists’ exhibiting societies. He might have continued like this, a civil servant with a weekend painting hobby, but he took a very different path. Scott’s piecing together of how this came about is a matter of deduction and guesswork, but goes something like this.
Through his tennis club, Lucas met Anne McDonald Smith, a student at Edinburgh College of Art. They became good friends, and Lucas was drawn into a circle of young artists studying at ECA in the 1930s, including William Gear and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. On at least one occasion, they holidayed together at Carradale, Argyll. A photograph from the time shows Barns-Graham painting Lucas’ portrait – he is perched on the back of an armchair wearing what appears to be a wool sweater, a jacket and a pair of shorts. It’s the briefest window into a time of easy camaraderie of which other records – including the painting – are now lost.
While he might have felt that he was done with surrealism, it was not done with him.
It must be remembered that Edinburgh in the 1930s was a fertile place for the avant-garde. The research done by Alice Strang at the National Galleries of Scotland for the exhibition A New Era: Modern Scottish Art 1900-1950 reveals how artists’ societies in the city were exhibiting work from Europe. The Society of Scottish Artists, for example, of which Lucas was a member, showed work by Klee, Braque, Picasso, Dali and de Chirico in the 1930s. Hubert Wellington, the principal of Edinburgh College of Art, had turned the college into one of the most progressive in the UK, while Stanley Cursiter, at the National Galleries of Scotland, was hatching an ambitious plan for a gallery dedicated to modern and contemporary art in a new Bauhaus-influenced building off Queen Street. Margaret Mellis, another member of Barns-Graham’s circle, who moved to London in 1937, proclaimed it rather dull by comparison.
In 1939, the New Era Group – five young artists, including Gear and Tom Pow (father of the writer of the same name) – held their first (and only) exhibition in the city. Their work was ambitious and colourful, responding directly to developments in European painting, and to the growing interest in psychology and the unconscious. All this must have rubbed off on Lucas who, in 1939, began a productive period of painting engaging with similar ideas.
He began working in oils in the mid 1930s and, when Barns-Graham left Edinburgh in 1939, started to sublet her studio in Alva Street. A slew of ambitious paintings followed: ‘The Shape of the Night’, one of his earliest works inspired by surrealism, which is now in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland; ‘Moonlit Walk’, with its Van Gogh-like sky; the densely patterned semi-abstract ‘The Outpost’ and ‘A Light on the Styx’, placing geometric shapes within a landscape, in a way reminiscent of Paul Nash. Lucas would describe this period later as ‘a brief flirtation with surrealism’, which he believed ended in August 1940 when he painted ‘The Schism – Final Diagnosis’, also called ‘A Farewell to Surrealism’. But, while he might have felt he was done with surrealism, it was not done with him. Its influence can be seen in many of his works for the next decade.
As a conscientious objector during World War II, Lucas was assigned to hospital work in Stirling and then Inverness. However, in 1944, he was back in Edinburgh, renting the studio in Alva Street under his own name, and painting as productively as ever. By this point, he regarded his watercolour landscapes as ‘divertimenti’ – light diversions from the main purpose. His focus was his oil painting, which he pursued as determinedly as ever.
Although the only formal training he had was at evening glasses at ECA, Lucas lacked neither ambition nor confidence. Breaking with traditional, representational forms of art takes courage – it is not unusual to see artists in this period, Paul Nash among them, struggling to make that break, trying out a range of approaches to the problem. Lucas seemed to apply himself to this with vigour, combining representative elements (he was a very fine draughtsman) with pattern, shape, symbolism and colour. All of his paintings are colourful. A visit to his studio on a dreich Edinburgh day must have been like walking into a paintbox. In this, too, he bucks the trends commonly associated with Scottish art.
Helen Scott describes his approach as follows: ‘Using surrealism as the starting point for his mission, he cultivated an original and highly imaginative manner of painting according to his own idiosyncratic vision of the world. He referenced wider modernist approaches, but ultimately his work was unique.’ Lucas did not pin his colours to any ‘school’ or movement. He might have suffered for it; galleries prefer artists to inhabit the pigeon-holes of recognizable styles. But, like Burns’ ‘man o’ independent mind’ he seems to have been quietly proud of his stance.
His independence of mind also mani-fested itself in his use of strikingly diverse styles. He wrote little about his own art, but in one autobiographical note in the 1980s, he wrote that ‘the purpose of art was the enlargement of experience and, in painting, that meant continual innovation and the refusal to create a personal style by self-repetition’. This, too, he stuck to, faithfully. In the City Art Centre, his strange and threatening domestic scene, ‘Together’ (later renamed ‘Terrorism’) hangs near ‘Girl on the Bus’, colourful and cubist, and ‘The Human Situation’, symbolist and reminiscent of Dali or Yves Tanguy. Each could be the work of a different artist, though confident draughtsmanship and a love of colour runs through all.
By 1950, Lucas clearly felt it was time to set out his stall and get his work noticed. He held an exhibition in the New Gallery, Shandwick Place – very likely renting the space himself – and showed 94 works, oils, watercolours and drawings. If this was to be his big introduction to the art world, he was to be disappointed. The Scotsman critic sounds a little nonplussed by what he saw: ‘This is an idiosyncratic show in which nature is generally seen in a bizarre, patterned and highly coloured way.’ He praised Lucas’ ‘excellent qualities of draughtsmanship’ but concluded: ‘In some of the portraits, as in most of the landscapes, the work is individual in the wrong way.’
Lucas tried again the next year with a second show, at least half of which was new work. It took place during the festival, and – perhaps swamped by the number of events happening elsewhere in the city – got fewer notices than the previous show. Less than a year later after that, he stopped painting, and did not paint again in oils for thirty years.
In 1952 Lucas stopped painting, and did not paint in oils again for thirty years.
This was no fit of pique. Lucas’ sons describe him as a mild-mannered and modest man who now had other priorities in his life. In 1952, at the age of 41, he married Marjorie McCulloch, a fellow law graduate, and the births of Frank and Alan followed. In an autobiographical note written in 1989 (as always, in the third person) he wrote that ‘in the atmosphere of domestic and family responsibilities the conditions in which he had formerly worked no longer existed’.
But he did not forget about painting. A room in the family home in Ann Street was always known as ‘the studio’. In 1980, after he had retired and his sons had left home, he returned to painting, looking back at the canvases he had stored and, by his own admission, finding them ‘quite impressive’. The paintings produced during the next few years, though relatively small in number, seem to flow seamlessly from those he made in the 1950s, working with the same ideas and moving them forward. For perhaps the first time, he worked with pure abstraction.
However, if he had hoped for a late flourishing, it was cut short by problems with his sight. In 1986, he wrote, poignantly, in his diary: ‘Farewell dreams of doing anything significant in the painting line. I shall still paint, but for my own amusement.’ In 1990, the year he died, he donated ‘Caley Station, Edinburgh’, one of his most striking paintings, to the City Art Centre collection, making it the first of his works to enter a public collection.
It is possible to understand the story of Edwin G Lucas as a series of missed opportunities: if only his family had allowed him to go to art school; if only his experimental work had been picked up and encouraged; if only he had worked in a signature style. Yet, he seems not to have been disappointed. His last self portrait, painted in 1986, is the work of a man who has the measure of himself, taking a calm, clear-sighted look at his life without regret. Scott writes: ‘More important to Lucas [than recognition] was his fidelity to his personal creative vision, his restless search for an expression of artistic truth that was unfettered by establishment conventions or popular trends.’
It’s possible that the Scottish art world in the 1950s was not ready for Lucas’ extraordinary work. The majority of Scottish artists at the time working with the avant-garde succeeded outside Scotland. He lacked a strong connection with an art school, or with an established group or movement, which might have offered connections and support. Yet, recognition can be a double-edged sword. Commercial success brings its own pressures, to conform to fashion, or continue producing work in a style which has been successful rather than experimenting with new ideas. Lucas was in a situation some artists might envy: financially secure, and free to do exactly what he liked.
And he did. The lack of attention his work received seemed, chiefly, to give him greater freedom. Every painting was a fresh experiment. It is one of the things which gives his work its uniqueness. It is not without irony that he is finding a new audience today, in an art world which seems to value uniqueness above all. Those who champion his work today can do so secure in the knowledge that there is no such thing as being ‘individual in the wrong way’.