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Books: Review - The Last Bohemians: The Two Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde. By Roger Bristow

The two Roberts: MacBryde, left, and Colquhoun in their Bedford Gardens studio i

Published: 17 June 2010
by FIONA GREEN

HOMOSEXUAL when it was dangerous and illegal to be so; brilliantly talented, yet never stellar; romantic to all who met them, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were truly the last Bohem­ians, and one of the most enduring relationships of their time.

Roger Bristow’s book is a scholarly work, lovingly written with a keen eye, and is a timely re-establishment of these two fine painters in a deserved league along with their peers as two of the 20th century’s important artists.

They were destined to be together for 30 years and produced a body of work, within the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1940s. Bristow focuses on the 1940s and 1950s – when they were most famous – before Colquhoun’s early death.

“The two Roberts,” as they were known to everyone, came from working-class back­grounds. They met at Glasgow School of Art in 1937 when they were in their teens, and became inseparable.

In this period, nationalistic tendencies pervaded Scottish thinking and encouraged a negative attitude to English influence; artists looked to Europe, and France in particular, as the national partner for an exchange in cultural interest.

Having established quite a reputation in Glasgow, their talent and dedication to work paid dividends.

From the outset, it was realised by the art school, that these two had exceptional gifts, so when they both applied for a travel scholarship, it was so hard to know which of them to award it to. Realising the unique nature of their relationship and need for mutual support in their creative endeavours, they gave one to Colquhoun and, in a highly unusual move, MacBryde’s came from the pocket of the Dean. There followed an excursion to European galleries and opera  houses – for music was as important to them as painting. The advent of war forced a return to Britain and a desperately uncertain future without their scholarship money; conscription for Colquhoun followed.

It is poignant to read how the authorities eventually rallied to Colquhoun’s aid, after the lengthy and indefatigable efforts of MacBryde and got him into suitable alternative artistic employment for the war effort, thereby saving the relationship, and perhaps his life. Both men moved to London to carry out this work. They were taken up by West End galleries, never to return to Scotland.

A productive life followed filled with work and generous patronage by wealthy connoisseurs like Peter Watson. Along with success came the entertaining – and this was to be their downfall, as drink took over their lives.

Not much has ever been written about the rich and diverse culture of British art schools at that time, but those of us who lived in them know how certain artists got a sort of folk hero reputation. I was studying at the Bath Academy of Art in 1961 when I first met the two Roberts in London with fellow Glaswegian artist William Crozier, who lionised them.

It was only following Colquhoun’s death, in 1963, that I remet and grew to know MacBryde well and started to appreciate his work. He was living with the poet Elizabeth Smart, on allowances given by their friend and my lover, the dancer Johnny MacDonald, who came from Colquhoun’s home town of Kilmarnock.

We’d meet in the French pub, or the Caves de France, and go to the Kismet or Mandrake Clubs, then later walk north to pubs in Fitzrovia. Robert was great company for me at 18, gentle and caring; he would sing marvellous gaelic songs or dance in his graceful fashion. Sadly he never painted consistently again. 

The Last Bohemians: The Two Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde. By Roger Bristow. Sansom and Company £29.95

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