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    Sale 7555

    Scottish Art The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

    23 October 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 176

    William Johnstone (1897-1981)


    Price Realised  


    William Johnstone (1897-1981)
    signed and dated 'William/Johnstone/1959' (on the reverse)
    oil on canvas
    18 x 22 in. (45.7 x 55.9 cm.)

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    This painting displays many characteristics of Johnstone's art and one encounters in it a number of the problems his work presents, but one also encounters many of the features which bring great satisfaction in his landscapes. It is fundamental to his working methods that he would create a flat area of colour on which to work and then, possibly at a later date, he would assault the canvas with strange, insistent markings in a black or dark blue. This is found over many decades in his painting. But he would often do this to a painting which he had previously considered complete and we seem to see in this landscape another painting lying below. Johnstone clearly liked the effect created by repeated, impulsive programmes of work on a painting, although it caused contemporary admirers deep unhappiness when he would take a beautiful work and obliterate it. This is dangerous, risk-taking painting but it is also exciting painting. First he creates a foundation or field: freely brushed areas of flat colour. When older, Johnstone would often not trouble with this preliminary but use areas of white-primed canvas. Thereafter, he builds on this ground a contradictory, enigmatic, black calligraphy which is almost in conflict with what is below, using a loaded brush to draw in paint on the earlier painting. It is carefully designed, as here: a balanced, rectangular area of calligraphy floating on the underlying field. Some of these perplexing marks can, however, be translated. They can be seen as an assemblage of landscape elements. Parallel lines can indicate a ploughed field. Mountains or hills are indicated by cones with an interior spiral line done with great mastery, using materials allowing of no correction. An upper horizontal line with crossbars might be a fence or indicate a strand of trees on the horizon. A circle can be a sheepfold. They are separate, distinct drawings but the design unites them in a single work of art. Much of this exists in nature. Johnstone wrote that he admired the high-tension power cables strung on pylons across the modern landscape which he saw as both sculpture and drawing. As both a farmer and a landscape painter he was constantly concerned with the engagement of mankind with the soil.

    Dates on paintings were added by the artist only during the 1970s and many are wrong. This eau-de-nil palette had, by this writer's current understanding, largely fallen from use before the end of the 1950s and a date from as early as the late 1940s is also possible for this work.
    We are very grateful to David Mackie, University of Cambridge, for his assistance in cataloguing lots 176 and 177.

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