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Blackadder, joy and purpose

Walking into the Elizabeth Blackadder exhibition at the Edinburgh National Gallery I had the feeling that I had walked into the ultimate level 1 drawing submission. For those of you who know the courses, there was a view from one space to another, view through a window, landscape, still life with natural and man-made objects, townscapes, even the wee project about the chest of drawers and the fish on a plate. In this regard the exhibition could be seen as directly useful to level 1 fine art students and gave me an insight into the aims of the course.

Blackadder graduated from Art College in 1954 with some energy, winning a couple of travel bursaries. She was married to another young artist, John Houston , and their life must have been exciting and great fun as they worked alongside each other in a vibrant and supportive Edinburgh art scene. Blackadder lectured for twenty years at Edinburgh College of Art.
Having just visited the Gerhard Richter I was in a position to reflect on two artists who celebrated their 80th birthday in the same year. They have certainly travelled very different paths. Gerhard Richter’s work is important and challenging and has consistently looked out at the world and at art practice. Blackadder on the other hand, started out engaging with the art discourse of day as a young woman and has continued in a similar vein, developing a comfortable and enjoyable relationship with her work which gives her great pleasure, albeit on a much less ambitious scale. Although the artists are the same age, her work seems to be made by a much older person, perhaps because she was taught by people from an earlier generation and absorbed their influence rather than rebelling against it, and then continued to work from those ideas all her life.

I’m not sure the work stood up to a full scale retrospective; the most recent work which is slight studies of crabs and shells seemed to me to be too intimate and more for private consumption rather than public exhibition. These ideas about who art is for and how an artist’s ambitions for their work affect how the work is viewed and the subject matter are important to reflect on.
For students, I think Blackadder’s method of composing her paintings could be of great interest. She often divides her canvas into two or three large rectangles. This might be achieved by pinning up some big sheets of fabric, a kimono or a big shawl or sari. She then positions her still life in the space, maybe even pinning some objects up high, or using shelves or dangling things from hooks. This way the objects are arranged on the rectangles in interesting ways, not just on the table. I had a go at this for a group of students and used unusual gift bags pinned to a sari to create a formal arrangement of squares on a rectangle. The resulting drawings considered the whole space much more than usual and students were freed up to enjoy colour by the sheer extravagance of the set up.
Although the structure of this blog was meant to be a rotation of exhibition visit, studio diary and student work, I would just like to squeeze in a student painting into this blog. As I receive the date of birth on all student profiles, I know that my student Mary Ward is a mere girl in her seventies compared to Blackadder and Richter so I hope she won’t mind my mentioning her here. She has produced two of my personal favourite paintings ever from a level 1 painting student and I include one here.

There is so much to love about this painting, but the reason I include it here in a blog about motivation and one’s relationship with one’s work, is that it has been painted with such joy and purpose. Mary painted this out in the woods, and even making the effort to lug everything out there and sit in the woods in winter shows a certain level of desire to make the work. The painting is painted right up to and over the edges, it is constructed with paint, not coloured in, and the whole thing resonates with a kind of gusto and unselfconscious visual sensitivity and creativity. This painting looks as if it was absorbing and enjoyable to make and although it is sophisticated and beautifully composed and painted, facility with materials is not key here – the skill comes in the looking and the sustained engagement with the process.

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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11 thoughts on “Blackadder, joy and purpose

  • Being a lady fast approaching the same age as Mary and on the same course, I would like to give her my congratulations on this wonderful painting. She must feel so proud to have a tutor want to show us all what can be achieved in later life.
    I have just been failed on my first assignment, however I know that I can do so much better, Mary’s painting has given me new inspiration.

  • I’m sure Mary will be pleased Angie. I just wanted to pick up on your comment that you have failed your first assignment. I am sure your tutor would want me to reassure you that it is not possible to fail an assignment. Assignments are there to help you learn and develop, they are not assessed in that way or given any form of mark. Even the eventual marks that you do get for level 1 courses if you choose to be assessed as part of a degree don’t count towards your degree, to give you plenty of room to experiment and find your feet in the early stages. I wonder what you mean by ‘failing’? Maybe contact your tutor and clarify how you feel or reply to this blog and let us all chip in our two penneth! I hope you enjoy the course.

  • Yes Emma, this is what I thought, but this came from the college not even from the tutor himself! He didn’t even bother to write an assessment.
    I immediately asked for another tutor and she has taken the time to give me a very detailed report which enables me to go forward again.
    I’m also confused as to why I received such good feedback for the work that I did on the drawing course through the year, but the final assessment was very disappointing.

  • Hi Emma,
    many thanks for your post – I tried to see the Blackadder show but didn’t make in the end; but what you point as range of pieces directly relevant to the course layout of D1 was in part what intrigued me to see her work in such a comprehensive setting.
    I wonder though if the point of Richter’s work being big and important and hers joyful and conventional needs not a bit more context other than individual practice/ambition?
    What about the feminist critique of (West) Germany’s testosterone-driven ambitions in neo-expressionism in late 20c painting? Is the context of this/peers/art markets of the time not as relevant in understanding his paintings than is maybe a different context and art scene that can help us understand Blackadder’s joy in convention?

    • Hello Gesa, I agree that an exploration of these artists in terms of the relevance of their gender is useful, and I am not sure that a discussion of individual practice / ambition precludes this as the notion that we somehow exist separate from the forces that construct us does not hold much credibility these days.
      I was at art college in the late twentieth century and I can certainly report back that there was still a lot of sexism amongst the older lecturers although as painting was taking such a drubbing generally they tended to be seen as the old guard. There were no senior female lecturers at my college and the junior lecturers were almost all installation or conceptual artists. I found it quite liberating personally to be starting out at a time where it has been established that women were a allowed and b capable of producing paintings but as yet the field was wide open in terms of how that would play out as it had taken so long to recover from Ab Ex and Pollock’s ‘great art needs a pecker’.
      I feel personally that Richter’s work is more a response to the potential machismo of expressionism and his manipulation of expressionism as one of a collection of approaches expresses that desire to see the limits of expressionism as well as it’s potential. He seems fundamentally different and lighter on his feet than say Anselm Kiefer or Joseph Beuys.
      Alongside that it is also important to note that both artists were working through an era which saw the birth and flowering of feminist art practice and feminist art history and theory. The expanded field of art and the development of video, installation and performance art which was so champioined by feminist practitioners is visible in Richter’s work. I will have a poke about and see if I can find any feminist criticism of Blackadder’s work.
      I agree that Blackadder does have a direct lineage through to women’s creative activities throughout history in terms of still life, domestic interiors and flower and animal paintings, and the use of textiles. The politics behind those subjects are vicious, so all is not as it seems there and I think it is refreshing to look at Artemisia Gentileschi at moments like these to see what can be done by one superhuman woman with the correct weaponry.
      I do enjoy Blackadder’s humility and timelessness. I went back to the exhibition over Christmas to have another look and was struck again by the sense of entering a kind of time warp, not unpleasantly.

  • Angie’s comment about a disappointing assessment grade for her drawing course has struck a chord with me. Sadly, I now realise I’m not alone.
    I have just received my grade from the November assessment of Painting 1: Watercolour. Although I passed, I was rather taken aback by the poor marks I received for technical ability i.e. putting paint on paper! For goodness’ sake, is this not the essence of a painting course?
    Like Angie, I was led to believe that the work I was producing was of a good standard. I cannot fault my tutor – she was generous with her time and support, providing a wealth of creative suggestions for improving my paintings.
    But I now feel that the OCA has let me down, and that I haven’t learnt anything. How could I be allowed to get it SO wrong? Perhaps the problem is that it is not giving the tutors enough guidance about what the assessors are looking for. There appears to be a communication problem somewhere.
    I’m sorry to go off on a tangent from Emma’s excellent tutorial, but having read Angie’s comment I felt I had to add my thoughts too.

  • Hi Emma,
    many thanks for your long response and contextualisation -. Hm, yes, I can picture some of those painting departments. It’s an interesting one with domestic/feminine pursuits and I’m quite ambivalent about many of them (if asked, my gut would direct me towards Richter or Pollock’s paintings rather than Blackadder’s; so trying to unpick some of that gut feeling is one of the tasks).
    I had Rosemarie Trockel’s knitwear in mind (cross-referencing the blog on ‘needlework’). The other thing I was thinking of was also the intimacy of Scottish contemporary art scene and Blackadder’s place within it to possibly add another locating of her practice.
    Yes as to lightness: I feel leaden when looking at Kiefer’s work — as much as that is deliberate it is also problematic when it does more than the referencing of Germany history and firmly makes points of the present.
    Your blog post reminded me on the necessity to consider Blackadder — for the Drawing 1 course; but also in relation to how she constructs picture planes (something I admire in Matisse, and more easily explore in his work, but it is evident in hers too); your post and my formulating a response made me think of a number of further enquiries, which is great. If you do come across a feminist critique of her work: could you let me know.
    Many thanks again!

  • Gesa, I totally agree about the intimacy of the scottish art scene being a factor. Even today Glasgow and Edinburgh are very supportive of home growm talent and Blackadder is an official ‘national treasure’. Linda Nochllin’s essay ‘why are there no great women artists’ is a good ‘in’ to feminist art history. I have a copy of Old Mistresses by Grizelda Pollock and Rozsika Parker but I hesitate to recommend it as it is so of it’s time, although if you are interested in feminist art history then it is a fascinating piece of history in itself.

  • Referring to the comments made above at top by Angie and Emma, I only wish I had realised the same – eventual marks that you get for level 1 courses if you choose to be assessed as part of a degree don’t count towards your degree. I think I would have approached my first course in a calmer manner had I known this. Hopefully the knowledge will help me with my next course – Painting 1.

  • Dear Emma,
    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on the Blackadder exhibition. I visited the exhibition last November on my way to the OCA flute composition workshop and was inspired by the way Blackadder organises her objects in her (Japanese) still lives. In Blackadder’s paintings negative space is quite evenly distributed across the full painting and this influences how objects relate to each other. In what I would call traditional still lives negative space can mainly be found along the outer edges of the surface. I could see clear parallels with music composition. I often don’t consciously consider using silence as an essential element of music. Blackadder, however, has really made me re-consider this (see
    Thanks for sharing your views on Eizabeth Blackadder!

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