Ordinarily, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe’s birth would be a fairly straightforward exercise for Lesley-Anne Lettice and the team at Kirkcaldy Art Gallery. This year, however nothing is straightforward and the showcase of the well-known artist’s work has been prepared as an online treat for art lovers.
As Lesley-Anne points out, “As an organisation lockdown has encouraged ONFife to engage with our audiences in new, and ever more creative ways. Most of what we do – from borrowing a library book, to visiting an exhibition, – involved people coming into our venues. We’ve had to move all of that online.”
Kirkcaldy Art Gallery has historically been a great champion of the work of Peploe. The artist, born in Edinburgh in 1871, was part of the Scottish Colourists movement which included John Duncan Fergusson, Francis Cadell and George Leslie Hunter. According to Lesley-Anne, they had, “a shared love of light, colour and composition, they only exhibited together three times during their lifetimes. There were close friendships within the group and all four were influenced by the French Impressionists and by Matisse and Derain, with their bright colours and thick paint. Peploe also admired the work of the Cubists, such as Picasso and Georges Braque. He was always receptive to new ideas and he had the confidence to experiment in his own work.”
ONFife is lucky to own a rich collection of Peploe’s paintings, 46 in total, which is the largest collection out-with National Galleries of Scotland. “We always have some of our Peploes on display,” says Lesley-Anne, “as visitors come from quite some distance to see them.”
During the pandemic, Lesley-Anne and her team have been making great use of the Curations tool on the Art UK website: “Since 2003 Art UK has digitised over 220,000 paintings in public collections across the UK. It’s a fantastic resource as it allows us to create online exhibitions.
“As it was coming up to the anniversary [of Peploe’s birth] it seemed an ideal opportunity to create an online exhibition and raise awareness of our amazing art collection. Our Glasgow Boys exhibition a few years back was really successful but there are still lots of people out there who don’t realise quite how strong our collection is. We hope that seeing the paintings online will encourage people to visit our museums to see more. Photos are great but there is nothing like seeing a painting in the flesh.”
Reaching audiences via the internet may be a new challenge for ONFife, but Lesley believes that it is important for people to be able to maintain that connection to our galleries. “I think visiting galleries is a really effective way to de-stress,” she says. “They are such calming spaces. They enable you to just ‘tune out’, shut the outside world away.”
Finding beauty in the mundane
She feels that Peploe’s work in particular could also help us to find interest in the mundane: “We are all living under tight travel restrictions and are probably walking the same few routes for our daily exercise, seeing the same views and landmarks and perhaps feeling a bit underwhelmed by the familiar. Peploe often painted the same landscape over and over again, from different angles, at different times of day. Those small changes in colour, light and composition never failed to delight him. Similarly, his vibrant still-lifes are a joyful celebration of everyday objects – their colour, texture and shape. Peploe inspires us to take pleasure in the little things and try to look at them with new eyes each time, as he so clearly did.”
On a personal level, she loves Peploe’s Iona. “Just looking at it makes me feel calm,” she enthuses. “I can clearly imagine walking along that lovely, sandy beach, watching the waves breaking gently, not a soul in sight, just a few seagulls overhead, a beautiful view stretching for miles ahead of me. For me it demonstrates the power of art – to take you out of yourself and transport you somewhere else in an instant, to play on your emotions and alter your mood.” Another top choice is Flowers and Fruit: Japanese Background. “On a simple level I love this painting because every time I walk past it in the gallery it never fails to catch my eye. I see something new in it every time. On another level, it demonstrates Peploe’s skill in painting still-lifes – the vibrant colours, the confident brushstrokes, the composition – the way the objects are carefully arranged to draw the eye across, up and back down. I also like his nod to Japanese woodblocks and Kabuki theatre prints in the background.”
Visit the SJ Peploe – 150th Anniversary exhibition here.