Alexander Goudie: Swaggering Scottish Painter whose cycle illustrating Tam o’Shanter led to accusations of blasphemy from the Wee Frees.
by James Knox
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday April 27th 2004
Alexander Goudie, who has died aged 70, was a Scottish painter whose work encompassed many strands, including portraiture, pastoral realism and the applied arts.
His greatest single achievement was a magnificent cycle of paintings inspired by Robert Burns’s Tam o’Shanter. Goudie summed up the poem, which had captivated his imagination since childhood, as “a gothic tale, strewn with vivid and awesome images”.
The Tam o’Shanter series, completed in 1996 and donated to South Ayrshire Council by three benefactors, is on display at Rozelle House, a stone’s throw from Alloway, the setting for the poem. Comprising 54 large paintings, it establishes Goudie as a master both of dramatic composition and pictorial mood, capable of handling complex scenes of bucolic conviviality as well as nightmarish visions of hell and damnation.
His treatment of the black mass in the Auld Kirk, which contains, as his friend, the singer Kenneth MacKellar, noted, “more than a hint of spectral sex”, led a minister of the Wee Free Church to protest at the picture’s blasphemy.
The narrative cycle brims with much of the energy of the original poem: Goudie used mixed media to achieve his effects, marrying passages of charcoal line drawing with highly accomplished painting. Sly humour pervades the series. A depiction of Tam about to roast in Hell – “like a herrin” – bears scorch marks on the frame. Which were meticulously applied by Goudie with a blowtorch.
The compelling narrative cycle, beautifully realized, was the culmination of a lifetime’s experience and observation as a painter.
Alexander Goudie was born on November 11th 1933, the son of a Paisley plumber, and drew constantly, even as a small boy. Paisley Grammar School was followed by the Glasgow School of Art, where he won a clutch of awards, including the Somerville Shanks prize for composition His teacher, David Donaldson, a great influence, although later a fierce rival, acquired one of his pupil’s drawings at his Diploma Exhibition. Visits to galleries in Britain and france informed Goudie’s artistic ambitions. The great set-piece compositions of the French Realists such as Millet, Courbet and the Pont Aven School, particularly Gauguin, had a lasting impact.
Marriage in 1962 to Marie-Renee (Mainee) Dorval, the daughter of a Breton doctor, transformed his life. Henceforth holidays were spent at the small fishing port of Loctudy, where Goudie delighted in depicting the local way of life, peopled by farmers and fishermen, “stalwart characters, sundrenched and blasted by wind and rain”. Equally favoured were their harvests, which inspired succulent still lives before the subject matter was served at table.
In Glasgow, Goudie’s career, particularly as a portraitist, quickly freed him from the need to teach for a living. Despising the camera, he demanded where possible, numerous and lengthy sittings from his subjects, who included the Queen, the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the comedian Billy Connolly.
At his most successful, Goudie, who drew upon the lessons of both Raeburn and the Spanish masters, produced robust portraits, full of insight, but always with a touch of swagger, especially in his virtuoso handling of fabrics and decorations.
Goudie was never afraid to take on new opportunities, whether sculpture, ceramics or opera design. His most spectacular undertaking was the complete interior decoration of Le Bretagne(1987-89), the flagship of Brittany Ferries. Menus, blinds, carpets, china, murals and paintings, all bearing his stamp, turned the ship into a floating art gallery. For a period, Goudie took the lease on a studio in Tite Street, Chelsea, which had once belonged to another hero, Augustus John, but for the most part, he lived and worked at Arnewood House, a High Victorian palazzo in the west End of Glasgow, originally built for a blast furnace millionaire.
Here the magnificent staircase, galleried hall, hung with a large cage of fluttering and cooing doves, the black dining room and vivid green drawing room with a sofa and chairs upholstered in black and white stripes, provided the perfect backdrop to Goudie’s theatrical persona.
Visitors who discovered him in his studio, a slight figure with long wavy hair, pointed beard and watchful, humorous eyes, and always hidden amidst a labyrinth of vast canvasses, were provided with an introduction to Bohemian Glasgow at its most ostentatious. A dedicated dandy, he designed his own clothes, providing sketches for his tailor’s guidance.
MacKellar, who worked with him for many years on the Scottish International Education Trust, recalled how “he would arrive late at our sober suited meetings, wearing tartan trews, a yellow waistcoat, foppish shirt and cravat loosely tied”.
Invariably MacKellar would dryly remark: “You’re back again Sandy, underdressed as usual.” MacKellar, too, pin-pointed Goudie’s refined Scottish accent as betraying “a wee touch of Potter Hill” the salubrious residential district in the East End of Paisley.
For all his achievements and bravado, Goudie was prone to feuds. Dealers, Art Institutions and Clubs were typical targets. Goudie was a natural outsider, but his sensitivity was inflamed, with some degree of justification, by the modern art establishment, made up of influential critics and bureaucrats, which was loath to acknowledge his talent.
Goudie, confident of his own ability, had the misfortune to work under an alien artistic regime; one where his gifts as draughtsman and painter challenged the orthodoxy.
“I have not intentionally set out to ride roughshod over most of the 20th century’s sacred cows,” he wrote of the Tam o’Shanter series, “but simply to tell a story in pictures and to speak with a clear voice.” It took great artistic courage to undertake a cycle of narrative painting at the end of the 20th century. For his admirers, Goudie, who died on March 9, may either be seen as one of the last in a distinguished line of European painters, or as a precursor of contemporary realism.
His wife Mainee survives him, along with two sons and a daughter.