John Lowrie Morrison is one of Scotland’s leading contemporary landscape painters.
Family background contributed to both a deep love of art (his maternal grandfather, Henry Lowrie, was a brilliant water-colourist), and a profound religious faith, though it was not till later in life that the latter became specifically denominational.
Landscape has been a major strand in British painting since the eighteenth century – nowhere more so perhaps than in Scotland. From the classical style of Nasmyth and Moore, through the romantic vision of Knox and McCulloch, Scottish painters were among the first to adopt the plein-air approach of the Impressionists and, later, it was dominant theme of the Colourists, continuing during the years leading up to the Second World War, since when, it is figurative painting that has tended to attract the attention of critics and the media, particularly the work of the New Glasgow Boys and their followers.
Though a prizewinner at Glasgow School of Art for figure – drawing, since establishing himself as full time painter, Morrison has concentrated largely on landscape, using a signature developed during a Latin class at Hyndland Secondary School and prominent on his paintings since 1985.
After a Diploma in Education at Jordanhill College, he began teaching in Argyll in 1973. His enthusiasm and conviction ensured a series of promotions culminating in a post as Art Adviser for Strathclyde, covering Glasgow, Dumbarton and Argyll: an example, perhaps, of one aspect of the “Peter Principle” whereby the best people are promoted or move to posts where their special talents are no longer practised. He now lacked time for the development of his own work, the driving force of any committed artist. In 1997 he severed all formal links with education and determined to earn a living as a full time painter, spending most of the six years painting in Argyll and the Hebrides.
Earlier travels in Europe had introduced him to work of Soutine and Chagall, whose use of colour had profound effect on him as did the work of the German Expressionists but in this case not a tortured, angst-ridden world-view but a different, optimistic expressionism whereby his paintings would exhibit his joy at the landscape viewed as the result of the interaction of God and man. He would paint a landscape not as he saw it but as it affected him often after long period of assimilation and contemplation.
He travels extensively, constantly sketching and photographing anything that catches his eye – a building, a mountain or a beach, a flash of colour on a rock or other object, an effect of light. Each image will be reviewed mentally against his deeply researched knowledge of the area – its geology, geography, history economy, folklore and his own experience of it in various seasons, times of day and weather.
The final work is completed in his studio in Tayvallich, where he will often complete up to four paintings in a rigidly timetabled day.
Much of his earlier work, from 1970 to 1996 was in gouache (opaque water-colour) but since 1997 he has worked almost exclusively in oils, which are more suited to the highly personal style he has developed. He applies the pigment “wet-on-wet”, using no medium and usually mixing them to produce the precise colour he requires. His palette, now a mound of dried pigment, is a major feature of his studio.
The dramatic colours of Jolomo landscape also have a function beyond merely representing what is seen. Since the early Renaissance, particular colours have been used for the symbolic value attached to them. Red represented the colour of glory – so God is frequently represented in a red cloak – it is also the colour of sacrifice so Christ is often similarly garbed. Blue, the colour of the clear sky is symbolic of purity and so associated with the Virgin Mary. Other colours, such as green and yellow were often avoided as they were regarded as “composite” colours, which had bad connotations and would only be used for the robes of evil-doers or traitors.
Jolomo’s use of colour carries a parallel programme of emotions: red conveys excitement, orange is warming and energising, yellow stimulates confidence and draws the eye. In many of his paintings, blue is frequently a key colour used for its calming and healing properties, while the associated violets and indigos stimulate awareness and intuition respectively. White and black are both used to enhance the effect of other colours as well as adding their own qualities of illumination and energy to the canvas. Jolomo condenses the energy of colours which help to stimulate the viewers’ inner perceptions.
Until recently he avoided the use of green in his landscapes as too easy, too obvious and also because there was difficulty in achieving the exact colour that he saw in his mind’s eye. He has now developed his own olive/emerald green, based on a mix of several colours.
A Jolomo canvas will frequently contain a high key colour, balanced with a darker pigment – an almost chiaroscuro effect, though not in a late- Renaissance way merely for dramatic visual effect. For him it serves as an allegory of the struggle of the human spirit – a constant battle between light and darkness.
His output is prodigious – over a thousand paintings a year, to fulfil a punishing exhibition schedule in galleries thoughout the United Kingdom and more recently, abroad. Most exhibitions have a specific theme, whether it is a particular locality such as the Crinan Canal, Tayvallich and Knapdale, the Islands of the West, the Clyde Riviera, or more specific subject such as flowers, castles and lighthouses, crofts, or a combination of both as in “Night Falls on Knapdale”
It is, perhaps, surprising that the majority of his canvases rarely feature figures. He feels that their presence would distract the viewer from the main purpose of his art – the glory of the natural landscape. At the same time, we do see the mark of Man on the landscape, in his frequent use of such motifs as the croft by the shore, a boat by the croft, a peat stack, a washing line, or a more modern power line pole. Sometimes it seems that someone has just exited the canvas – a gate swings open or a ladder leans against a half-painted wall, a reminder of humanity’s constant interaction with the environment.
Only in a powerful series of religious paintings do human figures dominate and in these there is a powerful examination of the anguish associated with the crucifixion of Christ and the effect on his Disciples.
Jolomo’s decision to devote himself to painting has also enabled him to embark on a course of theological study, which has culminated in his appointment as a Reader in the Church of Scotland. For many years he has been a carer, and financial success has enabled him, with the support of his wife, Maureen, to work on the national scale as Patron of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers in addition to supporting many other charities.
His devotion to landscape painting has led to the establishment of the Jolomo Lloyds TSB Scotland prize for new or emerging landscape painters which he hopes will encourage a revival of interest in the genre.
Former Keeper of Decorative Arts.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum.