Often championed as one of Scotland’s greatest 20th Century painters, William George Gillies worked mainly in still-life and landscapes, fondly depicting scenes of East Lothian, Fife and the Borders.
Born in Haddington on 21 September 1898, Gillies grew up in the town and from an early age began to paint the streets of Haddington under the supervision of his art-teacher uncle, William Ryle Smith.
In 1916, aged 18, Gillies was accepted as a student at Edinburgh College of Art. However, his studies were cut short in the spring of 1917 when he was called up to serve in the Great War. Although wounded twice, Gillies returned safely to Scotland in 1919 and resumed his studies at the ECA that year. In 1922, Gillies founded the 1922 Group with fellow students and they began to exhibit around Edinburgh.
After graduating, Gillies was awarded a scholarship to travel overseas. He went with fellow student William Geissler to Paris where they attended the academy of the cubist André and for a brief period, Gillies worked in a Cubist style. However, he was generally more inclined to the figurative, and in his later work, only his still lifes show a general debt to Cubism. Discussing his forays into abstraction, Gillies stated ‘in still life I felt able to go into almost pure abstraction; in landscape there is a limit beyond which content vanishes completely.’ After his time in Paris, Gillies travelled on to Italy before returning to Scotland.
In 1925, Gillies started teaching Art at Inverness Academy before moving back to Edinburgh to take up a teaching post at his alma mater, the ECA. Here, he would continue to teach for the next forty years and eventually become Principal. Throughout this time, Gillies persisted to produce influential work of his own, and continued to paint after his retirement in 1966. In 1970, Gillies was awarded a large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy; he also received a knighthood for his services to Scottish art and was elected Academician of the Royal Academy.
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