Throughout his painting career he concentrated mainly on the genres of landscape, seascape and still life. He worked over many years internationally, in France, Spain, Italy and Ireland, returning to favoured locations, but the greatest number of his landscapes and seascapes are of the West Coast of Scotland, especially on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, on the most westerly point of mainland Scotland and on the island of Colonsay. The still lifes were painted in his elegant and unique Studio home in Glasgow, at Charing Cross.
John Cunningham exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts and at many private Galleries in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and elsewhere. His work is also held in numerous public, corporate and private collections worldwide.
In his lifetime he was a highly acclaimed and respected artist and since his death in 1998 his reputation has continued to grow. Art historians now see him in a direct line of tradition that stretches beyond the exuberant, strong and precisely balanced work of the Scottish Colourists to the immediate engagement with Scotland’s nature, scene and ethos one finds in the world of William McTaggart at the end of the nineteenth century. But nothing about his paintings is nostalgic or retrospective; they are rather instantaneously engaging and enlarging of vision and appetite for Scotland’s characteristic landscapes, seascapes and the poised, attentive qualities of the still lifes - the particular pleasures of linen, furniture, crockery, fruit and wine.
The vision of his paintings was an expression of the man. John Cunningham was a large, charismatic character who loved life abundantly and whose paintings reflected his joy and passion for colour, displaying bold, confident brush-strokes along with subtle sensitivity. His landscapes and seascapes were all painted outdoors with only a few minor touches to be added in the studio. This gives his work a wonderful freshness and vitality with the immediacy of the moment captured. By going to the places, soaking up the vision and perspectives of the people who lived in those places, and painting the vision with a professional attention to its subtleties and variations, he produced a unique body of work. His landscapes are typified by a sense of connection to the earth itself, an honesty about the places depicted – nothing is sentimentalized or diminished – and a lavish generosity of engagement with colour, tone, shade and light. No one since McTaggart has been so attentive to nature’s constant restlessness in clouds, waves and wind, in grass and branches. He loved the justice of nature, its hard truths. He lived by them and knew their rightness and respected them.
Although he can be seen in a major tradition in Scottish art, he is nevertheless a painter whose approach was uniquely his own. Any work by John Cunningham is immediately identifiable at a glance and from a distance, and the spark of spontaneity and vitality in the execution is never lost in the final painting. They are permanent components of it and form values that distinguish all his work.