Matthew Jarron, Museum Curator, introduces the latest exhibition in the Tower Foyer Gallery at the University which invites you to enter the dream-like world of painter Robert Leishman SSA RSW. Although nationally renowned in his lifetime, this is the first significant exhibition of his work in over 30 years. It features a range of oils, watercolours and drawings from throughout his career including works never before seen in public.
Robert Leishman was born in Inverkeithing, Fife in 1916. Tragically his father had been killed in the war just weeks before. He attended Dunfermline High School then Edinburgh College of Art, where his tutors included John Maxwell, William Gillies and the Dundee-born David Foggie. He graduated in 1938 then went on to do teacher training at Moray House before joining the army on the outbreak of war. It was during the war that he married his first wife, whom he had met at school. Sadly the marriage did not turn out to be a happy one, which may have encouraged his escape into the fantasy world of his paintings.
After the war, Leishman returned to Fife to begin a career teaching art in schools. However he was also committed to developing his practice as a painter. Fellow art teacher David Lockhart later recalled: “Bob was living proof that an art teacher could function as a painter and at the highest level and without prejudicing his work as a teacher. His encouragement was a lifeline to me.”
Leishman first received critical attention as part of a group exhibition of young Scottish painters held in Edinburgh at the Church of Scotland Art Centre in 1948, which the Scotsman described as “the most ambitious and serious exhibition of painting in the modern manner that has been seen in the city for many years”. It was at this time that he began to introduce surreal elements into his work, as seen in paintings such as Nests (1948). He was already beginning to develop an intense, dreamlike quality in his work. The artist Barbara Balmer wrote: “His paintings usually show an extravagantly asymmetrical composition of fizzing and phosphorescent images held in a dark, glowing space which seems to be ‘night’, but may be somewhere more mysterious”.
The artist Edward Gage referred to Leishman’s “poetically questing mind”. Both literature and music inspired him. “Poetry jogged and sparked his fancy,” wrote the critic W Gordon Smith, “seldom in any literal sense, but constantly informing the orbit of his imagination”.
In 1951 Leishman was elected a member of the Society of Scottish Artists. That same year, while teaching at Bell Baxter High School in Cupar, he met the artist Pat Edgar, a recent graduate of Dundee College of Art who had also joined the staff there. “It was magical,” she recalled, “we shared a Nissen Hut in the playground and walked through the apple trees to the main school”. They fell in love, and Leishman painted The Blue Lyre Bird (1952) when she left to spend six months on sabbatical in South Africa. They began sending regular decorated cards to each other which they called “pikters”, developing their own code of symbols and referring to each other as K for Kummel and C for Ceres.
Leishman was also developing a distinctive vocabulary of motifs in his paintings – birds, butterflies, flowers, moons and floating figures feature regularly in his dreamlike world, “levitating into unlikely space in his asymmetric but magically balanced compositions,” according to W Gordon Smith. During the 1950s his work was exhibited both locally through the Cupar Art Society (of which he was a committee member) and further afield. Reviewing his work in 1952, the Dundee Courier’s art critic was impressed but confused, noting that Leishman “allows his fertile imagination to carry him into spheres of mystery where he is not always easy to follow”.
In 1962, Leishman began teaching art at Kirkton High School in Dundee. The school was the largest to be built in Scotland since before the war, and had opened in 1960 boasting state-of-the-art facilities as well as an exceptional art department headed by William Malin and also including Minnie the Minx illustrator Jim Petrie. So talented were the staff that in 1965 they were given an exhibition at the City Art Galleries to showcase their work. Pat Edgar (who was then teaching at the High School of Dundee) recalled visiting the school’s art department soon after it opened and was astonished at the facilities. “They had pottery, screenprinting and all sorts of things – it was truly amazing.”
Edgar spent time in Canada in 1968 and on her return she and Leishman began living together. They married in 1972. This was the most active phase of Leishman’s career. A studio was added to the back of their house on Charleston Drive, in which he created larger and more ambitious paintings. In 1971 he was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour and also exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy for the first time. That same year he had the first of four solo exhibitions at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh and in 1973 he became President of Dundee Art Society. He had joined the society in 1962 and took over from David McClure as Exhibitions Convenor in 1971. He organised many successful exhibitions in Roseangle Gallery featuring a wide range of artists from around Scotland. In 1981 he was given a solo show there. Interviewed by the Courier while working on the exhibition, Leishman described his own creative process, referring to his technique of “dreaming myself into the painting. I am a fairly slow painter… I tend to paint with the inward eye rather than with the outward-looking one so I visualise a lot.”
By that time Leishman had retired from teaching to paint full-time. A show at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh followed in 1985 and three years later he was the invited artist at Dundee Art Society’s biennial exhibition. Opening the show, the art historian Martin Kemp described him as “a painter in the great Scottish colourist tradition. Yet Mr Leishman’s work speaks vividly in a very special style of magic realism where imagination and colour create a world of mythical beings, magical and natural forms, all totally bewitching and captivating.”
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, the artist Calder Jamieson noted that “underpinning the radiant dream-like imagery of the artist’s work is a rigorous aesthetic vocabulary which articulates with refined sensibility the elements of each composition. Consequently, one finds beautifully modulated lines and elegant forms conspire with vibrant colour harmonies to create powerful ‘icons’ that exude a deep and poignant charm, yet without the slightest trace of sentimentality. [Viewers can find] not only a deep aesthetic satisfaction, but also glimpse a charmed realm – a visual Arcadia of the mind in which the transitory dreams of Man find some degree of permanence.”
Leishman died in 1989 and memorial exhibitions were held in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. David Lockhart wrote: “The whimsy and wit manifest in Bob’s paintings made him the most delightful companion, humour married to a penetrating intellect – the most charitable of men, he tolerated fools equably but was hard on bullies.” William C M Jackson of the Scottish Gallery reflected: “Those who were fortunate to know him will always have a vision of a kind and gentle man who was dedicated to his ideals and principles.”
The exhibition will be on show until 24 June and is open Monday-Saturday. Further details can be found at https://www.dundee.ac.uk/events/robert-leishman-poets-dreams.