© Estate of John Bellany. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images


John Bellany (1942 – 2013)


172.3 X 172.3 CM
Accession number


John Bellany is a Scot, the son of a boatbuilder, and from the age of four he began to draw boats, fishermen and the sea. These themes continued to be a major thread of his imagery ever since, although his iconography has extended from particular experiences of a Scottish fishing port into the wider references of 20th century European painting. Although in description it sounds like a formula, Bellany’s preferred composition layout – a handful of hieratic standing figures, set with their backs against a stormy sea and a louring sky – never seems repetitive. Usually the figures are dour fishermen or self-portraits in various costumes, but in L’horloge, the three figures are disguised and mysterious. The two figures on the right, with their bird-like heads, are an amalgam of first-hand observations of sea birds and a deep knowledge of the painted bird-masked figures of Max Beckmann, James Ensor and Max Ernst. They confront a further figure which has a clock face, a body of playing cards and other deliberately unclear imagery. The spiral of red and blue lines derives from snail shells which appear more realistically in other Bellany canvases. The stillness of the figures is contrasted with the very free brushwork.

Scottish painting, from the late 19th century, through artist such as William McTaggart, William Johnstone and Alan Davie to Bellany, has shown a strong streak of expressionism, which displays itself in subjective imagery coupled with a rich and thick use of oil paint. Draughtsmanship has been sacrificed here for a lavish painterly effect, with colours applied over each other while still wet upon the canvas, and an abundant measure of black, which not only supplies the base tone from which all other tones and colours can take their brilliance, but offers a sense of drama or imminent threat. The playing cards, in the body of the central creature, help to add an idea of risk or gamble, which must be in the minds of all men who set out to sea in small ships for their livelihood.