The younger son of well-to-do, conscientious Edinburgh stock, Craigie Aitchison’s background was a particular shade against which to define himself. Craigie senior was a leading barrister and the first Labour politician to be appointed Lord Advocate for Scotland; alongside socialist causes, he was known to defend the ‘revolutionary spirit’ in art at public occasions. His wife Charlotte, daughter of a wealthy industrialist, supported her husband’s tastes, and so young Craigie junior grew up in a house decorated with reproductions of Gaugin and Van Gogh alongside paintings by Scottish colourists Peploe and McTaggart. Following his father’s sudden death in 1941, he was excused the rigours of boarding school and finished exams at a private tutoring college. Inheriting his father’s library, he initially chose to read law, which took him from Edinburgh to the Middle Temple in London.

A whisker of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ however led him to stray from classes and into the Tate and the National Gallery, and finally (once he’d failed the law exams) to enroll as a mature student at the Slade School of Art (1952–4). Under the professorship of William Coldstream, the emphasis was on proportionality and measurement, as evinced in the work of Euan Uglow and Myles Murphy. These three were close friends (Aitchison moved into 22 Lower Marsh, the artist’s house at Waterloo, with Murphy), yet Aitchison’s style diverged. In his pictures, space would be unspecified. As in the inky wash of Jug and Horseshoe Still-life (1952), or the pea-green swell of Girl in Field with River (1953), swathes of colour push the focus towards the subject.

Aitchison’s pictures tend to be composed of discrete elements. Things are distilled rather than depicted, taking on a hieroglyphic quality. ‘I’m suspicious if the whole picture comes right ever, I don’t really expect to get more than one bit of ‘The Bit’ right, but it would be marvellous if one day all of it got right with equal intensity. I never change the first bit, because if it is not there after the first day I know there is no point in continuing that canvas, for I have tried doing so, it is simply that I have not been sufficiently interested in what I see to paint. There is always one bit that has to be good enough to stay forever, and if the picture is to be painted at all, it has to be there immediately.’[1]

Aitchison’s disdain for obfuscation attracted the support, early on, of Helen Lessore of the Beaux Arts Gallery, where he had several shows. By the time of its closure in 1964, Aitchison had made a home for himself in Kennington, south London, in which, a creature of habit, he was to live and work for his entire life. This he shared with his dogs and his mother, in her last years. Here paintings camouflaged themselves against a cornucopia of wallpapers, pot plants and kitsch ornaments.

Initial sketches were drawn in paint rather than pencil - a tip of Murphy’s - and oils applied in thin layers, in an effort to define shapes by colour rather than line. In Grey Vase: Still-life (1965; Arts Council Collection), the subject stands as almost a pictogram of itself. An opaque halo around the upper reaches of the vase and its single stem betrays a persistent nudging of paint, until deemed just so. Similarly, black models appealed to Aitchison’s process of identification through colour. Gorgeously pithy portraits nod to Piero della Francesca’s frieze at Arezzo, or Giotto’s Arena Chapel, both of which Aitchison saw for the first time in 1955. The British Council had awarded both Aitchison and Murphy Italian Government Scholarships for painting, and the pair travelled to Italy, from Umbria to Venice, in an ancient taxi cab, which, as the story goes, ended up in the vaults of the Vatican. Aitchison’s instinct for colour bloomed in the Tuscan light, and later, in 1975, acquired an old farmhouse at Montecastelli, not far from Siena.

The 1970s incurred other developments. In 1970 Aitchison returned to the isle of Arran on the west coast of Scotland, for the first time since childhood holidays, to scatter his mother’s ashes on the same site as his father’s. The island’s pyramid-like peak was to be an important addition to his repertoire of shapes. Shortly after, he made his first encounter with the Bedlington Terrier at Crufts, and was smitten. Both Arran and the Bedlingtons would appear in Aitchison’s crucifixions, which are, according to Andrew Lambirth, ‘statements of imaginative discovery’ rather than confessions of faith.[2] Aitchison’s reduction of imagery to its essentials requires the smallest of adjustments be registered. It encourages tangy connections: in, for example, the crucifixion that won him the inaugural Jerwood Prize in 1994 (beating Uglow: "the organisers muddled us up", said Aitchison), the tilt of Christ’s head calls to mind the hump of a Bedlington, that most lamb-like of breeds.

Major exhibitions include a retrospective at the Serpentine retrospective (1981-2), the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (1996), the Museum of Modern Art, Powys (2001), and the Royal Academy, London (2003), of which he had become a full academician in 1988. He was made a CBE in 1999. In his last decade he was represented by both Timothy Taylor gallery and Waddington galleries, a mark of both his popularity and resistance to categorisation.

[1] The artist speaking in an interview from 1961, in A. G. Williams, Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1996), p.50

[2] A. Lambirth, ‘Craigie Aitchison: An Introduction’, Craigie Aitchison: Out of the Ordinary (exh. cat. Royal Academy, London, 2003), p.11

Further reading:
Craigie Aitchison: Recent Paintings (exh. cat., Edinburgh, Scot. A.C., 1975); text by Helen Lessore
Craigie Aitchison: Paintings 1953–1981 (exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1981)
Craigie Aitchison: New Paintings (exh. cat., Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London, 1993); text by John McEwen
A. G. Williams, Craigie: The Art of Craigie Aitchison (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1996)
Craigie Aitchison: Out of the Ordinary (exh. cat. Royal Academy, London, 2003); text by Andrew Lambirth
Martin Gayford, ‘Interview with Craigie Aitchison’, Apollo, January 2009, pp.34-38