FCB Cadell is one of the four artists known as the Scottish Colourists. He studied in Paris and lived in Munich before settling in his native Edinburgh around 1909.
He is perhaps the most elegant of the Colourists, renowned for his stylish portrayals of Edinburgh New Town interiors and his vibrantly coloured, daringly simplified still lifes.
Cadell grew up in Edinburgh and showed artistic ability from an early age. Aged sixteen, he moved to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, immersing himself in the French art scene. From 1902-5 he lived between Edinburgh and Paris and tentatively embarked upon a professional career. In 1907 he enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich, returning to Scotland the following year and staging his first solo exhibition in Edinburgh in 1908.
In 1909 Cadell secured a studio in George Street, in the centre of Edinburgh and met S. J. Peploe who became a life-long friend. A trip to Venice in 1910 proved to be a turning point, inspiring a newly confident use of bright colour and a loosening of technique. In 1912 Cadell visited the Hebridean island of Iona for the first time and was to return there virtually every summer for the rest of his life.
During the immediate pre-war period, Cadell established himself as an artist of note and a figure of some standing within Edinburgh society. He developed a palette based on white, cream and black, enlivened with highlights of bold colour.
Of the four Scottish Colourists, Cadell was perhaps the most adept at drawing. In particular, a series of drawings he made at the beginning of the First World War stand out as a strong body of work in their own right and predict how his painting would develop in later years.
Cadell was the only Colourist to fight in the war. After the declaration of war in 1914, he immediately volunteered but was pronounced unfit. Determined, he gave up his pipe and worked on a farm at Kirkconnell in Dumfries and Galloway until he passed the necessary medical tests and, in 1915, he joined the 9th Battalion, The Royal Scots, and later was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He served on the French front until he was decommissioned in 1919. He was wounded twice and was awarded the General Service and Victory medals. Throughout the war he corresponded with fellow Scottish Colourist, S.J. Peploe who kept him abreast of events in Edinburgh.
Before he was sent to the trenches, Cadell captured aspects of life in the army and navy in a vibrant series of drawings in ink and watercolour. In 1916 about fifty were exhibited in Edinburgh, whilst twenty were published in a book entitled ‘Jack and Tommy’. These witty, quickly executed images, depicting soldiers and sailors on duty and on leave, had titles such as ‘Delicate Banter’ and ‘Tommy the Flapper’. The brisk, economic brush-and-ink technique of these drawings are in sympathy with illustrations the Dutch Fauve painter, Kees van Dongen made in the early 1900s for journals such as ‘L’assiette au beurre’ and ‘Gil-Blas’.
Many of these works were included in an annual exhibition of The Society of Eight, a private art society, comprising eight members. Cadell’s drawings were widely praised and the critic of the arts magazine, ‘The Studio’, declared:
This series revealed Cadell’s sympathy with the rank and file of the army. With minimal use of line, Cadell succeeded in capturing the essence of a scene, such as in ‘The Parting’, where he depicts a couple walking away from each other. He deftly indicates the woman’s body with half a dozen inky marks. Red touches highlight her lips, which appear slightly downturned, adding a sombre tone to the already tangible tension. The man’s hat and socks are also decorated in red, denoting the uniform of The Royal Scots.
Cadell is best known for his paintings and, interestingly, he achieved significant professional success during the war. However, this series of vibrant, captivating drawings show a different, and at times humorous, side to the war and demonstrate his ability in capturing a fleeting moment. Moreover, the illustrations anticipate the clean lines and flat colour of his work of the 1920s.
Cadell believed that no-one with any real sense of colour could paint in Scotland during the winter and following the War he preferred to work on Iona during the summer, usually outside, and in Edinburgh during the spring and autumn, usually indoors and resting in the winter.
Cadell’s demobilisation in the spring of 1919 had a profound effect on his work, inspired by his new surroundings, close collaboration with Peploe, interest in the Art Deco movement and perhaps in response to the squalor of the trenches that he experienced whilst on service. Tightly-cropped compositions, usually approached at an angle, the flat application of paint and the use of increasingly brilliant colour resulted in interiors, still lifes and figure studies which count amongst the most noteworthy paintings in British art of the period.
In his still lifes of the early to mid-1920s Cadell suppressed perspective and shadow, and rendered objects, such as roses and bowls, in blocks of barely modulated colour usually presented within a strictly limited framework. His fascination with reflections persisted, as seen in still lifes of the late 1920s, which have a pronounced clarity of composition and light. He developed a late style in which black remained dominant and was increasingly used to outline features, whilst his technique became less structured and his colours more sober.
The island of Iona also provided some twenty years of inspiration for landscape paintings. Its heyday as an artists’ colony was between the wars and Cadell and Peploe were prominent members of its artistic community. Cadell in particular became a well-known and well-liked character.
Cadell exhibited regularly from 1921 until the last years of his life, not least in exhibitions organised by the Glasgow-based art dealer Alexander Reid and his son A. J. McNeill Reid. Public recognition of Cadell’s work also grew as it entered various British public collections. Cadell was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1935 and was made an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1936.
This video introduces the life and work of FCB Cadell, told by Alice Strang, Kirstie Meehan and Guy Peploe