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An Introduction to SJ Peploe

Samuel John Peploe was the eldest and most successful - commercially and critically - of the Scottish Colourists and it was his friendship with the other three artists which bound them together.

Peploe grew up in Edinburgh and after attempting various careers he enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1891, and returned there for periods until 1894. He also attended classes at the Royal Scottish Academy between 1892 and 1896. He then embarked on his professional career, acquiring a studio and sending work to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy and Royal Glasgow Institute.

Throughout his career Peploe maintained a studio practice, focussing on the genres of the still life and figure study, as well as painting landscapes en plein air. A trip to Holland developed his interest in the work of seventeenth-century Dutch Old Masters, including Frans Hals and Rembrandt. Their influence, as well as familiarity with the nineteenth-century French artist Édouard Manet, is apparent in the sophisticated still lifes and figure studies of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

The Green Blouse, Samuel John Peploe, 1904

In about 1900 Peploe became friends with fellow Scottish Colourist J. D. Fergusson and in 1904 they began to paint together in France each summer. In 1905 Peploe moved to a new studio in Edinburgh, which had been built in 1795 for Henry Raeburn. The new bright and spacious surroundings had an immediate impact on Peploe’s work. He began to paint in a lighter key on larger canvases, employing a looser technique. Peploe’s outdoor practice also developed apace. Trips with Fergusson to the Normandy coast, including to Étaples and Paris-Plage, resulted in energetic works, executed in light, creamy oil paints.

The year 1910 proved to be a turning-point with Peploe moving to Paris, settling in an apartment in Montparnasse and his work undergoing a dramatic change. Experiments with bold colour and vigorous handling reveal an awareness of Fauve artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Veules-les-Roses, Samuel John Peploe, 1910

Two years later Peploe and his family returned to Edinburgh where they remained for the rest of their lives. However, despite earlier success Peploe’s new work was received with scorn: The Scottish Gallery refused to show it and an exhibition that Peploe organised himself in 1913 was met with disdain. However, his work was widely exhibited in London between 1912 and 1914.

With the declaration of the First World War, Peploe was declared unfit for service and instead applied himself to a rigorous investigation of the work of Paul Cézanne, as seen in a series of monumental still lifes. However, it was the end of the war that seemed to inspire Peploe to begin the series of still lifes for which he is best known. Gone was the bravura and un-diluted colour of the pre-war paintings and in its place came a serious, methodical study of the genre. He obsessively arranged and re-arranged a cast of props centred first on tulips and later on roses. In 1920, fellow Scottish Colourist, F.C.B Cadell introduced Peploe to the Hebridean island of Iona and they returned virtually every summer for more than a decade.

Around 1923 Peploe’s work developed once more. Flowers were replaced by new props, such as earthenware vases and loaves of bread, and the rusticity of his accessories was matched by a new low-toned palette, whilst his paint thickened and was applied with broader brushstrokes. This distinct late style can also be seen in his later paintings of Iona. A crispness of light and design which had much in common with Cadell’s depictions of the island, gave way to a more passionate and summary technique. His interest in trees as subject matter became increasingly pronounced during painting trips towards the end of his life around Scotland’s mainland, including to Boat of Garten and Rothiemurchus.

Iona Landscape: Rocks, Samuel John Peploe, 1925

Landscape at Cassis, Samuel John Peploe, 1924

Despite an early death aged only sixty-four, Peploe had a successful career and today his works are continually sought on the open market. Peploe is most celebrated for his still lifes, which developed in several distinct phases, from the sophistication of the early 1900s, to the intensely coloured and geometric oils of the pre-war years, through the majestic studies of flowers dating from after the war to a final more rustic approach. Yet of equal significance are the Scottish and French landscapes that Peploe painted throughout his career, usually en plein air, featuring Iona, Kirkcudbright, Paris and Cassis, amongst other locations.