The Two Roberts

The two Roberts were Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Both from working-class Scottish backgrounds, Colquhoun and MacBryde won grants to attend Glasgow School of Art in 1933 where they met and became lovers. Friends and contemporaries of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the Roberts enjoyed huge success in the 1940s and 1950s. However their work is relatively little known today. 

The National Galleries of Scotland's Two Roberts show opened in 2014 when MacBryde would have been 100 years old, and closed in 2015 when Colquhoun would have been 100. Neither of them reached anything like that age, of course, and they were not likely candidates for longevity – their battles with drink, debt, and in Colquhoun’s case depression, are well recorded.

Robert Colquhoun, Figures in a Farmyard, 1953 © The Estate of Robert Colquhoun. All rights reserved 2014/Bridgeman Images.

Colquhoun died aged 47 and MacBryde aged 53. That’s a hundred years combined. What is amazing, actually, is how they managed to produce so many paintings, and so many great ones given their short lives. Colquhoun’s masterpiece, Figures in a Farmyard, was painted in a glorified garden shed, while some of MacBryde’s best works were painted when he was staying in friends’ spare rooms. I was even told that MacBryde sometimes used pilfered deck-chairs for canvas. 

Putting the show together was simultaneously challenging and straightforward. Challenging in that the two Roberts’ works are not easily accessible (almost all of the paintings in public collections were in store and many of the key pieces are in private collections). Straightforward in that once the works had been traced, no-one declined to lend. In fact, many owners wanted to lend more pictures than we had requested, or tell us of other works they knew about. A lot of the paintings haven’t been on public display for decades. The two Roberts have been in the shadows for so long, but their supporters are irrepressibly passionate about their work. One owner bought his first MacBryde in 1946 and still has it on his wall.

The question which I am most often asked is, why did the Roberts fall out of fashion? Why, when contemporaries such as Keith Vaughan, John Piper and John Craxton have been the subject of major shows, have Colquhoun and MacBryde been all but forgotten?

They were huge in the 1940s, but their descent into penury was vertiginous and complete – throughout the 1950s they struggled to find the money for food. There are several reasons for this. One is that they were difficult individuals who did not suffer fools gladly and were never going to ingratiate themselves with the right people, or in fact with anybody. Another is simply bad luck. Their dealer, Duncan MacDonald of the Lefevre Gallery, died in 1949 just at the moment they most needed support, when they moved out of London. He was one of the few people who knew how to handle them: with a mixture of tact and commercial know-how, backed by a firm belief in their work. 

Robert MacBryde, Two Women Sewing, 1953 © The Estate of Robert MacBryde

The idea that they lost favour when abstract art became fashionable is, I think, overplayed. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud had no interest in abstraction, but it didn’t harm their careers.  There is rarely a good time to die, but the 1960s was definitely the wrong time for the two Roberts. This was when angst-ridden, existential, post-war art was giving way to Pop Art and the lure of bright, shiny consumerism.  Their fame had peaked in the late 1940s but could easily have reignited in the 1980s, when interest in Bacon and Freud soared. Had they lived as long as Freud did, they would have seen in the new millennium. 

They were such a fascinating pair that their lives have tended to overshadow their art. There were no good picture books on their work, so it wasn’t easy to see how their work developed, how their work related to each other’s, or whether there were obvious peaks and troughs. As the curator of the show I am biased, obviously, but I was astonished to see just how good they were, and how they kept up that standard right up until the ends of their lives, despite all the problems they faced.

The Two Roberts: Colquhoun and MacBryde

Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde's relationship began when they met at Glasgow School of Art in 1933, and continued until Colquhoun's death in 1962. Patrick Elliott, Fiona Green and Christopher Barker discuss the partnership that lasted almost three decades, and the influence it had on the Two Roberts' work.

By Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator