John Houston Biography

John Houston RSA OBE (1930 – 2008)

John Houston was born in Fife in 1930 and was a keen sportsman in his youth, his early artistic promised matched by his ability to play football. He enrolled as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in 1948, and when in 1951 he badly injured his knee, thus bringing to an end his professional football career, he committed himself to art.  He studied painting under William Gillies, the renowned landscape painter and Robert Henderson Blyth.

Postgraduate and travelling scholarships allowed Houston to extend his studies and, together with his contemporary, the artist David Michie (with whom he later shared the Royal Scottish Academy’s prestigious Guthrie Award) spent the winter of 1953/4 in Italy, studying the work of Morandi and Sironi and visiting the great museums of Florence and Milan.

Houston began his teaching career at Edinburgh College of Art in 1955 where he was to remain until 1989, and the following year he married Elizabeth Blackadder, his fellow student.  Together they occupied a central position in the city’s artistic community.

His first solo exhibition took place in 1957 in the 57 Gallery in Edinburgh.  This was one of the first independent artists’ spaces in the city, co-founded and organised by Houston and a fellow group of painters.  In 1960 he held an exhibition in The Scottish Gallery and thereafter held regular, almost annual shows.

By 1969 he had gained international recognition and was appointed artist-in-residence at the Prairie School in Wisconsin under the wealthy patronage of Mr and Mrs S Johnson (of Johnson Wax).  There, the monotonous horizon and broad sky influenced his approach to landscape and he started painting what he referred to as “sky pictures”.

When he returned to Scotland he continued in this line, producing transluscent and atmospheric paintings of the sea and sky around Harris in the Hebrides.  He exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibitions and became an Academician in 1972. In 1983 he became deputy head of the School of Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art until he retired in 1989.

In 1986 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the conductor Sir Alexander Gibson (Scottish National Portrait Gallery) and he also portrayed other painter friends such as John Bellamy as well as of himself and his wife, Elizabeth.  He was awarded OBE in 1990, in 2004 he was awarded an honorary degree by Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University and in 2005 another, from Aberdeen University.

In 2005 a retrospective was held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, featuring his rarely exhibited sketch-books, filled with delicate and close observations of the landscape under different climatic conditions, from which he worked up his studio paintings.

During his long career, he and Elizabeth Blackadder travelled extensively but his greatest inspirations were the land and seascape of his home country.  In a period when artists had turned away from traditional subjects, he remained committed to his painting based on direct observation, producing paintings of extraordinary depth and emotion.