John McNairn was born in the Scottish Borders in 1910, enrolling at The Edinburgh College of Art in 1927; an especially fertile period in the college’s history and then followed in the custom for the most talented Edinburgh students to go abroad to continue their development.
In Paris in the early 1930s John McNairn made the unusual choice of attending the Academie Scandinave, attracted by the presence of Othon Friesz. Although Friesz no longer painted in the vigorous Fauve style of his early career, his connection with Post-Impressionism appealed to McNairn, who expressed a wish to paint in a direct and truthful manner. Through his friendship with Robin John (son of Augustus John) he was introduced to Julian Trevelyan and S.W. Hayter, whose print studio, Atelier 17, was used by the most prominent artists, including many of the leading Surrealists. With Trevelyan, he saw the Surrealist’s 1933 Paris exhibition and recollects the disturbing effect Dalí and Mirô had on him. Consequently, many of McNairn's paintings have an unsettling emptiness, accentuated by a slightly unreal perspective.
Despite the looming spectre of Fascism, John McNairn went on to travel extensively in Spain, a country he felt immensely drawn to, and it was here that he developed his lifelong passion for the art of El Greco. After war service in India, he returned to Hawick, and then to Selkirk, where he became Head of the Art Department at Selkirk High School. Here, he and his wife Stella raised four children, including the artists Caroline (b.1955) and Julia (b.1962), who also studied at Edinburgh College of Art.
John was exhibited in 1950 at Edinburgh’s “The Scottish Gallery” jointly with his father’s paintings (shortly after the latter’s death). This celebration of a family’s art was repeated in greater form, when five generations of McNairn artists were brought together in an exhibition in Peebles in 1987. Between these years, McNairn was variously included in other exhibitions, and he organised displays of his own in the gallery he and his wife established in Selkirk.
Throughout his admirably long career McNairn steadfastly produced paintings in which he has orchestrated a simple vocabulary of forms, line and colour, to produce an art that encapsulates the inspiration he felt in the world around him. John died in 2009.
Works by John can be found in many public and private collections, including National Galleries of Scotland and The Fleming Collection
*extracts from Philip Long's catalogue introduction 2009
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