John McNairn’s art and career is a treasure to be uncovered and explored. His longevity (McNairn is now in his 99th year) allows direct insight into the concerns of a Scottish artist in the first half of the last century. His art is not well known compared with close contemporaries such as William Gillies and William MacTaggart, but like them he made the Scottish landscape a subject for sensitive and insightful scrutiny, and an acquaintance with his work brings fresh pleasure to our understanding and knowledge of the native art of this country.
McNairn enrolled 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 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, McNairn went on to travel extensively in Spain, a country he felt immensely drawn to, and it was here that he developed his life long 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.
McNairn has been infrequently exhibited. In 1950, Edinburgh’s The Scottish Gallery held a joint exhibition of McNairn and his father’s painting (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.
As the exhibition shows, the surrounding Borders countryside dominates his work, especially the bold forms of the Eildon Hills and the beauty of the Ettrick Valley. McNairn’s preference has always been to paint directly from his subject, both in oil and in watercolour; with a boldness and uncluttered simplicity which reflect the practical consequences of working in this medium, frequently on a large scale, out-of-doors.
Throughout his admirably long career McNairn has 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.
Catalogue introduction to John McNairn's last exhibition - BORDERLINES - Bourne Fine Art Edinburgh June 2009, written by Philip Long - then senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and now Director of V&A Dundee.