Samuel John Peploe (1871–1935) was the most successful – critically and commercially – of the four artists known as 'the Scottish Colourists', the others being Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883–1937), John Duncan Fergusson (1874–1961) and George Leslie Hunter (1877–1931). He was frequently cited as their leader and had long-term relationships with influential private galleries. His work was acquired for British and foreign public collections during an international career, which embraced waves of experimentation and development.
Peploe was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Life School of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) in Edinburgh between 1891 and 1896, before establishing a studio in the Scottish capital. In 1896, he exhibited at the RSA and the Royal Glasgow Institute for the first time and continued to do so on a regular basis for the rest of his career.
Peploe made his name with a series of exquisite still lifes which includes Still Life, Painter's Materials of the late 1890s. Its painterliness, gentle light and low-toned palette owe a debt to Édouard Manet (1832–1883), as well as to Dutch Old Masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Frans Hals (c.1581/1585–1666), whose works can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland's collections. It is a poised homage to the tools of their trade, from bottles of turpentine to tubes of oil paint and paintbrushes. Peploe continued in this genre with increasing virtuosity, creating implied narratives of sophisticated lifestyles, indicated by expensive wine, fine china and silverware, with colour highlights provided by exotic fruit. Twenty works were sold at Peploe's first solo exhibition, held at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1903; the first of many such collaborations with the gallery.
However, controversy arose in 1907 when Still Life of the previous year was the first of Peploe's works to be acquired for a public collection. It was one of four inaugural purchases made by the Scottish Modern Arts Association, whose mission was to collect contemporary Scottish art for the nation. Offence was taken at Peploe's loose approach to representation, rendered with clearly visible brushstrokes, and at him deeming a bunch of bananas to be worthy subject matter.
This freedom can also be seen in Peploe's concurrent landscapes, painted en plein air. Evening, North Berwick of about 1903, which depicts a beach scene in the coastal town south of Edinburgh, reveals a sensitive approach to natural light and an enjoyment of a creamier paint applied quickly to a small panel. Peploe further developed this approach whilst working outdoors during annual trips to France with Fergusson, from 1904. The work built on the progress made during visits to the Hebridean island of Barra, where Peploe met his future wife Margaret Mackay (1873–1958).
In 1905, Peploe took on the former studio of Henry Raeburn (1756–1823) at 32 York Place. Handsomely proportioned, it had an unusually large north-facing window flanked by a shutter system, designed by Raeburn, with which to control daylight. Peploe began to paint on a larger scale and in a lighter key, as can be seen in his portrait of Margaret of 1907, which reveals an emerging interest in James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Professional achievements mounted up, from inclusion in group shows in London to the beginning of a long-term relationship with the dealer Alexander Reid, who started to promote his work in Glasgow, at his gallery La Société des Beaux-Arts.
Given this success, it is perhaps surprising that the newly-wed Peploe and Mackay moved to Paris in 1910. Their first son Willy was born that summer. They joined Fergusson who had been living there for three years. However, Peploe was thus able to submerge himself in the latest developments in French painting and his work underwent a dramatic change, as can be seen in Luxembourg Gardens of about 1910. A brazen use of bold colour was surely encouraged by first-hand exposure to the work of Henri Matisse (1869–1954), André Derain (1880–1954) and their Fauve colleagues, balanced by the assured painterliness for which Peploe was known.
Peploe became a sociétaire of the progressive Salon d'Automne and he and Fergusson became members of the avant-garde Rhythmist Group, alongside artists including Anne Estelle Rice (1877–1959) and Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939). The acidic palette, rigid application of paint and flattening of form in Tulips in a Pottery Vase of about 1912 owes a debt to Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) but was unprecedented in Scottish art.
On the family's return to Edinburgh in 1912, Peploe's work was received with scorn, whilst being exhibited widely in London. Critics declared Peploe the 'leader' and 'master' of the Rhythm Group when they had an exhibition in the English capital's Stafford Gallery that year. Peploe's second son, the artist Denis Peploe (1914–1993), was born shortly before the outbreak of the First World War; ill-health prevented Peploe from undertaking active service.
Peploe is best known for the paintings he made in the years immediately after the war, not least because of the sheer number that he made, but also because of their immediate and enduring commercial popularity. Roses and Still Life of the early 1920s is a good example of the genre to which he committed himself, about which he declared 'I can never see mystery coming to an end.' Roses, which maintained their shape for long enough to satisfy Peploe's painstaking working methods, were combined with a cast of still-life props, including ceramics, fruit and draped materials, which the artist arranged and re-arranged multiple times. Solo exhibitions were mounted in Edinburgh, Glasgow and New York, usually accompanied by healthy sales. Group exhibitions were staged in London and Paris, resulting in acquisitions for the French and British national collections. In 1923, Peploe was elected a member of the RSA.
Peploe's outdoor practice continued apace, in France as well as in Scotland. In 1920, Cadell introduced him to Iona and they returned most summers thereafter for the rest of Peploe's life. Rocks at Iona shows his delight in the island's geology and the play of Hebridean light on sand and sea. A return to outlining form in black, which he first adopted during his years in Paris, is clear and contrasts with the raw depiction of surface.
In the late 1920s, Peploe developed a distinct mature style as exemplified in Chops. Featuring subject matter as unexpected as the controversial bananas of 1907, Peploe's expressive technique and sombre palette show a striving for honesty over beauty. A teaching position at Edinburgh College of Art begun in 1933 was brought to an abrupt end by the illness which resulted in Peploe's death in 1935. Many newspapers carried obituaries and four memorial exhibitions were mounted.
Although there are affinities within the work of the Scottish Colourists, not least a shared interest in French painting and the use of brilliant colour, they only showed together three times whilst all were alive, in London in 1923 and 1925 and in Paris in 1931. The term 'colourist' was not applied to the four of them until it was used in an exhibition title of 1948, when all but Fergusson had died. Indeed, it can be argued that it is Peploe's friendships with the others which bound them together. He met Fergusson in Edinburgh in around 1900 and they were closest in the critical years in Paris before the First World War. His friendship with Cadell was strongest during the 1920s, when their homes and studios were within easy walking distance of each other and they spent many summers together on Iona. Peploe was in touch with Hunter by 1918 and the latter relied on the former for honest feedback about his work until Hunter's death 13 years later.
Peploe enjoyed sustained professional success and recognition during his lifetime, despite and perhaps because of the continual development of his practice. His tenure at Edinburgh College of Art, though short, had a deep impact on his students, including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912–2004) and Margaret Mellis (1914–2009).
Although Peploe's work was out of fashion for much of the 1950s and 1960s, interest in his achievements has grown steadily since, not least with major retrospectives in 1985 and 2012. His key role in the development of Scottish art history is assured, whilst the part he played in the birth of modern art in Paris before the First World War has been more readily acknowledged in France than in Britain.
Alice Strang, art historian and curator