• Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Robert and Robert

ByLolo Schaw Miller

Mar 7, 2023
"Glasgow School of Art Original Postcard", by Mark Crombie is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Known as ‘The Two Roberts’, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were key figures in advancing Scottish modern art.

Both grew up in rural Ayrshire to working-class families and met at Glasgow School of Art in 1933. Their relationship was no freshers’ fling. They became so inseparable that when Colquhoun won a travelling scholarship from the art school, funds were quickly raised so that MacBryde could join him. The two of them moved south after graduating from art school, seeking to integrate Scottish culture into contemporary European art.

Their handle as ‘The Two Roberts’ does not just reflect that they were partners coincidentally sharing the same name, but also that they are remembered as one artistic entity. As gay artists in a life-long relationship, they are always thought of together and their art does not receive the separate appraisal it deserves.

Certainly, the two of them had an artistic intimacy. They collaborated on a handful of paintings, as well as set designs for theatres, and in Ken Russell’s 1959 short film about them, The Scottish Painters, viewers see the artists working in adjacent rooms, assisting one another on their paintings.

Yet this narrative of them as one creative body working in tandem is overplayed. In fact, their work is readily distinguishable from each other. Colquhoun’s work focuses on figures, whilst MacBryde preferred the practice of still life. This commodification of Colquhoun and MacBryde as a unity comes at the cost of praising each as an individual artist in his own right. ‘Robert and Robert’ therefore seems a more appropriate epithet, that is if one is really needed at all.

Whilst in the work of contemporaries such as Francis Bacon and Keith Vaughan their sexuality is referenced explicitly, Colquhoun and MacBryde never openly expressed their relationship in their art. Homosexuality was illegal until 1967 in England and 1980 in Scotland, and even then it was limited to those over the age of 21 and had to take place in private. Yet, this does not necessarily mean that their sexuality is not a theme within their work. Matt Cook, a historian focusing on sexuality during the nineteenth and twentieth Century, believes that the works of LGBTQ+ artists at this time concentrated on the domestic spheres as a means to dismantle the idea of a ‘nuclear family’.

Many have remarked on subtle shadows in MacBryde’s still life paintings, alluding to a presence beyond the artist, an onlooking figure – perhaps Colquhoun. In Colquhoun’s double portraits, such as Lovers and Spectators, the androgynous figures can be interpreted as representations of himself and MacBryde. However, again this is an inferred and thus points to larger questions at hand: what can we interpret and classify as queer art? Is it something that lies in the power of the paintbrush and its owner? Or is it something we as viewers are projecting onto paintings as means of art theory and criticism?

Perhaps Colquhoun and MacBryde, in their different ways, were depicting the world as they experienced it.

Image credit: “Glasgow School of Art Original Postcard”, by Mark Crombie is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.