Among Scotland’s most prestigious and prolific artists, Greenock’s James Watt has a portfolio of paintings that spans over half a century. At his home in Largs, shelves crammed full of books on the sea and seafaring testify to his enduring involvement with all things maritime. – “I hope if I ever get stranded on a desert island I have my books on seamanship or boatbuilding with me!”
Greenock – where James grew up and lived for most of his life – summed up Clydeside in the 1930s with its busy harbours and shipyards. It was a way of life that James was born into in Port Glasgow, an environment that involved every adult male and dominated every conversation. From his earliest years he engaged with all aspects of the shipping business. It was the arrival of a new, enthusiastic and charismatic art teacher – an ex-miner – in his fourth year at secondary school that ignited his interest in painting.
As a result of having “a good teacher at the right time” he subsequently enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art – something of a ‘pioneer’ since no-one from his family had ever been to University or college. After teacher training he spent two years in the army which he describes as “thinking time”. The Greenock harbours were in his blood. In 1957 he identified the puffers as ‘the perfect motif’ to capture his marine interests in his paintings – small enough to get close up to. He got to know the personalities of the sailormen and fishermen, sailed with them, fishing everything from sprats to whales.
Also in 1957 he co-founded the Glasgow Group -12 painters, not one of whom had the same approach to painting. “It was very important to us – we attracted a lot of attention as the young sprogs. We held exhibitions; the RGI at that time was very staid; the art world was in the doldrums; there wasn’t even any wood for framing. Not a single artist in Scotland was making a living from his work. Everyone was in a teaching job. People were throwing paintings away – they didn’t fit with the ‘modern’ image…. the frames had more value!”
Watt’s early efforts to sell his paintings to the boardroom of the shipping companies were met with disinterest – ‘why would I want to buy something I see every day?’ The demise of the Clydeside activity did James a favour; it was boom time for his paintings in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it seemed everyone from royalty to shipyard workers wanted to own one of his evocative images.
In the late ‘70s he discovered the Faroes and the traditional Viking boats. Torshaven was “mind-blowing….. stepping into Valhalla!” His knowledge of boats and fishing was his lifeline into communicating with the local people; he quickly fitted in to the traditional Faroese lifestyle, fishing, climbing the cliffs to catch birds and taking part in the whale hunts. And for 18 years he held an annual one-man show there. The fishing boom brought the highest standard of living in Europe to the Faroes, and the arts flourished.
The West of Ireland also made a big impact on his life and family. They were the first tourists ever to visit Dooholma, the most remote, coastal ‘township’ in the west of Ireland at the end – or the beginning – of a single track, establishing a contact that has endured for over forty years. “It was almost mediaeval…. Everyone had 10 acres and common grazing for one pony and one donkey. There were no shops. It was a self-sufficient community. A hard way of life, with great poverty, but full of kindness and generosity of spirit .” James painted the beaches, the bogs, the salmon boats – but no dealer would even look at his work in Dublin. This was pre Ireland joining the EEC. All this while he was teaching both at Greenock’s St Columba’s Secondary School – the largest in Scotland; as the Art Dept principal he had a staff of seven teachers – and concurrently at the Glasgow Art School in the evenings, for some 38 years.
Clydeside became depressed and for James, depressing. When the Tall Ships brought some bustle back to the berths in the sunshine of the 1999 summer, he painted there again; “I felt like a ghost….. remembering….. It all felt so superficial – so different from the whole way of life that it was for the people I’d known there, and the harsh and often humiliating conditions they endured.”
At his present home in Largs on the Firth of Clyde – where his garden reaches down to the shore – his studio also overlooks the sea. His landscapes are based on the same principle as his marine works – knowing and understanding them from the inside, understanding what nature is and what it does.
For the most part he has painted out of doors. The shape of the painting would be formed and disciplined in his mind’s eye for some time before making a start on it; then he works fast. Often his next painting would take shape while doing so!
Watt has travelled widely but his principal inspiration has always come from Greenock and Port Glasgow rather than anywhere he has admired and enjoyed at a more superficial level. He remains a marine painter because that is what he knows, his gut influence and his way of life.
“It’s great that art is around more, but there’s a big change in what’s ‘fashionable’- the superficial and the romantic sell well! Social realism is out. Being in fashion is vital for financial success…. Art is much more part of the disposable market.”
“The most any artist can hope for is to do his own thing and get some appreciation from some people! If you can do that as honestly as you can it’s all worthwhile. I like to think that in my painting I have made some small comment upon the way of life which I have so greatly enjoyed.”