John Halliday was born in Kirkcudbright, July 14th 1933. His early schooling was at the Johnston School and Kirkcudbright Academy, 1938-1949. His determination to be a painter increased under the inspiring tutelage of Jean Menzies. When the painter Cecile Walton came to Kirkcudbright in 1947 a close friendship grew between the fourteen year old schoolboy and this distinguished artist.
At his father’s behest he left school to begin an apprenticeship with the Galloway News. The high calibre of his briefly sketched cartoons persuaded the Editor Tom Phin and the proprietor John Maxwell to encourage the youngster to return to school to complete his secondary education.
Both Jean Menzies and Cecile Walton encouraged Halliday to go to the Glasgow School of Art and he began his studies there in 1949. Halliday has fond memories of his time at the art school:
“My four years at the Glasgow School of Art were the best years for me. Coming from the background of Kirkcudbright and the celebrated colony of artists there I was constantly aware of the great tradition of this Art School. The artists whom I knew at home – E A Taylor, Jessie M King, Cecile Walton, Dorothy Rey – all had been part of the GSA story.
I was lucky to be there when the painting school was very strong — drawing was all important. I was doubly fortunate to be there when teachers of the calibre of William and Mary Armour, John Millar and Geoffrey Squire were on the staff.”
In his final year at the Art School Halliday won two Royal Scottish Academy Awards: the Chalmers Bursary in the Royal Scottish Academy Open Competition and the RSA award for an outstanding Diploma Show enabling his first trips to Europe to paint in Italy and France.
After leaving GSA and determined not to become an art teacher, Halliday worked at a number of jobs which would allow him to continue his involvement with the Fine Arts. From his Kirkcudbright days he had hoped someday to design for the theatre. A meeting with the Glasgow architect Jack Notman and other patrons produced more than seventy murals. The variety of subjects involved allowed many opportunities for him to indulge his love of architecture and the theatre.
“In my early twenties I embarked on a life long love of Calabria and Sicily. An Irish writer wrote ‘the places in the world where you feel immediately at home are where the light is kind to your eyes’. The light in Galloway, Siracusa in Eastern Sicily, and Cape Cod in the U.S.A is kind to my eyes.”
The following biography is taken from ‘John Halliday at 80’, from an exhibition celebrating the artist turning 80 at the Harbour Cottage Gallery, Kirkcudbright, 2013. Written by Christopher Nicol.
Born in Kirkcudbright’s Atkinson Place in 1933, John Halliday now lives, eighty years on, two doors along from the house in which he was born. In the intervening decades, his restless life has been one of exploration: creatively, culturally, geographically and personally. And now, as he works quietly at the mural which he claims to be his last, he view himself, his work and his native town with a clear sighted vision not afforded to many.
Born into a family background where a career in art was not a likely or realistic prospect, Halliday found himself leaving Kirkcudbright Academy at the age of fifteen to take up work as a trainee on the local Galloway News. And there the story might well have ended. But a benign fate, never far away in the Halliday life story, began to take a hand in events.
In 1948, Cecile Walton, daughter of the celebrated E.A. Walton, had decided to settle permanently in Kirkcudbright. Although in straitened financial circumstances, she was a woman of aristocratic style and flair which extended beyond her art and into her life. Introduced to the young Halliday at an Arts Council touring exhibitions in St Cuthbert’s Hall, Kirkcudbright,, Cecile took an interest in the talented teenager who haunted the exhibits. Along with Jean Menzies, John’s art teacher at school, Walton worked hard on the practicalities of helping him make the transition from Kirkcudbirhg to the Glasgow School of Art.
But Walton’s influence did not end with Halliday’s entrance to art school in 1949. Life in Ceclie’s Millburn studio was a far cry from a single-parent, crowded council house, where Halliday was then living. Despite a lack of money, Cecile did not lack glamour in young John’s eyes:
‘It was a magical place, with its old pot-bellied stove. I remember the furniture, particularly a big bureau, and the chairs were William Morris. She seemed to entertain everybody there, great Sunday lunches in particular, with all kinds of interesting guests from all the arts. And she managed to bring it all off in a single-end in the Millburn.’
This passion for style and sparkling company left its mark on the young man. His life had been marked by enrichment through association with beautiful objects and with people who have made their mark on the world of the arts and society in general.
1949 was a good year to be arriving at the GSA. Teaching giants such as William and Mary Armour, Geoffrey Squires and John Millare greatly impressed the young but impecunious Halliday. His digs in a theatrical boarding house adjacent to the School of Art meant he spent more time than most students in the School, drawing every ounce of input from the learning experience before eventually finding himself a tiny studio in the city centre. In this final year at art school, he won two Royal Scottish Academy awards; The Chalmers Bursary and the award for outstanding Diploma show. Output from this period also helped people an exhibition, largely organised by Cecile Walton, in a Castle Douglas gallery shortly after graduation.
Here again, fate took a hand. The largest canvas in the exhibition was bought by Douglas Lorimer, managing director of North British Locomotives, who financed Halliday for a year to ‘see the world’, as he put it. Lorimer’s help, together with money from his awards saw John setting out with his friend and experienced traveller, Gerald Ashton, for this first trip abroad—to Sicily. It was a seminal experience, the beginning of a life-long love of this location to which he has returned countless times. One of the paintings in this exhibition is from such visits.
Once returned to the UK, an introduction to Glasgow architect Jack Norman lead over the years to a series of over 70 mural commissions. One of these was for ten panels of famous Scots at Prestwick Airport, others were for the Clysedale Bank, Bank of Scotland, the Marquise of Bute, the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries and Glenfacias Whisky to name but a few.
In many of these commissions, his love of architecture, symmetry and the baroque technique of trompe l’oeil (which creates the optical illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions) was fully explored. The minutiae of detail involved made these murals time-consuming work, but work to which Halliday has indefatigably devoted great periods of his life.
Talking to Halliday, you are intensely aware of his respect not only for the art of the painter, but for his craft also. The techniques involved in the handling of paint and canvases, he often remarks, are being lost by younger artists whose craftsmanship often does not always match their vision. Given his sound grounding in such matters at GSA, it is no surprise that he lists Piero Della Francesca, Paul Chardin, Casper David Friedrich, Albert Marquet, Edward Hopper, Henri Le Sidaner, George Houston, Ivon Hitchens and Philip Reeves as former influences.
It is, however, to Whistler, friend of his own patron Cecile Walton, that his own work is often compared, a comparison with which Halliday is not unhappy. ‘It is his half tones and quarter tones which I really love and these play an important part in my work also. The light in the early morning or evening can only be realised through them. People talk a lot about my preoccupation with light it is those tones that I am really referring’ he remarks.
New York-based Clare Henry, doyenne of international art critics, is among those happy to make the comparison:
‘Landscape is Halliday’s real love, be it a damp day by the Tweed or noon in Sicily…while studies of ancient facades in Venice are positively Whistlerian’ (The Herald, 25 November 1998)
Richard Jacques in the Scotsman has seen similar parallels:
‘Specially rewarding are those Whistlerian images of Kirkcudbright and Galloway in which the elements of landscape are seen in a penumbral create an almost magical effect’ (The Scotsman, 18th November 1991)
But some might see an ever closer parallel closer to home. In his love of penumbral light and muted tones and outlines, Halliday at times forays into the concerns, if not the palette of another Kirkcudbright artist, Macaulay Stevenson, a comparison which Halliday gracefully accepts.
He remains, however, very much his own man with a vision of Galloway to which he has been drawn irresistibly throughout a long career. Travels throughout Europe, homes across Scotland have resulted in glorious oils, gouache and crayon images from all parts; from Calabria to Coldstream, from the baking sun of Sicily to wintry scenes in Edinburgh. For many, however, the strongest canvases may be those in which the art of decades is distilled into that limpid clarity which caresses the gentle landscapes of the Dee, Corsock or Glenton, where the land melts into the light. And the light and land are one.