Robert MacBryde

1913–1966

Robert Macbryde was born in Maybole in 1913, taking a job as a factory worker after leaving school, a position that he left in order to study at Glasgow School of Art (1932-7). There, he met fellow Scotsman and artist Robert Colquhoun, with whom he began a lifetime’s relationship, both romantic and artistic.

Upon graduating, Macbryde won several scholarships, grants that he used to travel to and study in Italy and France, before moving with Colquhoun to London. There, they shared a house with John Minton (later, with Jankel Adler). At this point, Macbryde primarily painted still lifes, and had his first solo show at the Lefevre Gallery in 1943. These still lifes are figurative and vibrant, acknowledging the fashions of contemporary painting without bowing to them. Despite the seeming innocuousness of much of his subject matter, there is something unsettling in their sickening greens and yellows, and the odd angles and points of view. His later still lifes have a greater intensity of colour, as well as further exaggerated shapes and perspectives, underlining still further this sense of unease. He also painted odd, distorted figures who float out of dark backgrounds—but these subjects were Cloquhoun’s, not entirely his own. Macbryde’s paintings achieved early success—Colquhoun’s and his work was bought by both MoMA, New York, and Tate.

For three years, from 1943, whilst the two Roberts shared a studio with Minton, the space became the gathering point for a dramatic social circle whose intensity was the catalyst for Minton’s departure in 1946. They attracted leading lights and growing talents to their Notting Hill studio—Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, and Lucian Freud, amongst others. However, they were eventually evicted, in 1947, and had a run of bad luck, after the art world turned towards abstraction, a change that neither was prepared to make. They moved for a while to Essex, where they lived with the novelist Elizabeth Smart and her four children. Smart’s son observed the two Roberts—Macbryde abandoning his own work to take care of Colquhoun, who he always believed was the better artist.

Leaving Smart’s Essex farmhouse, the Roberts struggled through the next two decades, designing sets and costumes together for Massine's Scottish ballet Donald of the Burthens, which was produced by the Sadler's Wells Ballet at Covent Garden in 1951. This commission was immediately preceded by a flash-in-the-pan interview and photoshoot with Vogue, which showed the Roberts as true ‘British Painters’, but failed to revitalise their flagging careers. The Roberts’ lack of further recognition and their rackety lifestyle finally took their toll—both Roberts became increasingly dependent on alcohol, a factor that contributed heavily to their poverty and early deaths (Colquhoun in 1962, Macbryde in 1966). Recently, the pair have gained better recognition—Robert Bristow’s book The Last Bohemians: The Two Roberts – Colquhoun and Macbryde examined the pair’s life, and a significant exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2014 presented their work to a new audience. 

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Robert MacBryde

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