Dressed sharply in a maroon velvet suit, complete with purple handkerchief in his breast pocket, spotted bow tie and crisp white shirt, the man in Craigie Aitchison’s portrait exudes laid-back elegance. The sharpness of his hairline complements the panache of his clothes. His slightly parted lips reveal the glint of a gold tooth (created by a piece of gold leaf applied to the painting’s surface). In contrast to the flatness of the dazzling yellow background behind him, the defined outline and bulk of this man’s body springs out from the canvas. It is just as if he is sitting in front of us, pausing mid- conversation to look to his side. The man featured here is Alton Peters, one of Aitchison’s friends. Like most other models, Peters is someone that the artist knew personally, rather than a stranger. Aitchison tended to avoid portrait commissions, and always painted directly in the presence of a sitter. He once said: ‘In a portrait you’re trying to get the person opposite you onto the canvas. If I could, I would trace them’. From quite early on in his painting career, Aitchison chose black men and women for his models, usually drawn from his own circle of friends.
Craigie Aitchison abandoned his law studies to enrol at the Slade School in 1952, alongside fellow artists Paula Rego and Euan Uglow. In 1953 he won the Slade’s prize for best still-life and two years later he studied in Rome on a British Council scholarship. Seeing the colour and narratives of Renaissance Italian art first hand was an enduring influence. He started exhibiting his work in London in the late ‘50s, eventually moving there in 1963. He has exhibited regularly ever since, notably retrospectives at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (1996); and at the Royal Academy (2003). His work can be found in major public collections including Tate, London; Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries; and the Scottish Arts Council.
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