InSight No. XCIV

Craigie Aitchison | Butterflies in a Landscape, 1964

Piano Nobile is pleased to represent the Estate of Craigie Aitchison, a remarkable artist who often achieved perfection through simplicity. When Butterflies in a Landscape was reproduced on the front cover of the London Magazine, the delicate balance of colour and proportion was destroyed and the artist saw red.

Craigie Aitchison,

Butterflies in a Landscape, 1964




Though he was raised in Scotland, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009) was a warm-blooded creature. Helen Lessore reported Aitchison's remark that, 'in spite of [Scotland] being so far north, there is something about the clear light and the beauty of the landscape there that is like Italy.' He first visited Italy on a scholarship from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1955, and some years later in 1977 he acquired a property at Montecastelli in Tuscany. He routinely went backwards and forwards between his home studio in London and the hilltop retreat in Italy, and this pattern of retreat and return became an important aspect of his creative process. Many of his paintings have the intensity of a beautiful thing remembered.



Shortly after his return from Italy in 1955, Aitchison painted a scintillating vision of the southern climate. The horizon shimmers in a heat haze and the earth seems to combust. Though Butterflies in a Landscape (1956) was painted after Aitchison had returned from Italy, the prism of memory apparently intensified his experience of the Italian landscape. The painting was exhibited at Gallery One (see InSight XXXII) and an anonymous reviewer for The Times singled it out for praise. '[T]he contrasting belts of blue, red and mauve are so vivid that they call up an effect of intense shimmering heat, reinforced by a group of butterflies, a detail all the more significant for being the only one.'



With this kind of encouragement, it is perhaps unsurprising that Aitchison sought to reprise his success. Two further works over the next twelve years took the same subject: Butterflies in a Landscape (1964) and Butterfly in a Purple Landscape (1968). Each work used bands of contrasting colour to suggest a landscape receding towards a distant horizon. While the first and third paintings include only butterflies and were executed with broken impasto touches, the second of these works - Butterflies in a Landscape (1964) - includes a tree and a branch beside four butterflies.


Details were added and removed from Aitchison's paintings according to what was 'right'. As he explained in an article published in October 1960,


I just want to get it right, I have no idea what right is until I get it that way, then I know like a flash; but I know when it is wrong[…] It's got to be a shape but an iris as well, the two things at once. I hate when a flower turns into just a shape, […] and yet it has to be a shape when all is said and done. But then if the shape is right, the whole painting will have taken on a life of its own, and then the shape will be completely forgotten […]. I find in painting that it becomes a flower first, very quickly, then it goes into a shape then back into a flower, if it does not go back, then it's useless and the picture is terrible.



Though detail is often extremely localised in many paintings by Aitchison, he always insisted on the importance of a work being regarded as a whole. This was played out in a controversy in 1969 when Butterflies in a Landscape was reproduced on the front cover of the London Magazine; the work was then owned by the magazine's editor Alan Ross. As the son of Scotland's Lord Advocate and himself briefly a student of the law, Aitchison was inclined to become litigious when angry. The painting had been cropped and covered with text, and he consulted with friends on the best course of action, describing Ross as 'an ig-nor-a-mus!' Though a grudging apology was supplied, Aitchison was greatly displeased. These events suggest both his highly individual character and the depth of conviction which animated his work.



Ross's mistake was to misconstrue Aitchison's work with its bright colour and suppressed detail as a form of wallpaper - decorative, appealing, banal. The simplicity of his paintings was in fact their strength, being borne of painstaking adjustment and re-arrangement. For Aitchison, 'rightness' was often achieved by elimination and simplification rather than by enrichment and expansion. The proportions of the canvas, the relation of precisely judged expanses of colour, and the location of detail were all integral to Butterflies in a Landscape. The London Magazine controversy only underlines further the precision and 'rightness' of Aitchison's work.




1. Craigie Aitchison, Butterflies in a Landscape, 1964, oil on canvas, 77 x 65 cm | For Sale

2. The Tuscan hilltop village of Montecastelli

3. Craigie Aitchison, Butterfly in a Purple Landscape, 1968, Private Collection © Craigie Aitchison

4. Craigie Aitchison, photographed by his friend Harriet Frazier © Harriet Frazier

5. Butterflies in a Landscape, 1964 (detail)

6. The front cover of the London Magazine, July/August 1969

December 20, 2021
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