The Dick Institute has recently been loaned a collection of paintings by Eleanor Robertson (1885 - 1955). Robertson grew up in Ayrshire and studied at Glasgow School of Art. During her adult life she spent twelve years living in China, where her husband held a post with the Shanghai Municipal Council. The loaned collection contains several of the paintings and prints Robertson produced during this period. It is currently on display in the Dick Institute.
When Eleanor Robertson was still a child her family moved from
Northern Ireland to Ayrshire so that her father could take up an
appointment as minister of Loudoun Parish Church in Newmilns. From
an early age Eleanor had demonstrated artistic talent in painting
and after finishing school she went to study at Glasgow School of
Art under the inspirational Francis Newbery.
The first of her works to be publicly exhibited was a self -portrait, The Silk Dress at the Glasgow Institute. In 1914 her career as a painter was interrupted by World War One. During this period she worked as a nurse in a hospital in Edinburgh set up to accommodate the war wounded.
In 1922 she married Dr. Robert Cecil Robertson - a Kilmarnock man. When he was appointed to a post with the Shanghai Municipal Council, his family moved with him to China. Here, for twelve years they enjoyed a life-style which enabled the artist to travel and record the lives of the ordinary people in watercolour sketches, as they explored the Yantze River delta by houseboat. Hostilities broke out between China and Japan in 1937, at which point the family was evacuated and returned to Scotland. The art world to which Eleanor Robertson returned after her years in China had undergone considerable change. At this point she ceased to actively pursue her career as a professional painter.
The influence of the Glasgow Boys is evident in Robertson's work and she herself was termed one of the 'Glasgow Girls'. In China she often worked in watercolour, a medium which allowed her to work quickly, grasping the brief opportunities which arose to record people and places and waterborne traffic as the family houseboat travelled around the islands and canals of the Yantze river delta.
Robertson did not adopt the conventions of traditional Chinese art. As her daughter, Ailsa Tanner wrote, she 'loved Chinese art but was not influenced by it'. It may, however, be possible to discern in her work during this period, something of the character of Chinese calligraphy which was also executed with brush and water based medium and in which precise meaning is conveyed by means of deft and economical strokes. From ancient times in China, calligraphy had itself been respected as an art form which was not distinguished from drawing.