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William Gillies - Our Neighbour
By Philip G. Napier
Many tributes were paid to Bill Gillies after his untimely death in 1973, notably the monograph by the late Dr. T. Elder Dickson.
Now that another retrospective exhibition has been arranged, I was delighted when my offer to pay my tribute to him as a neighbour and friend, who was held in such esteem and affection by so many, was accepted.
This appreciation consists mainly of incidents, anecdotes and happenings during the 14 years my wife and I knew him, and I have tried to the best of my ability to record them in chronological order.
When we moved from Edinburgh to Temple in the summer of 1959 we were somewhat apprehensive as to how we would be received in a small village community of about 100 inhabitants, despite the fact that as youngsters we had both been brought up in the countryside. Our fears were soon dispelled.
We had only been in residence a few days when there was a knock at the door. It was Bill Gillies, who had lived in the village for 20 years, bidding us welcome to Temple and offering any help we needed to settle in. In course of conversation it transpired that my wife and he had both been students at Edinburgh College of Art at the same time and had mutual acquaintances among both staff and students - this created a bond of interest between them which flourished over the years.
His mother and his sister Jenny were both alive at that time and he invited my wife over to be introduced. Jenny's health was deteriorating and she was seldom seen, but his mother and my wife immediately struck up a 'rapport', possibly because life had become a struggle for them both in their younger days and because of their shared love of unsophisticated country life.
Jenny died in 1960 and his mother, in her 100th year, in 1963. This was, I think, a turning point in Bill's life. He had been the mainstay and support of his mother and sister since he was 21. Now he could devote all his time to his own pursuits.
He acquired a labrador, Jet, to whom he became deeply attached and, whenever he could not take the dog with him, my wife exercised him. Thereby rose a couple of incidents, the first of which was typical of his preference for informality. Jet got badly bitten by another dog and Bill rushed over to get my wife to go with him to the vet in Edinburgh. When they got there they were told it would be some time before Jet would be ready for collection so they decided to do some shopping at Marks & Spencers. As they waited for a bus, they looked at one another and burst out laughing as Bill was wearing carpet slippers and my wife a kitchen apron. He bought some underwear and my wife bought a pair of pyjamas for me which he had to pay for as, in the rush, she had not taken her purse.
The second incident was not at all funny at the time. My wife was walking Jet about a mile up the road when he disturbed a wasps' bike. Instead of going for him they settled on my wife's head and stung her pretty seriously.
When they got back to Bill's house he was terribly upset and immediately poured a very large whisky down her and then thought he had better have a look at his medical book to see if he had done the right thing. He found to his dismay that "on no account give the victim spirits which could put him or her into a coma"!! "What", he exclaimed "am I going to say to Philip if you die". However, all turned out happily with no ill effects.
Two of his hobbies were his garden and making home-made wine. His garden always looked unkempt and overgrown, although he attended it with loving care, because he could not bear to pull up or destroy anything. With his knowledge of herbs and plants he was a prodigious producer of home-made wines, some of them extremely potent. He gave a lot away but, after his death, many dozens of bottles were found on shelves in his garage, some dating back 10 years or more. On the instructions of his executors we were asked to dispose of them to his neighbours. It was quite a sight, wheelbarrows, prams, push carts loaded with the stuff.
He also washed and ironed his laundry, darned his socks, turned the collars and cuffs of his shirts - a man of many talents.
When we first knew him his transport consisted of a Norton Motor Bike which he used for getting to spots, inaccessible by car, for subjects to paint, His car was a pre-war Alvis Silver Eagle. He had a thing about cars - he told us he had been talked into getting a colour TV set and one day he set off to buy one with the friend who had egged him on. In the afternoon he arrived home with a brand new Ford Granada instead. He never did get a colour TV set and had never intended to.
Amongst many of his qualities of good neighbourliness was the encouragement and advice he gave to my wife who is a talented amateur painter. He advised her on technique and the use of brush, knife and thumb to such an extent that she acquired the Gillies style, especially in her landscapes, which has stood her in good stead.
At the opening ceremony of his retrospective exhibition in February 1970 in the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Scottish Academy, few people realised that, on his way to Edinburgh, Bill's car had skidded off the icy road at the notorious S-Band at the Parduvine Road junction between Carrington and Cockpen. Fortunately friends following not far behind were able to contact Robin Philipson who came and collected him and got him to the opening on time. Although obviously shaken there was no evidence of it when he got up to speak. Few who were there will forget the dry humour of his opening words: "I must be one of the few painters who have had a retrospective exhibition while still alive."
This exhibition, mounted by the Scottish Arts Council, was an outstanding success. Its showing in Edinburgh lasted from 7 to 28 February and, although it was the middle of winter, no less than 7,461 people came to see it at the Scottish Arts Council Gallery. His oil paintings and drawings exhibited in the Diploma Gallery while his watercolours were at the Scottish Arts Council Gallery at 19 Charlotte Square, where a film was also shown of his daily life at Temple with such homely scenes as him going to the village shop for his messages accompanied by Jet. I cannot leave this subject without saying how much of the success of that exhibition was due to the enthusiasm and untiring effort put into it by Bill Buchanan, the then Art Director of the Scottish Arts Council, and his staff.
About 1971 Bill Gillies approached my wife and, with some hesitation, asked her if she would cook his mid-day meal for him. Up until then, somebody else in the village had been cooking for him twice a week - which he heated up every day - and I gather it was the simple fare to which he was accustomed. But the lady went off to Canada and he was in a quandary. My wife jumped at the idea as she had always been concerned at the simplicity of his diet and was delighted to try her culinary skills on him and introduce him to "haute cuisine", and home-made at that. Each day she prepared a dinner for him in her own kitchen, with enough left over to do his supper, and took it to him across the road. He loved it from the start and showered her with compliments saying he had never tasted such delicious food before. He often had a friend or two from Edinburgh to visit him in the evening but, as he told my wife:” They are not going to get any of my supper so I'll give them something out of a tin and have mine after they have gone."
We can never forget his generosity to us at the Christmas of 1971 and 1972. His Christmas card to us on each occasion was one of his drawings of the village, already mounted and signed.
Another time, there was a landscape in his studio which he was unhappy with, but which my wife admired very much and offered to buy. He said:” You can have it now and pay for it when you are very rich" (which was never likely to happen), and despite her protests he brought it over and hung it. Needless to say, these gifts are amongst our most treasured memories of him. Another treasured possession is the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition which he autographed for my wife:” To one of my brightest Highlights."
My memory of him is of a shy, kind and charming man, with (once you got to know him) a very real sense of humour. He had a strong character with very decided views on behaviour. If I had offended any of these views I would not care to have been on the receiving end of a telling-off from him. He hated ostentation in any shape or form. Whilst he felt honoured and pleased to receive his Knighthood in 1970, to my knowledge he never used it to produce preferential treatment. For example, when he had to have a minor operation he went into a general ward at the Royal Infirmary when he could well afford to have been treated privately.
I also feel that he was not really happy after his appointment as Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art. The very nature of the post was a call on his administrative ability, dealing with local authorities, planners and such like, and he frequently admitted he was by nature and background no administrator - and I think he longed to be back as Head of the School of Painting. From conversations we have had with his friends and colleagues at the college he was obviously much loved by all with whom he came in contact, down to those in the humblest of jobs - it is said he made a point of knowing them all and greeting them by name whenever he saw them.
To his friends his front door was always open. If he did not answer your knock you just wandered in shouting his name. You would probably be greeted by Jet who would lead you to his master who was usually in his garden or studio.
On the rare occasions that he went away on holiday he used to give us a huge manilla envelope bulging at the seams with money, saying: "Will you keep this until my return, and if I do not I want you to share it with another friends as I don't want the lawyers to get their hands on it." There must have been hundreds of pounds in that envelope.
Although he could be extremely generous and was always willing to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than himself, I would not like to hazard a guess at the amount of money he was owed for pictures he had sold on promise of payment which never materialised. Being an honest and trustworthy person himself he was perhaps a little naive in expecting everyone else to be the same.
The two bodies he begrudged paying money to were the Inland Revenue and the Rating Authorities. I remember popping to see him one evening about a year after his retrospective exhibition when the sale of his works had been exceptional. He was struggling with his Income Tax Return and asked me if I thought he should ask the Inspector of Taxes to let him spread his assessment over two or three years which was then customary practice in respect of surtax. I asked him how much he had in his bank, to which he replied about £20,000 on current account (which was more than sufficient to cover his assessment). When I told him that if it had been on Deposit Account it would bring in about £1,200 per annum in interest, he replied "Oh! no, I would then be liable for tax on it"! I forgot to ask him afterwards what he eventually decided to do.
On Sunday 15 April, 1973, he, my wife and I and some others went up to a friend's house for a pre-lunch drink. Coming away afterwards he complained of feeling a little tired, but was his usual cheery self. My wife took his lunch over as usual and after we had finished ours she went back to take Jet for a walk. Moments later she returned saying "Come quickly, I think Bill is dead, he is slumped over his table with a spoon still in his hand". We called his doctor who came and confirmed it was so, it must have been mercifully sudden and painless.
Then of course, the police had to be summoned because of any possible suspicious circumstances. As it was the Edinburgh Spring Holiday we had considerable difficulty in getting hold of his lawyer and executors who were all away, but eventually they were informed. It was a very sad day for all of us in Temple and my wife and I were deeply distressed. He was in his 75th year when his heart gave out.
So passed a good neighbour and friend, and I consider it an honour and privilege to have been accepted by him as such. He was a kind, gentle man in both senses of the word. For a long time after his death when I was setting out for the office I used to look across the road to his door still expecting to see, as in the past, that small, white-haired figure with a cigarette in his mouth, Jet at his heel, surveying the morning scene.
In his Will he left the bulk of his estate to the Royal Scottish Academy, with the wish that they would retain his house as a retreat where up-and-coming painters could come for a sabbatical. This was not to be, however, the administrative problems alone ruled this out.
The house is now sold and the only reminder of the previous owner is an engraved stone set in the wall with the simple words:” Sir William Gillies 1898-1973 lived and worked here". He would have liked that simple epitaph.
When his house came on the market, his executors asked my wife if she would act as the local representative for the house agents, to which she agreed. She made herself available for some three to four weeks, allowing an hour for each prospective purchaser. Many were, of course, just curious and some of the comments would fill pages - one classic example came from a lady who, when fingering the curtains in the living room which were of muted greys, blues and yellows, came out with:” Whoever lived in this hoose had nae taste". Little did she realise how ironic her comment was.
Philip G. Napier - January 1980
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