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National Portrait Gallery acquires Craigie Aitchison self-portrait

The National Portrait Gallery in London has acquired a self-portrait which had been destroyed by its artist, the late Craigie Aitchison. It goes on display at the Gallery on Tuesday 18 December.

Craigie Aitchison by Craigie Aitichison c. 1950s/1960s © Estate of Craigie Aitchison / Bridgeman Art Library

The oil painting dated c. late 1950s / early 1960s was slashed by the artist following perceived criticism by a visitor to his studio who remarked that the portrait was ‘flattering.’ But Aitchison, who was known for his diffidence and aversion to self-promotion, was later persuaded by Martin Wyld, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery, to let him restore it, the agreement being that the lacerations inflicted should remain visible.
The painting, now relined but still bearing these scars, remained in the artist’s possession until his death. The Gallery purchased the work with help from Terence and Angela Danziger Miles and the fashion designer Sir Paul Smith.

During his lifetime Craigie Aitchison’s distinctive style and imagery as an artist and printmaker brought him a considerable following. His approach, at once understated and subtle, underpinned a much respected position as a painter of visionary, religious and portrait subjects, and as a colourist of singular gifts.

Born in Kincardine-on-Forth, Scotland, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009) studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1952 to 1954. As the result of a British Council Scholarship to study in Italy, early Renaissance painting became a strong influence as did the impression made by the Italian light and landscape. Consequently, he greatly simplified his subject matter, focusing on particular elements such as trees, birds, dogs and figures depicted in rich, pastel colours. The apparent simplicity of such motifs conceals a profound formal sensitivity. Elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1978, Aitchison won the Jerwood Painting Prize in 1994. Major retrospectives were held at the Serpentine Gallery (1981), the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (1996) and the Royal Academy, London (2003). Aitchison was awarded a CBE in 1999.

While this is the first painted portrait of Craigie Aitchison to be acquired by the Gallery, the artist is represented by portraits by Ida Kar, Steve Speller and Jonathan Root in the Photographs Collection.