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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Black and white photograph of two men both leaning on easels

The Two Roberts: A Love Story

[ Artist in Focus, Stories )

It is almost Valentine’s Day and we’re feeling romantic! So what better time to look at the life-long love story between Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, two artists who shared everything together. Be warned though – true love doesn’t always make for a happy ending…

So, who were the two Roberts? Even if you are a fan of Modern British art, the names Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun are probably less familiar than those of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Yet during the 1940s they achieved considerable success, with Colquhoun in particular being considered one of the leading artists of his day. But within 20 years, both were relatively obscure. It is only recently that their legacies are being re-examined.

Colquhoun and MacBryde first met at the Glasgow School of Art in 1933. Their names weren’t the only thing they shared – both were working class, from Ayrshire and left school at 15. They reportedly met on the first day of term and quickly became inseparable.

In 1941 they moved to London, sharing a house with John Minton and later Jankel Adler. As well as being lovers, the two Roberts were also artistic collaborators, working together to create theatre set designs, including Massine’s Scottish ballet Donald of the Burthens, produced by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at Covent Garden in 1951.

Black and white drawing showing two figures, one on the left standing and holding a cat and the other sat to the right.

Robert Colquhoun, Two Figures with Cat, Monotype print on paper, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Presented by Dennis Andrews and Christopher Whelen 2008) © The Estate of Robert Colquhoun

Colquhoun was heavily influenced by Picasso, often focusing on a single isolated, apparently agonised figure in his paintings. MacBryde was also influenced by the Cubists, as well as Graham Sutherland and John Piper. His earlier works tend to be more brightly coloured, but he later evolved a darker, more expressionist style for his still lifes and landscapes.

During the 1940s, Soho was a centre of Britain’s bohemian scene. At this period, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Yet in Soho, the two Roberts could be themselves, both as individual artists and together as lovers. Although they were devoted to one another, their relationship could be tempestuous. Both were heavy drinkers, which could sometimes lead to violent arguments. On top of that, Colquhoun was bisexual and his occasional heterosexual flings made MacBryde extremely jealous.

The two Roberts were soon the life and soul of every party in Soho – and there were a lot of parties! Michael Andrews‘ painting The Colony Room I (pictured below) was painted in the early 60s, but it captures something of the vibrant, hedonistic artistic community they had been a part of, alongside Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and John Minton.

An impressionistic painting of a crowded bar full of people mingling and drinking. One figure towards the right side stares directly at the viewer.

Michael Andrews, The Colony Room I, 1962, Oil on board, Pallant House Gallery, Choichester (Wilson Gift through The Art Fund 2006) ©The Estate of Michael Andrews, courtesy of James Hyman Gallery, London

And then, as the 1940s drew to a close, the bubble burst. Abstract Expressionism became the new vogue. Suddenly figurative art was passé and the Roberts went from being the toast of the art world to being evicted from their studio.

An unusual lifeline was thrown to them by Elizabeth Smart, the author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. She had four children by the poet George Barker and by 1951 she was raising them on her own in a farmhouse in rural Essex. She had met the Roberts in Soho and invited them to live with her to help look after her children while she worked in London.

It was an unconventional living situation, but it gave the Roberts a space to be together where they could also paint. When they weren’t looking after the children, they continued painting. They stubbornly refused to follow what was popular in the art world, continuing to paint their somewhat angst-ridden still lifes and portraits, all while abstraction reigned supreme and the bright and shiny aesthetics of Pop art began to develop.

Painting by Robert MacBryde showing a stylised bowl of fruit in the top right depicted on a patterned cloth of red, brown and yellow tones

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (The George and Ann Dannatt Gift, 2011) © The Estate of the Artist

After four years Elizabeth could afford to send her children to boarding school and so the Roberts moved out of the farmhouse. She also paid off their bill in a local pub, which came to £1500 – an astonishing amount of money at the time.

The Roberts moved back to London and continued to paint – and party – despite having no money. However, their persistence paid off and in 1962, Colquhoun was offered a one-man show. Unfortunately, years of heavy drinking and partying had taken its toll. After working all through the night on new works for his show, he died in MacBryde’s arms on 20 September 1962 at the age of 47.

Colquhoun was tall, roughly handsome, every feature open and strongly marked, the sort of long head that one associates with the Scots who have gone around the world as makers, builders and engineers. He was somewhat awkward and almost inarticulate, but his gentleness and warmth came across immediately because when you met him you met almost the whole man.

Anthony Cronin, Dead as Doornails (1976)

MacBryde was devastated. He moved to Ireland and continued to drink heavily, falling even further into obscurity. In 1966, he was dancing outside of a pub in Dublin where he was knocked down and killed by a passing car.

MacBryde had, and retained to the end, a capacity to abandon himself gently and totally to the drink and the moment, so that in the right company he achieved incandescence. He had a beautiful voice and a repertoire of Scots songs and he was seldom reluctant to perform.

Anthony Cronin, Dead as Doornails (1976)

Black and white photograph of two men both leaning on easels

The story of the two Roberts ends tragically. Yet throughout their tempestuous relationship, even when it must have seemed like the whole world was against them, the two remained together and remained true to their own artistic beliefs. Their story reminds us that love, like art, isn’t always easy – but it’s always worth fighting for.

The Two Roberts are often considered to be part of a loose group of artists known as the neo-romantics – we explored this group in our exhibition, A Different Light: British Neo-Romanticism.