COLIN THOMS – Scottish Artist 1912 – 1997

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Portrait by Alan Young

Portrait by Alan Young


Colin Thoms was a Scottish abstract artist born in Edinburgh on August 2nd, 1912. Like his compatriot Alan Davie, Thoms had an intuitive approach to his work, and created a colourful and poetic dream world that incorporated the influence of Klee, Miro and Kandinsky, whilst remaining uniquely his own.

Thoms had a long teaching career; but made very productive use of the 20 years he was able to devote completely to his own work after retirement, becoming increasingly known in latter years for his witty and inventive abstract paintings, collages and prints. As a full-time teacher at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen from 1951 to 1977, he was a much-loved influence on several generations of Scottish artists, including Will MacLean, Moira Maitland, Alexander Fraser, W.J. Connon, Ian McKenzie Smith, Joyce Cairns and Kate Downie

From childhood Colin Thoms knew he was an artist. One of his teachers at Edinburgh Academy rather ruefully informed his parents: “I am afraid that he has the artistic temperament.” He was at school with the sons of the Scottish Colourist S.J. Peploe, and was drawn to the paintings hanging in their family home. Later, as a student at Edinburgh College of Art from 1929 to 1933, Thoms studied life painting under Peploe. His other teachers included John Duncan, D.M. Sutherland and W.G. Gillies.

In 1934 he studied for one term at the Slade School in London, and in 1935, thanks to a travelling scholarship from Edinburgh School of Art, he studied in Paris, Florence, Rome, Padua and Venice. In Paris, he attended life-drawing classes at the Academie Colarossi and in the Rue de la Chaumiere. A fellowship award enabled him to continue his studies in Brussels, Cologne and Munich.

Thoms first exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1928 and continued to exhibit regularly there until 1997. In 1949 he was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists, which led to a friendship with the painter Anne Redpath which lasted until her death 20 years later. He also saw a good deal of Sir William Gillies, who had been a significant influence on him in the 1930s, aswell as Joan Eardley, who was based in Catterline near Aberdeen until her death in 1963.

In 1937 Thoms accepted a part-time teaching post at Loretto School, Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and continued to paint and exhibit until the Second World War. His work at this time was predominantly representational.

The war years were served initially with the Royal Artillery. After suffering a severe head wound in an air-raid, he transferred to the Education Corps, serving in Edinburgh, Orkney, Egypt and Palestine, rising from the ranks to Sergeant and Captain. The time spent in the Middle East was to have a lasting influence on his work, and also made Thoms feel a particular bond with Paul Klee and his North African works.

Brian Eno in his studio in 1990 with a Colin Thoms on display

Brian Eno in his studio in 1990 with a Colin Thoms on display

After the war, Thoms returned to Loretto for a further four years. In 1951 he married the film critic Anne Whyte and moved to Aberdeen to take up his appointment to the staff of Gray’s School of Art. He stayed there for 25 years until he retired from teaching. One of his students recalls sketching expeditions with Thoms, a tall elegant figure in a kilt enthusiastically leading his party through the countryside.

In Aberdeen Thoms was also active in saving historic buildings from development – he was a founder member and Chairman of the Aberdeen Civic Society.

In 1963 he visited the Miro retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. The impact on Thoms was dramatic: he described it as a release into “an unprecedented freedom of expressions comparable, perhaps to S.J. Peploe’s discovery of the significance of Cezanne 60 or so years ago”. The art critic for the Scotsman, Sydney Goodsir Smith, likened it to “the conversion of St Paul and the blinding light on the road to Damascus”. In 1966 Thoms had his first one-man exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, which was hailed as “the dream world of reborn Thoms”.

This first one-man exhibition quite late in his career led to numerous other exhibitions: at Aberdeen University; the Pier Art Gallery in Orkney; the Drian Gallery, London; the Scottish Gallery, again; and England & Co, London, where he exhibited regularly from 1989, and where his last one-man exhibition was held in September 1995. He had moved back to his native Edinburgh in 1990.

Public collections in which he is represented, range from the Scottish Arts Council; the Edinburgh Civic Arts Centre; and Aberdeen Art Gallery to the Gdansk National Museum in Poland. He is also included in the Robert Fleming Collection of Scottish Art, as well as in many private collections all over the world.

Thoms’s confident and brilliant sense of colour was perhaps inherited from his Colourist forebears. He approached his paintings like his collages and prints, mixing an almost childlike directness with great visual sophistication and verve. He was totally happy in his studio, literally delighting in making his images; angst had no place there.

In his latter years he spent several days each week at the Edinburgh Printmakers’ Workshop, where he worked alongside young artists, producing innovative etchings, lithographs and screen prints. His collage works often incorporated the subtle and colourful papers given to him by his son-in-law Yoshiro Oyama, the renowned Japanese stained-glass artist. He also received an interesting career boost in 1990, when one of his works was displayed in a photo in Q Magazine as part of a feature on musician Brian Eno (see above).

Colin Thoms’s pictures incorporate elements from his own personal iconography with Miro-esque shapes: surreal forms, crescent moons, hearts, birds, fish, flags, and oddly engaging creatures dance across his picture surfaces. Sometimes his work resembles a rather manic musical score. In an interview with the critic Robin Dutt in 1989, Thoms said that “music is very important to me . . . I don’t play myself, but I am appreciative of all music from my favourite, Stravinsky, to someone like Philip Glass . . . I even dance in my studio, and I am approaching 80.

Colin Thoms died on April 20th 1997, seven years after returning to his beloved Edinburgh and leaves behind a unique body of work which continues to gain more recognition with each passing year.

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Colin Thoms Art: GALLERY

Further info: ART UK

Colin Thoms Evening News Press Cutting 30.11.02

Colin Thoms Evening News Press Cutting 30.11.02