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Monumental self-portrait by important Scottish artist to star in new display at National Galleries of Scotland
William Crosby, Womb from Womb, 1941. Oil on canvas, 213.5 x 152.5 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased from the artist’s estate, via The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, 2018 © The Crosbie Estate.

EDINBURGH.- A large, powerful self-portrait by one of the finest and most singular Scottish artists of the 20th century has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland, where it will go on display for the first time this week. Womb from Womb by William Crosbie (1915-99), will be included in the Modern Portrait display, which re-opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh on Saturday 30 March.

Painted in 1941, in a style which reflects the artist’s interest in international surrealism, Womb from Womb was the most ambitious painted portrait of the artist’s career, and is a major addition to the national collection’s already-outstanding series of 20th Century Scottish self-portraits.

The impressive painting joins a significant group of Crosbie’s works in the NGS collection, which include drawings and paintings of figurative and abstract subjects. It has been purchased from the artist’s estate via the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, in what is the twentieth year since the artist’s passing at the age of 84.

William (Bill) Crosbie is one of the most respected Scottish painters of the 20th century. His work is represented in many major Scottish museums and galleries, the British Museum in London, and in private collections throughout the United Kingdom and abroad.

He was born to Scottish parents in Hankow in China, where his father was an engineer working on a harbour on the Yangtze River. The family moved to Glasgow in 1926 and Crosbie studied at the Glasgow Academy and Glasgow School of Art. He won a number of scholarships, including the Haldane Travel Scholarship in 1935.

Crosbie travelled to Paris in 1937 and enrolled there in the influential French art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, where he became familiar with the latest trends in European painting, most especially the work of artists such as Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). He stayed in the city for two years and would later describe his time studying under Léger as, “one of my proudest experiences”.

At the end of his scholarship, Crosbie ventured to Egypt to work with the Royal Archaeological Institute on an expedition to the newly-excavated Temple of the Bulls and Temple of Saqqara, the burial grounds for the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. There, Crosbie copied the four thousand year old friezes on the temple walls.

The artist returned to Scotland in 1939 and found work painting murals (including for the Festival of Britain in 1951), altarpieces, book illustrations and scenery designs for the ballet. Initially setting up a studio on 12 Ruskin Lane in Glasgow, Crosbie found himself the centre of what he once described as ''a little local Renaissance'', which included contemporaries such as the painter J D Fergusson (1874-1961), poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), playwright James Bridie (1888-1951) and architect Basil Spence (1907-76). He was later elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and throughout his life, regularly exhibited with the Royal Glasgow Institute.

Crosbie painted Womb from Womb during the Second World War, in 1941. It is a monumental self-portrait demonstrating Crosbie’s increasing interest in surrealism. The painting was made five years after the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which was hugely influential on the art of many English and Scottish painters. Such surrealist work was however a rarity among the relative conservatism of the Scottish art scene of the period, and so demonstrates Crosbie’s innovative and highly inventive outlook.

Womb from Womb was an outstanding inclusion in the exhibition A New Era, organised by the National Galleries of Scotland in 2017.

Christopher Baker, Director, European and Scottish Art and Portraiture at the National Galleries of Scotland, said:

“Crosbie’s impressive self-portrait is a significant addition to the National Galleries’ unrivalled collection of Scottish art. It’s a complex and thought-provoking work which combines three fascinating elements – the artist himself, glimpses of his wartime studio, and an intriguing painting in progress on the easel. With rich decorative and lighting effects and elements of spatial ambiguity, it’s an unnerving portrait that pays homage to European surrealism, but in a wholly distinctive and individual manner.”

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