Diminutive in scale but strikingly intense, Philosophy, a brass sculpture of 1924 by Scottish-born artist, John Duncan Fergusson, is this month’s Featured Work.


© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

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A stylised half-bust, Fergusson’s sculpture depicts a female nude with almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose and styled bobbed hair. Holding a dove in her left hand and with an arum lily to her right, the woman’s closed eyes and still expression give her a goddess-like presence as if she is deep in contemplation.

The compositional style of the figure reflects the 1920s Machine Age in which it was conceived. Its sharp edged planes are precise and finite, and reminiscent of highly polished brass works by other artists of the period, notably the semi-abstract images of birds and women by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957).

The model for Philosophy is almost certainly Margaret Morris (1891–1980), the acclaimed dancer, choreographer and teacher who first promoted and taught Isadora Duncan’s avant-garde dance techniques in Britain. Founder of the Margaret Morris Movement and two Scottish National Ballets in Glasgow, Morris first met Fergusson in Paris in 1913, later marrying and collaborating on projects with him; as well as frequently featuring as the subject of several of his paintings and sculptures.

John Duncan (J. D.) Fergusson, widely known as a leading Scottish Colourist, was one of the few British artists involved in avant-garde developments in painting and sculpture who lived and worked in early 20th century Paris. Born in Leith, near Edinburgh, he briefly studied art after giving up a career in medicine. Frustrated with the quality and style of the teaching, he taught himself painting from life.

From 1895, Fergusson regularly visited Paris, settling there in 1907. He was closely associated with the Fauve painters, becoming a ‘Sociétaire’ of the Salon d’Automne, where the most avant-garde artists exhibited. At the outbreak of war in 1914, he returned to Britain, and he and Margaret Morris first settled in London after their marriage in 1917.

By the 1940s, the Fergussons had relocated to Scotland where they established the New Art Club to encourage Glasgow’s young artists, and the New Scottish Group, which held regular exhibitions between 1943 and 1956. Fergusson supported young artists, encouraging them to avoid the establishment system and challenge the status quo. Thirty years after his death in 1961, the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation presented the largest collection of the artist’s work to Perth and Kinross Council in Scotland. In 1992 The Fergusson Gallery opened in Perth, dedicated to the lives and work of both Fergusson and Morris. In 2014, a major exhibition of Fergusson’s work was held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) in Edinburgh as part of a series of shows focused on individual Scottish Colourist artists.

Additional Notes
When the Government Art Collection (GAC) purchased Philosophy in 1964, it was originally purchased under the title Eastre: Hymn to the Sun. During her research of the artist’s work in preparation for the 2014 SNGMA exhibition, Alice Strang, Senior Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, shared her research with the GAC  which led to a correct identification of the sculpture.

The sculpture that the GAC purchased from the Leicester Galleries, London, in September 1964, was titled Eastre: Hymn to the Sun – a reference to the Saxon pagan goddess of spring, Eastre, from whose name the word Easter is derived. Strang’s research revealed that the subject, style and dimensions of the GAC’s sculpture differed from those of another documented work also entitled Eastre (Hymn to the Sun) of 1924, in the collection of the SNGMA. That second work depicts the head and elongated neck of a woman with a distinctive bunned hairstyle; and it is larger in scale to the GAC’s work.

The GAC’s work was stylistically similar to another of Fergusson’s sculptures c. 1920, made of waxed plaster and entitled Philosophy (Glasgow Life/Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum). Other versions of the work were known to have been sold at auction in Glasgow in 2013, and to be held in a private collection. Aside from the similarity of the compositions of the GAC’s and the Kelvingrove work, the dimensions of both are identical. After carrying out further archival research, the GAC discovered that the original purchase documents from the Leicester Galleries had incorrectly titled the work acquired in 1964. The sculpture was formally re-titled in 2014 and extend our warm thanks to Alice Strang for sharing her research of Fergusson’s work.