The Scottish Shipowner Who Championed the Colourists

By Thomas Podd

Ahead of the upcoming auction The Colourists: Pictures from the Harrison Collection (London, 12 June), Sotheby's specialist Thomas Podd discusses Major Ion R. Harrison, the man who assembled this magnificent collection.

Major Ion R. Harrison, a Glasgow shipowner, was one of the most important patrons of the Colourist artists. He first encountered the work of the Colourist artists in 1921 when he attended an exhibition at Alexander Reid & Lefevre in Glasgow of paintings by Samuel John Peploe. Harrison was instantly struck by the modern and bold character of Peploe’s work and later recalled, ‘I had never seen anything in art similar to these pictures…They really startled me for, to my eyes, they were so ‘ultra-modern’.

To each of these fine artists I owe a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid, for it is to them…that I owe what knowledge I may have of the qualities which, collectively make a work of art.
Major Ion R. Harrison, ‘As I Remember Them’, essay in T.J. Honeyman, Three Scottish Colourists, 1950, p.126

It would be three more years before Harrison purchased his first work by Peploe, swiftly followed by a number of paintings by Hunter, and not long after in 1925, Harrison purchased his first work by Cadell The Pink Azaleas which became a particularly cherished painting in the collection.


Ion Harrison’s personal recollections and close relationships between himself and the artists give this collection an incredible sense of immediacy. Harrison first made the acquaintance of Hunter through his business partners in Glasgow in 1919. Harrison was drawn to Hunter’s modern approach to painting and remembers how, ‘Hunter always maintained that he was not painting for today but for fifty years hence…Having lived twenty-five years with several of them I find that Hunter’s prophecy is coming true.’


Cadell was the second of the Colourists Harrison met in 1928 and a close friendship developed right away. This bond between patron and artist is reflected in the correspondence they shared.  Cadell wrote to Harrison with his opinions on the attraction of buying modern art, ‘The advantage in buying modern pictures is 1. That the buyer knows the work to be by the artist and who painted it, 2. Buying comparatively low with the sporting chance, confident with either knowledge or luck, that the picture will go up + 3. The advantage, + this to the painter, of encouraging Contemporary art without which there would be no future ‘old masters’!’


Of all of the Colourist artists, it seems Peploe’s friendship was the most difficult to attain. Cadell first introduced Peploe to the Harrisons in 1932 and he stayed at Croft House which Harrison remarked was ‘a very great privilege’. Although their friendship did not gain the same level of familiarity as it did with Cadell, there was great mutual admiration between them and from Harrison a genuine marvel at Peploe’s artistic skills. Harrison had less of a personal connection with the last of the Colourist artist John Duncan Fergusson who spent most of his painting career in the South of France. Nonetheless, Harrison was evidently drawn to Fergusson’s impressionistic early style as can be seen in works such as Paris Plage, Bathing Huts and Paris, 1907.


It seems that Harrison himself held these artists in equal regard and wrote, ‘I consider them all to be equally great, each in his own special way. One of them could excel in painting something which another could not tackle quite so successfully.' Despite their differences in subject, style and colour the work of these artists hung in Croft House side by side in glorious harmony, brilliant flashes of daring colour giving a bold modern texture to an elegant Scottish home. In 1951, a total of one hundred and seventy nine works by the Colourists were shown when the Harrison collection was exhibited in its entirety at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow. The exhibition stood as a testimony to Major Ion R. Harrison, a great collector, patron and perhaps most importantly friend to a unique group of artists who ushered in a new age of modernism in British art.

When a collector has brought together a great gathering of works by artists who were his personal friends, we have something that is entirely different.

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