Edward Baird was born in Montrose in 1904, the son of a local sea captain. He was to stay in the town for almost all of his short life and be one of the most successful of the close knit community of artists and writers living in Montrose between the wars, despite appalling bad health and a highly individual style and philosophy that did not sit within any of the current schools of painting.
Baird attended Montrose Academy like the other well known Montrose artist, William Lamb, leaving the town in 1924 to study at Glasgow School of Art. The School had already established a reputation for producing artists working within the tradition of figurative art such as James Cowie whose work Baird admired and who taught young artists at Hospitalfield in Arbroath. The tutors at Art School must have been impressed by Baird’s work as he was admitted straight into second year of the course and on graduation in 1927 won the prestigious Newberry Medal.
After graduation Baird used a travelling scholarship to journey to Italy. His time in Italy had a profound affect on him - the landscape in the background of the painting of a local defence volunteer LDV, 1939 (Aberdeen Art galleries and Museums) is typically Renaissance and the beautiful realism of the period seems to have formed some of the philosophies that he recounted in his lecture to the Dundee Art Society, ‘How Useful is Art’: ‘Once upon a time Art worked in blissful ignorance of its own nature. It believed it was only a trade in the amusement and service of mankind, and existed to paint flowers to deceive bees, to celebrate feats of arms, to adorn council chambers, to charm away melancholy and to teach and inform the people......Beauty came to visit it in secret; never was it stronger and more productive’.
Baird was extremely well-read and must have appreciated the sophistication of perspective and composition in Renaissance art as he also seemed to find a common thread with the quiet perfection of Flemish artists such as Vermeer that seems to hide impenetrable secrets behind glassy and meticulously painted surfaces.
The only twentieth century movements that Baird could be linked with are Dada or Surrealism about which he read widely, and although there is no record of the two artists having met, James Cowie’s Portrait Group 1932, with its use of incidental imagery coming in from the edge of the picture frame and illogical narrative has a subtle surrealist feeling that can also be seen in Baird’s work, the mystery of everyday images subtly disordered, probably strongest in The Birth of Venus, 1934 (private collection).
Mackintosh Patrick Remembers
A fellow student at Glasgow School of Art was another important Scottish painter, the late James Mackintosh Patrick who was to be a life-long friend and source of interesting anecdotal information about the young Montrose artist. Baird painted The Birth of Venus for Mackintosh Patrick on the occasion of his marriage in 1933 although the artist did not finish the work until 1934.
Mackintosh Patrick remembers Baird as pale and delicate. His life-long struggle with chronic asthma was to be a considerable disability but the young painter was also remembered as having a dry and observant sense of humour.
Baird’s work is distinctive and early drawings and paintings from Glasgow show a highly developed draughtsmanship and intense attention to detail that remained a characteristic of his work throughout his life. He worked slowly, with an almost obsessive degree of observation that meant that he felt he had to learn everything about the object before drawing it.
This is revealingly demonstrated in the 1941 painting Montrose from Ferryden (Montrose Museum) where an examination will reveal that the artist has painted practically every pebble on the wide shingle beach separately.
This perfectionism resulted in the painter obsessively repainting surfaces; photographs of LDV taken as it was created show the landscape behind the sitter was originally completely different to the finished painting.
Baird in Montrose
In Montrose around the 1920s to 40s, local architect George Fairweather’s studio provided a forum for lively debate by an artistic community that included Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, William Lamb and Fionn MacColla and it was to this atmosphere Baird returned after Glasgow and Italy.
There was a commitment in the town among the artists to the cause of Scottish Nationalism and a rebirth of a homegrown art that led to the ‘Scottish Renaissance’. The artists and writers mixed freely; Baird knew MacDiarmid’s neighbour MacColla at school, whom he painted as Portrait of a Young Scotsman, 1932 (Private collection) and Lamb made portrait busts of MacDiarmid and Baird that can still be seen in Lamb’s Studio.
Baird was an interesting study in contrasts. He was well informed about the movements in contemporary art but did not ally himself with any in particular and was openly opposed to most, but shared with the other artists in Montrose a passionate interest in the working life of the people of Scotland and in particular Montrose, both practically and artistically.
In 1939 he painted Distressed Area, an image of a derelict shipyard on Rossie Island (now the oil-base at Montrose) and with George Fairweather envisioned creating a self-supporting community for the unemployed on the island. His social concern was not merely idealistic however - Lamb and Baird built a new hut for a local fishermen who had been evicted. The artists bought the wood and constructed the new home themselves.
The subjects of his paintings are often strangely composed tableaux of figures in a landscape, usually Montrose or the area around the town such as Unidentified Aircraft, 1942 (Glasgow Museums & Art Galleries) or local gamekeeper James Davidson painted as a local defence volunteer in LDV. Even his many perfectly drawn and executed portraits -of local people and friends not society figures - such as George Fairweather, 1935 (private collection) or James Carson MBE (Montrose Museum) evoke a self-absorbed distance - the sitters never look out at the viewer and are instead contemplating something just outside the frame of the picture.
Sadly Baird’s health was always unstable. In 1945 he was hospitalised with pneumonia but married Fairweather’s sister, Ann in the same month. Unfortunately the chronic illnesses had taken their toll and Baird’s heart was weakened. He died in 1949 leaving many unfinished works and a unique place in Scottish Art with works in all the major collections of the country.
© Angus Council 1998 - 2013