I have always known that my grandfather was an artist. I don't remember him, but I do remember his powerful self-portrait in oil on wood. His name was Robert Sivell, but he was known to friends and family, including my mother, as Bob. His portrait shows him as very striking: lean, hawk-nosed, and olive skinned, with a shock of black hair which is stark white in later photographs. I believe he claimed an Italian heritage, although more recently his family was thought to have moved to Paisley, Scotland as part of a migration of Flemish weavers in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1998 or 1999, my brother Harold visited the small town in Scotland where my mother, my brother, and my sister were born (I was born during my parents stay in Alexandria, Egypt). While there, Harold acquired a copy of an art student's recent graduate thesis on my grandfather's work. The paper makes claim for a new recognition of my grandfather's artistic influence, through the work of several of his students, more than through his own work.
When Harold returned and shared this thesis paper with my mother and the rest of the family, it caused much flurry and excitement. My mother felt compelled to write to the author to set the record straight on some misstatements or gaps in the work. In doing so, she involved my sister and brother, and excavated great piles of papers from her past. I received a phone call in which they reported, amid a scene of much hilarity, that there were now two versions of my mother's letter; the one to be mailed to the art student, and a second, more amusing one, for family eyes only (unfortunately I have yet to see the second version).
So we are embarking on a (long, slow) expedition to document some of my grandfathers history, and possibly to locate some of his work. My brother, sister, and I now have several pieces of Bob's work, and my mother retains her favorite paintings. However, many works that were still in the family at the time of Bob's death were left in Great Britain, in the care of two of his skilled students. Many of these have since been donated to the Aberdeen Art Museum, by a bequest from Albert Morrocco. No complete listing of his work exists, but the Aberdeen Museum now stores 120 paintings (a mix of completed works and studies). At least one larger work has been carefully cleaned and restored, and several of these have been occasionally displayed.
I took many photos of Bob's paintings using my brother's camera while on a 2003 visit to my mother in Florida. An exploration of my mother's closets unearthed at least 12 long forgotten portraits, in addition to those we knew about already. Many of these are posted to the site now.
I found out about the large bequest of Bob's paintings to the Aberdeen Art Gallery on my recent trip to the United Kingdom, and was able to see a few of these paintings which were readily accessible in the off-site storage facility in Kittybrewster. I was also able to see Bob's large murals in Sivells, a student pub managed by the Aberdeen University student association, inside their student union (located on Gallowgate, only a few blocks from the Art Gallery). The murals were cleaned and restored some time in the past ten years, and are in fairly good condition. We did take photographs, bu unfortunately the lighting and our limited facility with an automatic digital camera combined to make the photos pretty marginal. I am hoping to obtain copies of better photos from the Aberdeen Art Gallery and/or the University.
I found two more of Bob's paintings in the possession of the Kirkcudbright Stewartry Museum. A painting of young lady (possibly my mother) hangs currently hangs in the museum, and a commissioned portrait entitled "The Provost" hangs in the The Tolbooth Art Centre, now an art center and education center. Another painting, called "The Drawing Book" is listed in the catalogue of the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Inverclyde, and has been exhibited a number of times over the past few decades. I now have a photo & more information on one of the paintings pages.
Previously heard from some cousins in Canada and the U.S., who may have some paintings, and also from a buyer who acquired one of Bob's paintings in an auction (early in 2003). A 2004 auction "sighting" from Artnet indicates that a Sivell painting titled "Washing day, Corrie, Isle of Arran" sold for $2,000. I believe the family may have a study/sketch for this painting.
I have some old family photos, some of which have a few of Bob's paintings in them. Most recently my mother has decided to let go of those paintings that she has not framed or hung in her home recently. My sister, brother, and I used a round-robin approach to choose those paintings we wanted most, and I shipped some of my selections to my home address before leaving Tallahassee on August 19th. Much to my relief, I received them safely. I now have a lovely, though somber, portrait of my great grandfather hanging in my living room, a small head of my grandmother (Belle) hung in family portrait gallery (a.k.a. the stairwell), and two other painting hung also. Another portrait of Bell needs to be framed before I can hang it. The other paintings that I selected, including a set of two small portraits of my great-grandparents, will remain hanging in my mother's home for now. The old family photos from my mother's childhood and youth have also arrived; I have scanned these for reprinting, but many are in very poor condition and will need to be improved by (careful) digital enhancemnt and repair.
I have just purchased a used copy of the memoir of Benno Schotz, a well known sculptor in Scotland and a friend of Bob's from early Glasgow days. The book is "Bronze is in my Blood", and the copy is signed by the author/sculptor and is in good condition. The sad part is it a withdrawn book from a Scottish library; apparently there was not much interest. I am enjoying reading it, and have found a photo of Bob with Benno Schotz and other friends (unfortunately unrecognizable in costume and masked :-), and a brief discussion about him and his art.
I have some written history, memories from my Mother consisting of a combination of direct recollections, second hand stories, and gleanings from old articles, letters and notes. She has unearthed some articles and receipts specifically dealing with several of his paintings. I need to collect and copy these the Kirkcudbright Stewartry Museum. We have record of one painting that was purchased by the IBM corporation for a show of some kind in New York. I have attempted to trace this painting, however IBM no longer maintains an art collection and I have no contact or information about when or where paintings may have been sold. So this seems to be a dead end.
A letter from the art student, Duncan Comrie, suggests that there have been plans for an art show which would include some of Bob's work. He was seeking more information about Bob, and had many questions for my mother a few years ago..
Another item of news is that theplaster bust of my grandfather by sculptor Benno Schotz still exists, and was owned by Alberto Morrocco, Bob's former art student who was a well known painter who died in 2002. Benno Schotz was a well known sculptor, and a good friend & of Bob in the 1920's; the bust was exhibited in the Paisley Art Gallery in 1923, along with three of Bob's paintings. The letter from Duncan Comrie implied that the bust might be available to the family, however we have not located the bust.
Bob's interest in an art career started early, however he was not able to pursue art full time for many years. He did enter the Glasgow School of Art in 1908, but left early, in 1910, due to financial pressures. Between the need to help pay for his younger brother's education, and the advent of the first World War, he was sidetracked away from art for several years. He returned full time to the pursuit of art in 1916, and there is apparently a fairly tempestuous history in Glasgow, as he and his peers struggled with the local art establishment, and among themselves. He and several artist friends founded a group to organize shows of their work, called the Glasgow Society of Painters & Sculptors.
Bob's art was always realistic, and he followed the traditions of Renaissance art; he never adopted popular European styles. This direction put him at odds with the prevalent Glasgow academic and Impressionist traditions. Over time he identified more with the trends in art originating from Edinburgh, which was a center of Scottish art and culture, where he joined the Royal Scottish Academy.
Bob certainly sold many works of art, and painted a number of commissioned portraits. He also taught art, first as head of drawing and painting at Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, in order to earn a living, and earned some acclaim as an instructor. It is through the work of his students that his ideas and ideals may have continued on beyond his death in 1958. His work is known only among a small circle of Scottish art historians, and art students. The most well known work is probably a series of murals that still grace the student union of Aberdeen University, on Gallowgate.
The murals at Aberdeen University student union are in the large student pub named after him: Sivells. These have been restored, and can still be seen today. They were started in 1938, initially to be works of senior local art students. After problems, Robert Sivell took over the project, and directed its completion over the course of many years. The conception and designs were his, although much of the actual painting was done by his students from tracings of his drawings. Some of the completed studies for the mural, now in the possession of the Aberdeen Art Gallery, show more finished detail than the actual murals.
Most of his work is done in oil on wood. He did many portraits or studies of people, which he seems to have preferred over landscape painting. His works are very lifelike, but he generally used a rather dark pallette, and some are brooding and austere. They are not always comfortable to be around. I did not particularly admire or enjoy them as a child, although I certainly came to recognize the skill involved when I made a brief attempt to paint with oils while I was in high school. I have seen more of his work now, and find more variety of mood. However he is described by some as a difficult, often sarcastic man with a temper. I have one a sketch, in oil, of my mother as a young child, asleep. It captures a child's sweetness in a way that touches the heart. A more finished portrait of my aged great grandfather nodding off in his chair, is entitled "Twilight". It captures a quiet moment that seems to represent acceptance of life's end, with a kind of subtle beauty.
My sister, a nurse practitioner/midwife, has the charcoal and crayon portrait of the nurse which my mother held onto through immigration to the United States. It is a portrait of Nurse Violet Reed very similar to the one commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to capture the spirit and dedication of nurses during World War II.
We have a few small landscapes. I have a small relatively bright watercolor; it is a Scottish landscape, with fields and a stone wall. There is oil of the burn near his home (The Hollow, Stell, Kirkcudbright). My brother has an accurately dark and gloomy oil painting of Greyfriars Churchyard and Edinburgh Castle (painted as a frontspiece of an out of print book on Scotish buildings entitled "The Stones of Scotland", by George Scott-Moncrieff), but another small ocean scene may have been painted in the Mediteranean, with its turquoise see and bright coastline.
My father, long divorced from my mother, currently has a painting of my sister as a child, which was held by his sister, my Aunt Marjorie, until her death several years ago. My mother still has several works, including a large painting of her own mother, Isobel Sivell, nee Sayers, and, I think, Bob's own self portrait which I remember so vividly. I seem to remember a small painting of the house with studio which he built in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, where she grew up, and known as the The Hollow, Stell, but it was not found in a recent review of paintings in my Mother's house.
All of the paintings we own have suffered in the hot, humid Florida climate, and several really need restoration. more photographs are now posted, and new information about paintings continues to trickle in!
Information Wanted: various family members are interested in specific paintings, or information about the family. Photos of any works by Robert Sivell are always wanted. If you can help, please email me with the information!
1) Wanted: information about, photos of, and location of a painting by Bob of wartime evacuees. Jack and Bill Hunter the twins) posed for this picture, and Bill Hunter would like to see it again.
2) Wanted: family tree for both Sivell & Sayers,
3) Wanted: location of bust of Robert Sivell by Benno Schotz, also a better photo of this work.