In 1988 the Scottish artist John Bellany came to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge for a life-saving operation by one of the pioneers of liver-transplantation and Fellow of Trinity Hall, Sir Roy Calne. Such was Bellany’s condition that it was uncertain whether he would survive the transplant.
Art is as fundamental to John Bellany’s existence as breathing. When he came round after the operation at three o’clock in the morning the first thing he asked for was a pencil and paper. The paper was burning in his hand but it was only when he had finished his self-portrait that he felt sure that he would survive. Now celebrating his 70th year with an exhibition “A passion for life” at the National Gallery of Scotland John Bellany, in an interview with Alastair Sooke for the Culture Show, revealed that he still considers this to be his finest self-portrait.
Sir Roy Calne and his team had the imagination to recognise that Bellany lived through his art and that it was vital to his recovery. He was allowed to turn his hospital room at Addenbrookes into an artist’s studio and soon the walls were covered with works documenting his recovery in pencil or paint.
The corpus work from this period is a unique visual record of the process of recovery. We are shown a full range of emotions from joy at being alive (“Bonjour, Professor Calne”), an unflinching quest for veracity (notably in his self-portraits), imaginative reconstructions of the operation (“Surgeon’s Hall” and “The transplant I and II”), through to the depiction of feelings of terror at the violence done to the body (the series of “Prometheus” paintings). Bellany shows us his struggle to come to terms with what has happened to him and his journey through feelings of violation, loss, guilt, exhaustion to acceptance, joy and rebirth.
Bellany’s liver-transplant was a life-changing (as well as life-saving) event. In his interview with Sooke, the artist said that he’d been living under a cloud and suddenly everything was in brilliant colour – colours that he simply hadn’t been seeing before. Bellany spent his convalescence at Little Eversden, just outside Cambridge. During this period he was a Fellow Commoner of Trinity Hall (1988-1990) and as a result we have now five of his works in our collection. Perhaps the most joyful is “Flora” which hangs in the Jerwood Library.
“Flora” was painted as a thank you to Trinity Hall and this large canvas is bursting with colour and vibrancy. It is so joyful that the canvas struggles to contain the vase of flowers which almost seems to be thrust towards the viewer as a gift. The patterns made by the cloth on the table, the piles of books and the rugs on the floor all jostle for our attention and create an explosion of vigorous lines and colour. The space is difficult to read, almost dizzying in its exuberance.
In the bouquet of flowers we have lilies (amaryllis and lilium regale – whose heady scent you can almost smell) accompanied by the bright yellow of sunflowers. These flowers are laden with symbolism. The white lilies embody purity and new life through their association with the Annunciation, while the sunflowers symbolize the life-force through their association with the sun, bending their heads to follow its course throughout the day. In the centre of the bouquet we have an unambiguous symbol of life and vigour: the red amaryllis which thrusts it way up right to the top of the canvas, almost bursting out of the top.
However, these flowers also have a darker side as symbols of death: white lilies are frequently used in funerals (symbolizing the restored innocence of the soul at death) and the sunflowers remind us of Van Gogh, whose struggle with life ended in bleakness and suicide. Here Bellany reveals that he has looked death in the face and that his near-death was close to suicide: we have an acknowledgement that it was his own actions, his hard-drinking, that brought him to death’s door.
“Flora” is a painting of resurection and rebirth. The title “Flora” refers not only to the vase of flowers but also to Botticelli’s masterpiece “Primavera” where the flower-crowned Flora is the companion to the central figure in the painting. In Bellany’s painting we see the almond-shaped eyes of a beautiful young face gazing out at us from beneath a crown of sunflowers. This is the unmistakably steady, limpid gaze of Flora, a celebration of spring in all its abundance and laden with the enigmatic mystery of “Primavera”.
As in Botticelli’s painting the face in “Flora” is androgynous – is it the face of a boy or of a woman? Is this the face of Bellany himself, reborn, literally rejuvenated, after his operation – or is it the face of Helen, his wife, whose constant support was a life-giving source of strength? Or might it even be the face of an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, a “Fresher”, almost submerged by the pile of books that covers the bottom of the face, whose time at Trinity Hall promises to be one of a flowering of potential and the start of a new life? Certainly “Flora” was painted for Trinity Hall so the latter interpretation is possible!
That John Bellany is still alive today is a remarkable testimony to Sir Roy Calne, the Addenbrookes team, the constant support of his wife Helen and above all to his own passion for life. As he said recently, “I love life”!
Professor Sir Roy Calne (Honorary Fellow) and Dr Thomas Starzl (University of Pittsburgh) have been honoured with the 2012 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their work on liver transplantation, an intervention that has restored normal life to thousands of patients with end-stage liver disease. Through their systematic and relentless efforts, they created a medical procedure that most physicians deemed an impossible dream. Some of Starzl’s and Calne’s early patients – originally diagnosed with untreatable and lethal diseases – are still thriving today, decades after their surgeries.
John Bellany’s website
John Bellany 31 March – 5 May 1989. Fischer Fine Art Limited. Exhibition catalogue.
John Bellany in Cambridge 19 March to 30 June 1991. Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge. Exhibition catalogue
BBC Your Paintings: uncovering the nation’s art collection
Culture Show (BBC)
This titan of Scottish contemporary art is celebrated in the current exhibition “A passion for Life” at the National Gallery of Scotland. 17th November 2012 − 27th January 2013.
Bellany’s work at Trinity Hall:
Watercolour: Mountainous landscape.
Drawing: Dr. J. A. Cremona
Paintings by Sir Roy Calne:
Sir Roy Calne was inspired to paint through his friendship with John Bellany. Works by Calne can be seen in several collections, including the Royal College of Surgeons (the Hunterian Museum) and Trinity Hall.