Famous artist worked on airships

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A HUGELY talented Scottish artist and illustrator spent part of World War One living in Helensburgh and serving as an Admiralty Assistant Overseer Airships at the Inchinnan airfield.

Works by William Russell Flint (later Sir William) became more and more in demand over the years, despite what some critics considered to be crassness in his treatment of the female figure.

Helensburgh’s Anderson (Local Collection) Trust owns and regularly displays two of his paintings.

‘The Turret Lagoon’ was bequeathed to the trust by Lilian Grey in 2014, and it includes an example of Flint’s painting of females. The setting was Shandon.

‘View of the Gareloch’ was probably painted around 1918, and it was in Nance Anderson’s original collection that formed the nucleus of what is now the trust collection.

While he was in Helensburgh he painted two portraits of young girls he had met at The Long Croft, home of artist and architect Alexander Nisbet Paterson and his wife, embroideress and painter Maggie Hamilton.

The girls were cousins, Paterson’s daughter Viola Paterson, herself to become a noted artist, and Hilda Hamilton (later Mrs Murray Purvis).

William Russell Flint was born in Edinburgh on April 4 1880 to cartographic artist Francis Wighton Flint and civil servant Jane Russell Flint, and was educated at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution.

Flint’s artistic talents were recognised early, and he attended the Royal Institution School of Art in Edinburgh, one of the precursors to the Edinburgh College of Art, while apprenticed as a lithographic draughtman.

He moved to London in 1900 and worked as a medical illustrator while furthering his art education with part-time attendance at Heatherley’s Art School and study at the British Museum.

He produced illustrations for The Illustrated London News from 1903, which brought his artistic talents to the notice of a much wider audience.

He also illustrated editions of several books, including H.Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1907 edition), W.S.Gilbert’s Savoy Operas (1909), Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1910–1911) and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1912).

Trust administrator Mary-Jane Selwood, who has researched Flint and his work, said: “Like many of his contemporaries, he fell under the spell of Arthur Melville, the Edinburgh artist who was the leading exponent of watercolour of his day, between 1855 and 1904.

“We can see the influence of Melville’s very accomplished soft, ‘wet’ watercolour effects reflected in Russell Flint’s handling of the medium.

“Flint made annual painting visits to France and enjoyed painting in the open air, applying beautifully controlled broad washes over the faintest of charcoal outlines.

“It has been said that he seldom if ever included figures at the time, preferring to leave precise blank spaces on the paper to be filled in at his leisure upon his return to London.”

In 1905 he met Sibylle Sueter, who had been introduced to him as a potential model, and the couple married. He became a full-time freelance artist in 1907, and in 1912 moved with Sibylle to Rome.

In the years prior to the First World War Flint began painting watercolours in France, Scotland and Italy.

During the war he served with the RNVR on the development of rigid airships, spending time in the Isle of Man, Devon and his native Scotland.

He came to Inchinnan as an officer serving on airships, living in the burgh in 1918 and 1919.

The Renfrewshire site was first used industrially in World War One by William Beardmore and Company, who obtained a contract from the Admiralty to build airships.

Airship components were built at Beardmore’s Dalmuir factory but more land was needed, so Beardmore obtained land at Inchinnan and built the Airship Constructional Station.

Building work started in January 1916 to construct the Station, which occupied 413 acres. Because of the difficulties of getting staff to this isolated location, the company built 52 houses in Inchinnan.

A large airship hangar, the Airship Shed, was built by Sir William Arrol & Co. At 720 feet long by 230 feet wide and 122 feet high, it was of comparable size to the Cardington and Howden Airship sheds, which were contemporary.

It was designed to accommodate two Class 23 airships side by side; but only R24 was built by Beardmore. A hydrogen production plant, bottled hydrogen storage area, and various production shops were also built.

William Beardmore successfully built several airships, R24, R27, R34 and the R36. The Admiralty contract on which Flint worked was cancelled in August 1919 and no more orders were received. The station closed on October 12 1922, and the Airship shed and many other buildings were demolished for scrap.

After the war he gave up his commercial and illustration work, concentrating on painting.

The 1920’s and 30’s witnessed the rise of Flint’s artistic reputation and the spectacular increase of his popularity in the art market.

However, he enjoyed little respect from art critics, who were disturbed by a perceived crassness in his treatment of the female figure.

Notwithstanding this he was one of the most fashionable artists of his day and his work was much sought after by collectors. His Scottish and Mediterranean views, which often included romantic figures, demonstrated his virtuosity and talent.

His first limited edition print ‘Phillida’ was published in 1924.  When Flint was in his seventies,  seventy more titles were printed in response to increasing demand. In all 106 signed limited editions were published by five different publishers from 1924 to 1970. 

Elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924, he became president of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, now the Royal Watercolour Society, twelve years later and served in that position for 20 years.

William and Sibylle spent much of World War Two living in Devon. In 1947 he was knighted by King George VI for his services to art.

A retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1962 attracted 21,000 visitors.

Flint remained active as an artist until his death in London on December 30 1969, aged 89. He continues to be regarded as one of the greatest ever watercolourists, and his works remain highly sought after.

The Turret Lagoon, by Sir William Russell Flint. The location was Shandon.