The Sunday Post (Newcastle)

Painter’s daughter in desperate search for missing masterpiec­e

- By Jan Patience

The legend of 17th Century visionary the Brahan Seer, whose prediction­s are said to include the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances and the oil boom in Aberdeen, has fascinated generation­s of Scots.

Now, as a new book reveals, a mystery has emerged concerning the Lewis-born prophet who, like many of his fellow islanders, had the ability to see into the future. Or, as it is known across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the second sight.

The puzzle centres on a lost painting of the Brahan Seer, by Scottish artist James Cumming, who lived and worked in the north of Lewis in the late 1940s. The huge painting depicts Cumming’s own personal vision of the man known on his native isle as Coinneach Odhar, or Grey Kenneth. It was last seen in public when it sold at a private gallery in Edinburgh in 1962.

Now, Cumming’s art critic daughter Laura, who has written Thundercla­p: A Memoir Of Art And Life & Sudden Death, is trying to find the painting she describes as her father’s “lost masterpiec­e”.

Cumming’s father, a pilot with

the RAF during the Second World War, spent two years living on a croft at Callanish, in the north of Lewis. There, he lived a frugal life, eking out a travelling scholarshi­p that he received when he left Edinburgh College of Art for teaching art to local school children.

During his stay in the Outer Hebrides, Cumming became fascinated by the way in which island life remained largely untouched by modern life. He became particular­ly interested in the Brahan Seer and the islanders with second sight. According to his daughter, he regarded it as a form of “pure intuition”.

In Thundercla­p, Laura Cumming describes how several islanders that her father knew could foretell the future. They included “the minister who wished to be rid of what he regarded as its curse, and the carpenter who bleakly knew the dimensions of each coffin before a death had even occurred.”

Although he painted many works based on his Lewis years, his daughter says she has become haunted by his monumental painting of the Brahan Seer. Since writing the book, she has become fixated on finding this particular work, adding that she would love to see the painting on show as the centrepiec­e of a major exhibition.

James Cumming was born in 1922 and died aged 69 in 1991. Although well known in the art world, he was largely unknown by the wider public. His work is in major collection­s across the UK and he was an influentia­l artist and teacher to generation­s of students at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), including John Bellany, Barbara Rae and Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Wright.

He came from a humble background. His father was superinten­dent of the swimming baths in Dunfermlin­e while his mother was a factory worker. His talent for art was spotted early but his studies at ECA were interrupte­d by war. He joined the RAF in 1941, going on to train as a pilot in Texas, serving in India and Burma.

His daughter admits one of her motivation­s for writing the book was to make more people aware of her father’s work, which she describes as highly original. “Although there are many of his works in UK-wide collection­s, they are not generally on show. They don’t tend to fit around other artists’ work,” she said. “I have never seen his Brahan Seer. I have a tiny transparen­cy of it and that is it. My parents kept meticulous lists of exhibition­s and work sold over the years but, despite this, it is a real mystery as to where it ended up.”

In her book, which is part memoir, part biography of her father as well as one of her artist heroes, Dutch Golden Age artist, Carel Fabritius, Cumming paints a vivid picture of the ways in which we see the world through images created by artists.

The Brahan Seer painting was originally sold at an exhibition of his work at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1962.

“The Scottish Gallery has been very helpful but we haven’t managed to trace it,” Cumming said. “I have a few theories about where it might be but none I’ve been able to stand up. There was a collector of my father’s work who was editor of the Aberdeen Gazette. He was very interested in Scottish art and bought a lot of his Lewis paintings.”

Another theory revolves around debonair Hollywood star Vincent Price, most famous for his roles in a series of horror movies.

“I believe Vincent Price was in Edinburgh around the time of my dad’s 1962 exhibition for the Edinburgh Festival,” she said. “He was very interested in Scottish art and apparently visited our house in Edinburgh.

“Price was very friendly with actor Dennis Hopper and he could conceivabl­y have acquired the painting as he had a big art collection. I know that when Hopper died, his friend Sean Penn bought some paintings. But even though I work as an art critic and have connection­s, it is still very difficult to trace these things.

“Whoever owns my dad’s Brahan Seer painting, I want them to know how much it means to me and to Scottish art. Of all his paintings, it is his master work.”

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 ?? ?? The Brahan Seer painting has not been seen in public since 1962, when it sold at an exhibition. Laura Cumming, pictured below, who is The Observer’s art critic, considers it her father’s ‘master work’.
The Brahan Seer painting has not been seen in public since 1962, when it sold at an exhibition. Laura Cumming, pictured below, who is The Observer’s art critic, considers it her father’s ‘master work’.
 ?? ?? James and Laura Cumming.
James and Laura Cumming.

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