John Bellany CBE, RA (1942) – Idyllic childhood in Port Seton

I was born at 8 Gosford Road, Port Seton, in the very heart of the village during the war, on the 18 June 1942. My father was in the Navy and on suicide missions in the Firth of Forth. German bombers were dropping mines in the Forth, which could be set off by the vibration of the boat’s propeller. Several fishermen were killed in this way. Fortunately for me, my father, Richard Bellany, survived and to me he became the ‘best dad in the world’. My mother, Nancy Maltman Bellany, came from Eyemouth, a fishing village forty miles down the coast on the North Sea. Her father was also a fisherman, as was my Port Seton grandfather, John Bellany.

My father was posted to Lowestoft and then to Portsmouth, where awaited the long voyage to the Indian Ocean and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he was based in the Royal Navy as a Petty Officer for the rest of the war. My mother and I lived with my grandparents in Eyemouth during this time. After the war, we went back to Port Seton to a new house, and my father to a new boat, ‘The Dreadnought’, and so back to the fishing.

The house, a ‘pre-fab’, was like a small bungalow, as were the other 50 houses around us – houses for the heroes returned from the war and their families. It was a wonderful idea – all the parents were about the same age and all the children too. The world was full of hope and optimism after years of fighting fascism. We all had utility furniture, and love was the main factor I can remember most profoundly of my childhood years. My mother was the fulcrum of the whole family unit and her love, patience and intelligence saw us through life with little or no friction. She was an inspiration to all three of us. Margaret and I miss her so much since her death.

My sister Margaret was born in 1947. That year, Britain’s birth rate broke all records and it happened in Thomson Crescent as well. It was like being part of one enormous family and that is how we grew up. On the Sunday afternoons we all went down to my grandmother and grandfather’s home at 5, Wemyss Place for Sunday dinner, along with the rest of the family, all my uncles, aunties and endless cousins. This was a weekly event full of joy and, of course, bearing heavy religious overtones. ‘This is the Sabbath day and keep it Holy’ was very much the mood of every Sunday. We went to church in the morning, where we sat in the family pew (the front seat in the gallery). My grandparents were at the end of the pew and the rest of the family spilling over onto the pew behind. The singing would raise the rafters, with all the other families in their pews helping on the choir and the organist.

However, it was in the evening service that the hymn singing was at its best. Here we all sang redemption songs, and to be in the church then was to be in an opera by Verdi. The preaching was strong and rich and troubled the soul of everybody in the congregation. The ministers were tremendously profound in their oratory. The Reverends Lawson, Bromlee and Wright were fire and brimstone men, especially Rev. David Wright who preached with a venomous attack on all waywardness. Every sinner was shaking in his boots! It was like ‘Holy Willies Prayer’ by Burns, multiplied by ten!

I have too many cousins to mention them all in this essay, but my favourites were ‘Wee John’, Arthur (the footballer) who played for Falkirk and Scotland under 23s, and his sister Janice who kept an eye on me at Preston Lodge. She was three years older than I was. I say they were my favourites, but all my cousins were wonderful, especially as my sister Margaret and I were the youngest, along with my cousin Alice. It is great to be blessed with such an inspiring and loving family. I must say, it was the same with my Eyemouth relations – again a huge family with cousins and half cousins, aunties and uncles and 42nd cousins, almost taking up the whole of Eyemouth, but it is East Lothian we are talking about here, so I will leave Eyemouth just now.

My sister Margaret’s arrival made a huge difference to our family. I was out sledging with my cousin ‘Wee John’ and his pals up the Fishers Road. It was 1 March 1947, a terrible winter indeed, and when we came back to the house, there was my sister lying in her cot with my Eyemouth grandma sitting beside her – pure ecstasy for an innocent little boy of five!

School started and it was a trail along to Cockenzie Public School and Miss Smith’s class, Primary 1. Again, the innocence and excitement of learning was basic and intense and grew more and more intense as we got to Miss Grieve’s class and ‘Old Mac’s’ ( Mr Mackenzie). Here we were put through our paces for the 11 plus exam.

My pals were numerous and again, I can only mention a few, but they are all in my mind. Tom Jarron was my best pal at school and after Preston Lodge, too, a friend and ally who could be depended upon at all times. We had such a lot of fun together and with all the others too – John Macphee, Peter Jarron, Bobo Johnstone, Piper Neil, John Farrell, David Griffiths and the girls. Ray Johnstone lived next door to us and she and her brother, Bobby, (who sadly died a couple of years ago), were our closest friends. Then, Hylda Stuart, Jim Thomson, Penelope Brown, Etta Home, Margaret Wilkie and Aileen Wilkie, on to Harry Tonner, a great friend, and in the teenage years, an early pal at my introduction to the profane, as opposed to the sacred! Many booze-ups with Bobo, ‘Jij’ Johnstone and Earnest Manuel. I could go on and on – another one, George Mulvie – endless names, endless faces, endless open spirits. What a childhood! I nearly forgot John Dickson!

I was eight years of age when we were allocated a new house at number 20, Golf Drive. Many of the people from Thomson Crescent were allocated houses in Golf Drive, Fisher Road or North or South Seton Park and Johnstone Terrace. So we were all in the same little area again. The ‘flitting’ was spectacular. Everything was taken from Thomson Crescent on Sandy Sinclair’s horse and vegetables cart. The horse was called Johnny (like Sandy’s brother) and because it was dark at the time, the paraffin lamps were on and we all walked behind the cart, watching where we trod, for the half mile trek to our new home. The house was like a palace after Thomson Crescent and everything was on a much grander scale – even the gardens seemed enormous. What a joy it was to settle in our new domain!

The central focal point of Port Seton was always the harbour. This was where the life force of the village was when I was young – there would be 52 boats stretching right across the harbour, side by side. It was pure heaven for someone like me, with an artistic bent, and I soaked it up, those early years laying the foundation for what has happened in the rest of my life. I drew and painted at every spare moment and, as I became more involved, the more dedicated I became. I was round the harbour morning, noon and night, but the Saturday mornings were my key drawing times. My dad used to deliver oil to all the boats in the harbour, working for his uncle Sandy in William Weatherhead’s boat builders. The sight of all the boats and the banter of all the fishermen and their sons, was so overwhelming in its beauty that it inspired my depth and vision of life itself – the sacred and the profane, the endless toil of the fishermen, their independent spirit, the pride they took in themselves and their boats – the rich and the poor, the endless contrast which gave life its deep and wonderful textures.

The sheer beauty of all I surveyed from the cabin of the oil motor windows is still with me today, 55 years later, and still the intensity of my vision is inspired by these moments of exciting joy at the ages of eight, nine, ten and eleven years. It is said that, by the age of seven, the foundation has been laid for all that follows in a person’s life. My paintings, over the years, have embraced many aspects of my own personal journey, informed and inspired by those idyllic first seven years, not only as a testimony to a life blessed by such a rich and fruitful beginning, but I hope my work speaks out to the world in general.

After leaving Preston Lodge, I studied at Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. I went on to lecture in painting at colleges of art in Brighton, Winchester and London, and was Artist in Residence at Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia. My work has been exhibited at galleries throughout the UK and abroad. I was awarded the CBE in 1994 and was delighted to receive the Freedom of East Lothian in 2005.