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17 Jul, 2009

Artist Earl Haig

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A painter of renown who struggled to escape from his father’s shadow

Dawyck Haig, the second Earl Haig, who has died aged 91, spent a lifetime struggling to decide whether he was primarily a fine modern painter or the son of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander-in-chief in the first world war. After an early breakdown, his psychoanalyst recommended that Dawyck should concentrate on his painting.

This he did, and he began exhibiting soon after the second world war. He had his first London exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1949 and at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh the same year. It was not until 1956, however, when one of his portraits was sold at auction at Christie’s along with works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Hogarth and Reynolds, that he really made his name as an artist. Later, he occasionally sold works to the royal family. The Duke of Edinburgh bought one for £750, but admitted it had been on behalf of the Queen, because “I can’t afford to buy pictures.” Haig’s work is now in the collections of the Arts Council and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and last year a retrospective of his work, Haig at Ninety, was held at the Scottish Gallery.

Haig’s split personality was not helped by living for most of his life at Bemersyde, a 14th-century house near Melrose in the Scottish borders which, although it had been in the Haig family for 800 years, was purchased from a cousin for his father by a grateful nation in 1921, along with 1,500 acres. Dawyck was the 30th laird, and although he considerably altered it, Bemersyde remained museum-like, dominated by his father’s first world war mementoes, including the flag on his staff car. Dawyck painted in the room that he thought of primarily as having been his father’s writing room.

He could never get rid of the shadow cast by his father, partly because he spent so much of his life defending the first earl’s reputation against “mudslingers” such as Roy Jenkins alleging that the field marshal had sent men needlessly to their deaths in attacks at Passchendaele and the Somme. In 1991, he denounced as “poisonous trash” the accusation by Denis Winter that Field Marshal Haig’s promotions were due to his friendship with homosexual patrons such as Lords Kitchener and Esher, who also helped falsify war records. He divided his spare time between organisations such as the Earl Haig Fund, the Commonwealth Ex-Services League, the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council. He sold his father’s papers for £500,000, but even this did not exorcise him.

George Alexander Eugene Douglas Haig – Dawyck, as he was always known by his friends – was born in London only months before the end of the first world war. He had two elder sisters who bullied him, a younger one who was his friend and a string of illustrious godparents, including the Empress Eugenie, Queen Alexandra and King George V.

He said memories of his childhood were dominated by images of men injured in the war on British Legion parades. As he told the House of Lords in 1994: “I remember seeing all those men in hospital, limbless or on crutches. It was harrowing …” By the time he was 10, his father had died and he had inherited his title and obligations.

His prep school in Edinburgh was a cold shower rather than a warm refuge. “It went in quite a lot for bullying and rugger. I arrived with a dicky heart. They had never seen an earl before, and here was an earl who couldn’t play rugger.” But his sickliness and title were not the only thing that made it hard for him to fit in. “Between the wars, papa was looked upon as a very significant person. I think as a result I almost had an inferiority complex because I was bad at games and no great shakes academically.”

His public school, Stowe, he described as “a warm bath”, with Christ Church, Oxford “really blissful”, allowing him to keep “three hunters and four ponies”. “I was very cross with Hitler for coming along when he did.”

In 1939, he joined the Royal Scots Greys as a second lieutenant, although he described himself as “almost non-military in many ways”. He was captured in North Africa in 1942 and after PoW camps in Italy, he was shipped to Colditz Castle, in Saxony, as a member of the prominenti, a group of prisoners set aside as hostages because of their important connections. Although imprisonment was dispiriting and depressing, he began to find himself and, to while away the crushing boredom, to draw. Initially he did pencil sketches on the backs of envelopes, then he bought watercolours from his Italian guards and by the time he reached Colditz he was painting in oils. A self-portrait in uniform, sporting a waxed moustache, survived to hang at Bemersyde.

Back in London in 1945, he went to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied under William Johnstone, Victor Pasmore, Lawrence Gowing, William Coldstream and Claude Rogers. With Bemersyde still occupied by Land Girls, he moved into a Sussex cottage and a London bedsit. Around this time, he discovered that a girlfriend he had come to love deeply as a PoW was engaged to someone else. It led to a “a sort of breakdown”. His psychoanalyst, Gerhard Adler, Carl Jung’s literary editor and executor, urged him to concentrate on his “creative side”. He found it “a lonely road” because “at the time all my friends and relations were, if you like, visually illiterate”.

Just as he was succeeding, Bemersyde fell vacant and he felt he had to take on its responsibilities. He restored the estate to economic viability, letting its land to tenants, and improved the house. He came to enjoy hunting and fishing and developed an income from letting his fishing rights on the river Tweed. He became a “name” at Lloyd’s but did not re-establish connections with the family whisky firm.

In 1956 Haig married a former art student, Adrienne Morley, with whom he had a son, Alexander, who inherits the title, and two daughters, Raina, a film-maker, and Vivienne, a painter and glass artist. The marriage lasted 20 years before they divorced.

His second marriage, to a lively Venetian, “Fruzzy” Donna Gerolama Lopez y Royo di Taurisano, whom he met while sitting on a jetty, painting the Grand Canal, was much happier. He enjoyed spending a month with her family every year. “They talk a lot and I don’t speak much Italian, so for me it is a month of silence and painting.”

During the Thatcher years Haig regularly attended the House of Lords: “I am a Tory but sometimes I wish I was an independent, since more often than not I find myself against the government.”

In 1966 he was appointed OBE for his services to the British Legion. He is survived by his second wife and his children.

• George Alexander Eugene Douglas “Dawyck” Haig, second Earl Haig, painter, born 15 March 1918; died 10 July 2009

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