Pat Douthwaite’s 'The Red Coat': A Story of Humiliation and Guilt
By Janis Petzinger
Pat Douthwaite was a Scottish artist, born in Glasgow in 1934. She was self-taught and, before travelling extensively around the globe, she resided for a time in Suffolk with a group of painters including the other Scots Colquhoun and MacBryde. She died in Dundee in 2002.
A crimson cat and a fashionable woman come together in Pat Douthwaite’s oil on board painting The Red Coat. The innocuous title is challenged by the disjointed composition, harsh colours, and decrepit corporeal representation that amalgamate into a scene of humiliation and isolation. This inspires a greater analysis around the work’s possible nationalist meaning, and, therefore, its role in post-war Scottish art, which ultimately reveals Douthwaite’s strong ownership of a personal formal design.
The cat stands nearest to the viewer in the middle foreground of the image. On its left is a woman, escaping the frame, only to reveal the clamour of her frightened face and shocked right arm, as if to scream “The red coat!” On the left side of the composition, the comfortless backdrop of black and blue create a bruised and unwelcome void. This asymmetry of pictorial space achieves a narrative of conflict: on the cat’s right, he’s abandoned by an unforgiving woman, and on the left, he’s swallowed by a total darkness that isolates him further. As both figures are stuck in the foreground, with the woman almost floating on the horizon line, they do not agree with the space around them, or even each other.
The whites of the cat’s eyes, timid gasping mouth, and erect tail express humiliation. The animal is guilty within its own skin. The woman, clad in a yellow dress with white tiger lilies and mindfully matching shoes, shows no sympathy: her gaping mouth, sneering eyes, and incredulous waving hand cast away the animal. However, the auburn varnish of her hair and crimson lips (two colours that nearly mirror the cat’s coat), makes us suspicious of her position over the harmless animal, who appears to be a victim of her hostility.
The cat and woman’s humanity are twisted by an extreme abstracted design; they stand flat, shadow-less, and disfigured. Like paper cut-outs, we cannot relate to them, or sink our teeth into their exact narrative. We wonder where they are, and what they are doing there. However, this static and uncertain nature does not compromise the pang of shock that their expressions reveal. These emotions are amplified and haunted by the blackness that envelops them.
This is one of the great achievements of The Red Coat: Douthwaite employs elements of figural and abstract art to her advantage by corrupting a legible situation with a literal and metaphysical darkness. This ability to walk the line between different painting styles can be traced to her lack of training as a professional artist. She never went to art school, started painting much later in her life, and moved all over Scotland and around the world, taking solo trips to America and India. Understanding the blueprint of her design challenges us; her art is personal, decorative, and digestible (like that of the Edinburgh school) yet sometimes loaded with cultural references (like that of the Glasgow School).
Which aesthetic sensibility prevails in The Red Coat? There is an intimate, non-sensical story about woman and animal that uses vibrant, opaque colour, typical of the Scottish colourists. However, we could interpret the title as a reference to the Red Coats of the British Army—possibly an allusion to questions of Scottish national identity and the country’s relationship with Great Britain. If we view the work with this political lens, our conception of the woman’s expression transforms from disturbed to glaikit. She stands tall over the cat, neither interested nor depending on it. The blood-red animal blushes in return.
Though the Red Coat military allegory would have been a fashionable move in certain parts of the Scottish art scene, the title is probably a simple nod to the historical trope at most. Douthwaite was not typically interested in the political and cerebral work that dominated 70s British conceptual art. For instance, though she frequently painted tragic women, Douthwaite resented being labeled a feminist artist: “In America when I saw this kind of ‘feminist art’, it was so lousy, it was so contrived [ . . .] it just fell short of the whole meaning of the word “art”. It became something verbal rather than a visual statement.”
Within The Red Coat’s visual statement, we find a natural, intuitive artistic process. She holds the figures together with her present brush strokes dress and applies a disfigured line to characterise their novelty (as seen in the large and bizarre circumference of the cat’s stomach and its gawky, useless legs: a juxtaposition that creates a clumsy nervousness). Clearly, making a connection with her figures was the most important part of her painting—a process that she once likened to having a diary, as she lived through their lives when working on a piece. The woman and cat are abstract but grounded; her scene is apolitical but relevant. For these reasons, Douthwaite’s work explores a unique corner of the post-war Scottish artistic psyche.
Much of the literature surrounding Douthwaite focuses on the impact of anxiety and alienation in her work, as her ghostly figures frequently exude loneliness. But we must be careful when applying an artist’s internal struggles to a visual analysis, because that undermines the intellectual sovereignty he or she has over their work. Douthwaite’s tense hand that assembled the cat and woman could be connected but not necessarily correlated to her mental health. However, her restless and nomadic sense of self, qualities that prompted her to see the world, shine through the universality of her figures, despite their dysmorphia.
In The Red Coat, gaudy colours, bodily anxiety, and off-beat positioning define the figures as adversaries to one another. This could possibly stand as a metaphor for the Red Coats of Britain, as Douthwaite worked in an art world that contemplated national identity. Yet, because she often strayed from politics and painted from the heart, this work ultimately stands for a timeless tale about our vices: whether it be a terminally red coat, or a tenaciously rude temperament, our flaws carve the world around us—just like the belittled cat and bitter woman who stand together, desperate within their own isolation.
BBC Scotland, Interview with Pat Douthwaite, Lys Hansen, Jacki Perry. The Lunch Party: Liz Lochland Meets 3 Woman Artists. Film, 1980s.
Pat Douthwaite: An Uncompromising Vision. “Part 1: Works on Paper.” Edinburgh: The Scottish Gallery, 2014.
The Scottish Gallery entry, "Pat Douthwaite," accessed 6th Nov. 2017. https://scottish-gallery.co.uk/artist/pat_douthwaite