Obituary: Jim Dunbar (1949-2024)

“Jim Dunbar, artist, teacher and former president of the RSW who was also a skilled organiser and restorer of classic cars.

Born: 1949 in Democratic Republic of Congo. Died: 4 January, 2024 in Carnoustie, aged 74

Jim Dunbar was a quiet man who preferred to let his achievements speak for themselves. However, those achievements were considerable, as artist, craftsman, teacher, musician, restorer of classic cars, and as a skilled and generous organiser.

It might come as a surprise to some to learn Jim had no fondness for large groups as his organisational talent came to the fore wherever he went, whether in the classroom, as President of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), or as the founder of a classic car club.

Jim was born in February 1949 at a mission station in the rainforest in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where his parents, Fred and Liz Dunbar, were pioneer missionaries. His childhood was spent between the African rainforest and the Angus countryside where his parents would return on furlough, or when someone in the family needed medical treatment.

Jim grew up communicating in a mixture of English, French, the local Swahili, known as Kingwaba, and some words of the Efe pygmies’ language. He also learned practical frontier skills of making and building which he would continue to use for the rest of his life.

His formal education was a patchwork: home-schooling, or no schooling at all, punctuated by short periods at different schools in Scotland or the USA. When not in the mission field, Jim was sent to stay with Christian families in the UK or USA while Fred and Liz went on preaching and fundraising tours.

Back in the UK in 1964, he stayed on in the house his parents had bought in Carnoustie with his step-brother Gordon as his guardian in order to attend Arbroath High School. The art department became his sanctuary, and his talents were encouraged by teachers such as William Littlejohn and Bill Reid, who was also warden of the art college at Hospitalfield, Arbroath.

However, in December 1966, Fred suffered a heart attack when he and Liz were in Uganda buying supplies. Jim, then 17 and a newly qualified driver, had to fly to Africa to drive them back to the mission station – a three-day journey over jungle roads – to collect their belongings and travel documents for the journey home. He missed the chance to sit Highers, but did win the Art Dux medal at Arbroath Academy and won a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design on the strength of his portfolio.

He was finishing his first year at art school when his parents again decided to return to Africa. They needed a helper with local knowledge and the skills to repair buildings and build a medical centre. It was expected that Jim would give up his education for his family and his faith, and in 1968 he left Scotland, art school and the love of his life, Laura Hodson, to return to Zaire.

However, the following January he was back, bringing his mother for essential medical treatment. This time, he had decided that his future lay in Scotland. Bill Reid gave him a studio to work in at Hospitalfield, and in the autumn he returned to art school. Shyly, he handed a note to Laura’s sister asking if she wanted to see him again.

Jim and Laura married in August 1971. Their son, Lindsay, was born in March 1973, and Jim graduated a few months later with a clutch of awards. Travelling scholarships gave Jim, Laura and baby Lindsay the chance to spend three months touring France and Italy in an ex-Post Office van while Jim studied the work of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Back home, they moved into a fixer-upper in the Angus village of St Vigeans which Jim set about renovating, teaching himself masonry and roofing skills as he went along. He took a range of jobs – pigswill collector, chicken catcher – while studying for Higher English, which would allow him to take the Secondary Teaching Certificate.

Jim and Laura’s daughter Elizabeth (Beth) was born in December 1976, shortly before Jim took up his first teaching post at Forfar Academy. Andrew joined the family in May 1982.

Even when busy with teaching and family life, Jim continued to paint. He entered work regularly for exhibitions at the RSA, RSW and Royal Glasgow Institute (RGI), and had solo exhibitions at the Meffan Gallery, Forfar, the Scottish Arts Club and one at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1988. He was highly commended in the BP Portrait Award.

In January 2000 he took early retirement from teaching, pledging to spend more time on his twin passions: painting and classic cars.

All his life, Jim had loved classic cars, particularly the Riley. By the late 1960s, these stylish kings of the road were being sold as scrap and Jim was one of a number of enthusiasts who set about conserving and rebuilding them, as ever, teaching himself the necessary skills as he went.

Over the years he restored several Rileys, but his most remarkable achievements lay in the design and construction of “specials”, rebuilding the chassis and mechanisms then creating a new body. His first was his Riley 12/4 open-topped sports car KSJ 818 (Keep Smiling Jim). His Riley handiwork now lives in Germany and the USA, and one of his cars was used in the television series Foyle’s War.

After attending a UK gathering of enthusiasts in Coventry, he proposed the formation of a new Scottish club open to all Riley fans, whether car owners or not. So Scottish Riley Enthusiasts was born and the highly regarded club still operates today on Jim’s founding principles.

As well as offering his own expertise to help other Riley owners, Jim found an outlet through the club for his musical talent. He played guitar, mandolin, ukulele, piano and organ and, when a Riley centenary event needed a band, Jim and a friend “threw together” some original songs and performed in front of 2000 people.

As art convenor of the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh, he transformed the monthly exhibition programme. A past president, Gordon Mitchell, described him as “the most dedicated, selfless and organised artist I have ever come across”. In 2016, he was elected to the role of President of the RSW, a role he held for five years, using his considerable organisations skills to steer the Society through the difficult pandemic period and host its first online exhibitions.

Some of Jim’s finest paintings are his watercolour landscapes, painted en plein air in all weathers in Angus and on the Cowal peninsula, where the family had a bothy. His work is outstanding in its grasp of detail, mood and atmosphere.

He was fond of a quote by the American realist painter Andrew Wyeth, whom he much admired: “If my paintings are worth anything — if they have quality — that quality will find a way to preserve itself. I paint for myself within the tenets of my own upbringing and my standards.”

When ill health restricted his outdoor adventures, he taught himself wood engraving and, predictably, excelled at that too, after making himself a suitable set of tools (he found the standard ones too big). He submitted paintings, as usual, for the RSW’s Annual Exhibition in January 2024, but passed away a week before the exhibition opened.

He is survived by his wife, Laura, and children Lindsay, Beth and Andrew and their families.”