Cordelia Oliver

Art critic, writer and artist

24 April, 1923 - 1 December, 2009

Cordelia Oliver was born in Glasgow and attended Hutcheson's Grammar School before enrolling, in 1940, at Glasgow School of Art. Her decision to train as a visual artist surprised and disappointed the teaching staff at her school, for Oliver was equally talented as a wordsmith and lover of literature.

As well as being a regular contributor to Artwork, Oliver also wrote for the Scots Magazine, Plays and Players, Plays International and the Herald. For 25 years from the early 1960s, she was also the Guardian's chief art and theatre critic in Scotland. Oliver had a trademark style, which usually placed herself and her opinion firmly at the centre of the piece. Her writing, not without humour, was also informed by personal experience, careful consideration and, often, strong emotion.

It was in this capacity that, in parallel with the development of her own career, she was also in a position greatly to help and enhance the careers of others. This she did in respect of the arts impresario Richard Demarco, supporting him and Jim Haynes in the early days of the Traverse Theatre, where, in her capacity as art critic with the then Manchester Guardian, she reviewed several early exhibitions.

Oliver was deeply supportive of Scotland's female artists and one can only suppose part of the reason for this was her perception of the inherent sexism in art colleges and in institutions such as the RSA, which favoured less talented male artists over their female counterparts.

Oliver formed long and enduring friendships with many women artists such as Margot Sandeman, Joan Eardley and the talented embroiderer and teacher Kathleen Mann. Her book on Eardley, published in 1987, is recognised as an important contribution to the still rather limited corpus of criticism about the painter's work.

Oliver's subsequent championing of Eardley's work in magazines and journals is a testimony to her determination to gain proper recognition for her former friend's genius.

Her championing of Eardley led, in 1989, to a major exhibition of the artist's work at The University of Edinburgh's Talbot Rice Gallery. In her capacity as a curator and enthusiast, Oliver was also instrumental in organising and co-ordinating exhibitions by some of Scotland's leading artists, including Bet Low, Philip Reeves, Pat Douthwaite, Jessie M King and Winifred Nicolson.

Oliver was an energetic supporter of all the arts and was highly active as an audience member, as well as a critic, enjoying, equally, dance, theatre, music and the visual arts. She was never circumspect about voicing her often controversial opinion on a wide variety of arts-related issues.

Oliver remained active and engaged towards the very end of her life, attending exhibition openings and other events, despite her increasing frailty.

She died 1 December 2009.

To make your own nomination download the nomination form here