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Legacy of teacher who captured pupils on canvas

News | Published in TESS on 19 August, 2011 | By: Henry Hepburn

Bill Alston’s dedication to pupils and school life is plain to see in his paintings. Now the late art teacher’s family is searching the country for his remarkable works

This 7ft by 4ft oil painting of the school band was found rolled up in Bill Alston’s garage. You can see more of Bill’s pictures in this week’s TESS magazine.


The family of an art teacher who died earlier this year is searching the country for a remarkable collection of paintings he gifted to pupils throughout his career.

Bill Alston, who taught at Strathaven Academy in South Lanarkshire until retiring in 1997, died suddenly on holiday in Cuba in March, aged 73. Only since then has his family begun to realise the full extent of his prodigious output.

Mr Alston would spend his spare time painting and sketching pupils, often starting at 6am and working through lunchbreaks; he could spend weeks on a single piece. These became prized mementoes for pupils as they grew up, adorning living rooms to this day.

“There must be hundreds of paintings and sketches out there,” said Mr Alston’s daughter Jane Catlin, herself principal art teacher at Rothesay Academy on Bute. “He gave them away saying ‘You could never afford to buy it - just look after it’.”

Mr Alston’s family cleared out his studio after his death and was taken aback by the body of work it held, including dozens of portraits of pupils going back 50 years.

“We were sure we’d found everything other than the paintings he’d given away, but my mother was clearing out the garage recently and discovered a rolled-up canvas,” said Mrs Catlin. “Unrolling it, she discovered a huge oil painting - about 7ft by 4ft - of the entire school band and conductor Gordon Blackwood, probably done in the early 90s.

“None of us had ever seen it before and we were amazed. We feel in many ways my father’s dedication to education and the arts are encapsulated in this work.”

Mr Alston’s wife, Pat, contacted Strathaven Academy headteacher Elspeth Banks and offered it to the school. Mrs Banks, who has since retired, was delighted and agreed to hang it in the school library.

Now Mrs Catlin hopes to identify the people in the painting and to find former pupils who were gifted portraits by her father, in order to create a comprehensive catalogue of his work.

“In many ways he shunned the establishment and ploughed his own furrow, quietly working away in Strathaven and driven by a belief in painting and recording the world around him - he never really made any money out of it,” she said.

A socialist idealist, he told his subjects that it was usually kings, queens and presidents who sat for portraits.

“You had to be a very, very important person, he told them,” Mrs Catlin recalled. “It was about celebrating ordinary people.”

Many former pupils have gone into the arts and art teaching. Wilma Eaton, Strathclyde University course director for the BA in community arts, was 18 when she was captured in a 1981 painting covering nearly 20 square feet.

“It’s been hung up everywhere I’ve lived since, and people always ask about it,” she said. “It’s a very special piece of work to have.”

One of her abiding memories concerns Mr Alston’s time at Lesmahagow Academy, when it went up only to S4. Many pupils’ interest in art waned after they started S5 elsewhere. Concerned, he set up twice-weekly evening classes to help 20-30 pupils through the Higher, for no financial gain.

“He was a real character and could be quite grumpy, but he was just striving for perfection,” Ms Eaton said. “It’s amazing the energy, time and passion it must have taken to do all he did - he was one of a kind.”

If you have a Bill Alston painting or are one of the people in the school band, email

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Original headline: Legacy of a teacher who captured his pupils on canvas

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Comment (1)

  • Good story Henry. Bill was a man of great integrity and an outstanding teacher. It was because of his inspirational way of promoting education, not only Art and Design, that I chose teaching as a career. 'Curriculum for Excellence could have been coined for his approach ...he was doing just that LONG before the current 'initiative' started! Like Wilma I too have a portrait, of me, done by Bill (I'm a much more mature vintage that young Wilma and not so attractive) when I was in sixth year (1970) at Hamilton Academy. It has pride of place on the stairwell and is another Alston masterpiece....the painting not the subject! Bill not only taught supremely well he also ran the jazz club, film club, helped with drama inter alia short he believed in an all round educational process. He has passed on far too soon, as he was still actively painting, but hopefully he will now get the recognition, postumously, his talent deserves. He is more worthy of it than the majority of contemporary 'artists' whose celebrity owes more to a well developed use of P.R. that any real ability! Pity you didn't have the space to show some examples of Bill's work.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    19 August, 2011


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