Bellany was born in Port Seton in Scotland and studied at Edinburgh College of Art and later at the Royal College of Art in London.
He grew up in a small fishing village where his father was a fisherman and many of the symbolic images he uses come from the sea: boats, birds, fish and other sea creatures. Animals also appear in this symbolic language, sometimes with traditional meaning (Artist as Monkey), sometimes personal (Self portrait as Dog). Fate is represented by a clock or playing cards.
Throughout his career Bellany portrayed, directly or obliquely, events in his own life. Portraits, especially self portraits, were central to his work, and include a series done in 1988 following his liver transplant operation.
Bellany’s transplant was a watershed. The first time he was allowed out of hospital after the operation he donned a tuxedo in celebration. (article here to celebrate 20 years after his successful transplant )
As the 1990s dawned and his health improved, his palette became hotter. He turned increasingly to water-colour as a medium and he and his wife, Helen spent more and more time in Italy, eventually buying a home in Barga in 2000.
Bellany loved the place for its people, its food and its climate, but most of all for its timelessness.
“You get the feeling with the people in the village we live in that it could be 1520 or it could be last Thursday. OK it’s part of the 21st century, but the way they live their lives is exactly the same as it was 200 or 300 years ago.”
He was made a Royal Academician in 1991.
Article about a film made his life by his son Paul can be seen here