The Painter & The Player: The Celt who was sketched by Pablo Picasso…


Frequently, public speakers (or writers) are advised to start off with a joke. Well, here goes:

A spate of robberies had been causing concern in the French Riviera but eventually the police made a breakthrough. One of the investigating detectives made his report to his chief:

“Something to report, sir … but it’s both good and bad.”

“Let’s hear the good first.”

“We have an eye-witness, who saw the robber leaving the premises … and he is an artist!”

“Excellent! We’ll get an Identi-kit done right away. Oh yes, you said there was bad news as well?”

“Yes, sir. The artist? His name is Picasso.”

Pablo Picasso, probably the most famous artist of the twentieth century and a leader in Cubism, spent most of his life in France, and during the occupation of World War II lived in Paris. He had already gained an international reputation, in particular for Guernica, his depiction of the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso was frequently ‘interviewed’ by the Gestapo, and on one such visit an officer, seeing a photograph of the painting, asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” and the irreverent artist replied: “No, you did.”

A controversial painter throughout his long life, he saw Cubism become a major force in art; in fact, some thirty years after his death in 1973, one of his paintings (Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust) sold for $106.5M at auction in New York.

He has, as Tommy Carruthers in a recent ACSOM podcast stated, a connection with Celtic …

Listen to Part 1 of TOMMY CARRUTHERS with A Celtic State of Mind here:

Seton Airlie played for Celtic during the ‘unofficial’ seasons of World War II, at least during the time he was not on active service with the Honourable Artillery Company (and/or guesting with several English clubs). Certainly, the war had badly affected the football career of this youngster, as was the case with many players.

A centre-forward of some promise, he had signed for Celtic in 1939 as a 19-year-old and was farmed out to St Anthony’s, and eventually made his debut against Hibernian on January 17th 1942, celebrating by scoring in a 2-1 victory; the goal was described as “a long-range drive” and “a goal from twenty-five yards”.

A promising start for the young man, but within a couple of months he was called up and served in the regiment led by Edward (Ted) Heath who later became a Tory MP and, of course, Prime Minister. After his ‘demob’ (and a glowing reference from his aforementioned commanding officer), Seton returned to Celtic … but much of his sparkle had faded.

In all, he played only twenty-three times for Celtic between 1942 and 1947, but scored a respectable eight goals.

However, his best-ever performance was fated to be neglected: several British teams (including Rangers and Queen’s Park) were invited to play exhibition games in Germany after the cessation of hostilities. On October 17th 1945 in Hanover, Rangers played against a Combined Services XI and lost by 6-1. Changes had to be made at the last minute, newspapers were not informed and replacement Seton Airlie (Celtic and Honourable Artillery Company) was never given credit for the three goals he scored that day.

After a couple of seasons in France and playing for Cannes, Seton (now married to an English girl) returned to Britain and settled in Worcester where he worked as an engineer and turned out for Worcester City between 1948 and 1950. For several years afterwards he was a fixture at the club while acting as ‘Chief Scout’. His obituary in the local newspaper reported his death on 12th May 2008 aged 88, and expressed some mild surprise that ‘Jock’ Airlie’s given name was ‘Seton’.

No doubt World War II had adversely affected his career as a professional footballer: only 23 appearances for Celtic, a season or two with Cannes, and a further 24 appearances for Worcester City.

During the recent ACSOM podcast with Tommy Carruthers, the Martial Artist passed on the story of his great-uncle’s encounter with Pablo Picasso. Tommy was a bit vague about the details, understandable given the passage of time and the fact that it involved a distant member of his family. It was suggested that Picasso had noticed Seton, then in his late 20s, on a Spanish beach, had drawn a painting or sketch of the young athlete and gifted it to him. The whereabouts of this gift are not known at present.

However, the story did happen (sort of), and with the help of a fellow Celtic historian I can recount a reasonably accurate account:

Eugene MacBride, that most assiduous (and erudite) of Celtic historians, interviewed Seton Airlie for his ‘Talking with Celtic’ and found out that the ex-Celt, while with Cannes, stayed in the village Golfe Juan near Juan-les-Pins as did Pablo Picasso. When meeting, he’d say “Ca va, Airlie?” and Seton would reply “Ca va, Pablo!” The excellent weather in the South of France encouraged walking, and the pair frequently met up, struck up longer conversations, and became friends. To Seton, ‘Pablo’ was “a nice, wee middle-aged man” and “a keen football fan”; Ellen, Seton’s wife, knew that the man was also an artist, and a famous one.

Significantly, Seton himself makes no mention of being offered a painting, or posing for one. In the film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ a newspaper editor, faced with a publication dilemma, in a memorable quote sums up the situation: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Tom Campbell

Listen to Part 2 of TOMMY CARRUTHERS with A Celtic State of Mind here:

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