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Art in Scotland
Sir George Harvey


SIR GEORGE HARVEY, P.R.S.A.
Born, February 1806; died, 22d January 1876.

One of the best-known and most distinguished among the Scottish artists, born at St Ninians, near Stirling, from whence his father removed to that town in the year of his son's birth. As his early love for art did not receive any encouragement from his father, he was apprenticed to a bookseller in Stirling, with whom he remained till his eighteenth year, devoting his morning and evening hours to the practice of art. He then went to Edinburgh, and for two years studied under Sir William Allan in that prolific nursery for young artists, the Trustees' Academy.

So early as 1826 he attracted some attention at the Royal Institution, by a picture of a Village School, purchased by Lord Succoth, and joined the movement resulting in the secession of the artists from the Institution. From this time onwards he was one of the most zealous advocates in the contentions between the Academy and the Institution, extending over nearly a score of years. He was thus one of the youngest of the Associates, having been elected at the unusually early age of twenty years. To thefirst exhibition of the Academy, so energetically and enthusiastically got up in 1827, he contributed seven pictures, including the Leisure Hour, Disputing the Billet, the Small Debt Court, and Harrying the Byke, the last-named being the most important. The following year he exhibited six pictures, of which the principal one was the Consultation. In 1829 he was elected Academician, when his three contributions were not up to his usual quality; but the following year produced the first of his series of pictures from the history of the Covenanters in The Preaching, exhibited in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, purchased by Mr E. Henderson for xoo guineas, and sold afterwards to Mr Houlds. worth for 300. The succeeding pictures of the same class spread his reputation far and wide, and by their subject and treatment especially appealed to the sympathies of his countrymen, through the medium of engraving, throughout all parts of the world wherein a wandering Scot was to be found. The Covenanter's Baptism, one of his favourite pictures, was exhibited in 1831 (engraved in mezzotint); in 1832 he exhibited the Foundling, an Old Shepherd, and a Village School (not well engraved by Bromley); in 1833, Saturday Afternoon, and the Village Schoolmaster; and in 1834, the Collection-Plate, Boys with a Burning-Glass, and He paid too much for his Whistle. His Curlers, sold in 1835, and engraved by Howison, was and still is of almost equal popularity with his Covenanting subjects; his reputation was still further augmented by his numerous succeeding works.

For about ten years, from 1839, he painted under very great disadvantages. During an excursion into the country he was thrown out of a gig and fell on his head, in consequence of which he long laboured under such frequent depressions of spirit, severe pains in the head, and failing eyesight, that work yielded him no pleasure. About 1848, after apparently exhausting every remedy that could be applied, including homceopathy and hydropathy, besides a few months' holiday in Italy, he turned his picture of Columbus, unfinished, to the wall, saying that he would never paint more—his work was done. The entreaties of his friend Sir J. Noel Paton, however, induced him to consult a Dr Beveridge, with the happy result that he was cured of incipient congestion of the brain, enabling him soon to resume his work with his former enthusiasm. The principal pictures painted immediately preceding his accident were the Battle of 1)rumclog, and Shakespeare before Sir Thomas Lucy (1837), the latter bought by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland for £360, for whom it was engraved by R. Graves, A.R.A.; and Bunyan in Bedford Jail (1838), purchased by Alderman Moon for 400 guineas. Among his succeeding works were the Communion (1840); Sabbath Evening (1841); and the solemn and impressive Highland Funeral (1844), in which a coffin containing the body of a shepherd, accompanied by his collie, is being conveyed in a slightly made cart drawn by a worn-out old pony, followed by a train of mourners, across a moor, in a dull, still autumn day. This was sold in the exhibition for £250. An Incident in the Life of Napoleon, in which the Emperor is represented passing across a battle-field by moonlight (1843), found an appreciative purchaser in Mr W. Miller in the Royal Academy, being his first work exhibited there, and was engraved by Mr Miller. In 1846 he made a very decided impression in London by his First Reading of the Bible in the Crypt of Old St Paul's. The time selected is the spring of 1540, soon after Bonner's installation as Bishop of London, and while Cromwell was still in power. The Bible, chained to a pillar, is being read aloud by Porter (who died while imprisoned in Newgate for his boldness) in the common tongue to an assemblage of people of all ages and conditions. This fine work was sold to Mr Clow for £400, in addition to £300 for the copyright to Mr Graves, who had it engraved in line. His exhibits at the Royal Academy were continued by Quitting the Manse (1847), sold for 600 guineas, with 300 more to Graves for copyright; Blowing Bubbles (1848), an admirable picture, which the hanging committee were justly complained of for placing in the octagon room, and which sold for £365. Owing to his illness there was a year or two's interruption, when his name again occurs in the Royal Academy catalogue, attached to the Wise and Foolish Builders (1851), hung high up, over a doorway; Dawn revealing the New World to Columbus (1852), bought by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, and placed by them in the Scottish National Gallery after having it engraved in mezzotint for the subscribers. His last exhibit in London was the Bowlers (1853), bought by Gambart for £400. During the following years his pictures at the Royal Scottish Academy consisted chiefly of landscapes, varied, however, by Bunyan and his Daughter (1857), Dr Guthrie preaching (1859), Mrs Napier at her Spinning-wheel (1862), and the Penny Bank (1864).

His style of work is well known to all frequenters of picture- galleries, and also from the widely circulated engravings of many of his works. His pictures of children are full of innocent childlike beauty, freely drawn and exquisitely coloured. His many figure-subjects tell their story well, and are all imbued with the true character of the Scottish people, whose history and customs he so much delighted in delineating. The landscapes which he painted are of great beauty, sweetness of colour, and a broad simplicity, his subtle treatment giving to the most simple subjects a poetic sentiment of the highest order. While many of his works still retain their pristine beauty, it is to be regretted that the too free use of bituminous colours, in order to obtain depth and richness of surface, has proved the ruination of many others: to this has to be further added the injudicious use of varnish, by which some have become distorted remnants of what they once were. He often spoke, especially regarding his picture of Argyll before his Execution, of this indiscretion on the part of owners and ignorant picture-dealers and cleaners.

In the year 1864 he was elected to the high position of president of the Academy, over whose interests he had so long and so carefully watched, and in the affairs of which he had vigorously assisted to foster its permanent establishment. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society; and besides contributing occasionally to its Transactions, published in 1870 an interesting sketch of the early history of the Scottish Academy. His portrait, head-size, by the late Mr Robert Herdman, painted in 1874, was gifted by that eminent artist to the collection of the Royal Scottish Academy.


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