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Art in Scotland
John Phillip


JOHN PHILLIP, H.R.S.A., R.A.
Born, 22d May 1817; died, 27th February 1867.

The similarity of style between Scottish and Spanish art has already been referred to, and it is remarkable that one of the most distinguished Scottish artists should have found the subjects of his most notable and important works in studies made among the Spanish people, after studying among his own. Both Wilkie, and Roberts in architecture, found many of their subjects in the romantic country of Spain; but Phillip has been most closely identified with it, and his name cannot be recalled without this association. In these works he has given a nationality and peculiar animation, which even the great native artists have not surpassed: from Velasquez and Murillo down to the latest painters of the Peninsula, none have more faithfully and forcibly registered the genuine nationality; and on no other grounds can this sympathetic feeling be explained, than a similarity of character and disposition on the part of the Scot to the Spaniard.

John Phillip was a native of Aberdeen, and like many other eminent artists, came of a humble parentage. He was early in life apprenticed to a house-painter, and when about the age of fifteen, made some attempt at picture-painting, by trying to copy a sign-board containing a portrait of the Scottish hero Sir William Wallace. Some interest was taken in the young artist by Major Pryse Gordon, to whose house it is said Phillip was sent to replace a broken pane of glass : the Major found, on coming into the room, that the window was still unrepaired, on account of the young glazier being unable to withdraw his attention from the pictures on the walls. When about the age of seventeen he made his first visit to London under rather disadvantageous circumstances; he hid himself on board a brig sailing between Aberdeen and London, the master of which was an acquaintance of his father, and on being discovered, was compelled to pay for his passage by painting the ship's figurehead, and lifting ballast for two days on the arrival of the brig at the port of London. He managed to spend a whole day at the exhibition at Somerset House, and had a glance at the National Gallery, after which he worked his passage back again to Aberdeen. His early determination to become an artist was strengthened by what he had seen, more especially the pictures of his countryman Wilkie; and in the following year he painted an interior containing twelve figures, one of the principal of which was a pedlar. Major Gordon having noticed the progress of Phillip, mentioned his name with high praise to Lord Panmure, who sent Gordon a cheque for to be spent on behalf of the young artist, a portion of which sum was applied towards the purchase of the Pedlar, afterwards given by Lord Panmure to the Mechanics' Institute at Brechin, along with his Morning before the Battle of Bannockburn, exhibited in 1843, and two cattle-pieces. He now resided for some time with Major Gordon, who had sufficient taste to direct to some extent his study, and through whose recommendation he received several commissions for portraits: he had also during this time the benefit of some instruction from a local painter named Forbes. About 1836 he migrated to London, when he appears to have been a pupil for a very short time under Mr T. M. Joy, probably still under the patronage of Major Gordon or Lord Panmure, and in the following year was admitted into the school of the Royal Academy. He very soon, however, found himself able to earn a living by portrait-painting, and in 1838 exhibited a portrait of a Young Lady at the Royal Academy. This was followed by a Piper, and a sketch entitled Highland Courtship, at the British Institution in 1839, in which year also he exhibited at the Academy a Moor, and a portrait of W. Clerihew. He then returned to Aberdeen, where he spent a few years, chiefly in portrait-painting. During this time he exhibited the already- mentioned picture of the Morning of Bannockburn, and afterwards, in 1846, finally returned to London, where he exhibited his picture of Tasso in Disguise relating his Story to his Sister. In the following years appeared numerous Scottish subjects, which gradually made an impression on the public, the most notable being the Presbyterian Catechising, the scene of which is the interior of a farmer's house, exhibited in 1847; the Scotch Fair, 1848; Drawing for the Militia, 1849; Scotch Baptism, 1850; a Scotch Washing (engraved for the Glasgow Art Union, under the title of Heather Belles), the Spaewife, and Sunbeam, in 1851. In 1847 at the British Institution appeared two small pictures, Courtship, and the Grandfather, the latter a composition of three figures. On account of his health having been enfeebled by a severe illness, he made an excursion to the south of Spain in 1851, remaining principally at Seville, where he passed some seven or eight months.' This visit completely changed the whole current of his art, and laid the foundation of his future fame by the study of the picturesque people among whom he sojourned. Although he found the attractions of nature in the streets and suburbs of the old towns of Spain stronger than the interiors of the Spanish galleries, yet he did not neglect these. Of the copies which he made then, the Surrender of Breda, after Velasquez, was acquired at the sale of his works for the Scottish National Gallery for £231; and at the same sale other two copies from the same master (one of which is the famous picture of Velasquez in his Studio) were acquired by the Council of the Royal Academy.

The abundant results of his first journey to Spain enriched the future exhibitions of the Royal Academy, where he exhibited, in 1853, Life among the Gipsies of Seville, full of humour and variety; and the Perla de Triana, both pictures attracting attention by their great richness of colour and able execution. Among those in whom his works excited admiration was Sir Edwin Land- seer, whose enthusiastic praise led her Majesty to purchase the Spanish Gipsy Mother, and several of his sketches, besides giving him a commission to paint his Letter-Writer of Seville, exhibited in the following year along with his portrait of Lady Cosmo Russell. His powerful character-picture representing the Collection in a Scotch Kirk, exhibited in 1855, together with his other subjects from Scottish life, showed the great development of his power acquired during and after his Spanish visit; and in 1856-57 he was again in the Peninsula, this time accompanied by his friend and fellow-artist Ansdell. At this period he produced his picture entitled Aqua Fresca, representing Muleteers halting at a well on one of the bridle-roads of Spain; the Prayer of Faith shall save the Sick, a scene in a Spanish church, which received much praise from Dr Ruskin; a portrait of Senorita de Gayangos, entitled Doha Pepita; and the Gipsy Water-Carrier of Seville. He sometimes wrought on the same canvas in conjunction with Ansdell, who painted the animals: the first picture thus painted was the Wayside in Andalusia, a joint commission from their mutual friend Mr Rawlinson. In the year 1857 he exhibited his Prison Window, and Charity, and was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. The following year he exhibited his important picture of the Spanish Contrabandista, now in her Majesty's possession; El Cortejo; Youth in Seville; a portrait of the Prince Consort in Highland costume, painted for the city of Aberdeen; and a Daughter of the Alhambra. His election as full Academician in 1859 followed upon his rich and beautiful picture of a Huff, and portrait of A. L. Egg, R.A.; his diploma work, entitled Prayer, being deposited in the following year. During this time he painted for her Majesty the Marriage of the Princess Royal with Prince Frederick William, in which he successfully encountered the difficulties attending the representation of a State ceremony: this was exhibited in i86o, and along with it may be mentioned his equally successful but more difficult picture of the House of Commons, both engraved. During his third and last visit to Spain in i86o-6 i, he commenced his La Gloria at Seville: this, which was one of his most magnificent productions, represented a custom prevailing in Spain on the death of an infant, which is believed to be received into Paradise immediately on its decease; the event is thus looked upon as a cause of rejoicing, and the artist has touchingly represented the mother suffering from her loss, notwithstanding the congratulations and assurances of her friends. This picture was exhibited in Edinburgh as well as in London; and in 1865 one of the main attractions of the Royal Academy was the splendid picture of the Early Career of Murillo, in which the boy-artist is shown offering his pictures for sale at the fair of Seville, and now possessed by Mr Keiller of Dundee, for whom it was purchased in 1886 for 3800 guineas. In 1866 appeared his fine portraits of Duncan M'Neill (Lord Colonsay), and Mrs Cooper; and the Chat round the Brasero, which for strength and brilliancy of colour has probably never been equalled by any modem or surpassed by any ancient picture. Never being of a very robust constitution, occasional visits for recuperation to the Continent or the bracing Highlands of his native country became a necessity, and in 1866 he spent about three months in Rome, from which he returned only to die in the following year, at which time his six pictures at the Royal Academy bore the name of the late John Phillip. The cause of his death was paralysis, resulting from a severe bilious fever.

The subjects and treatment of his early Scottish and later Spanish pictures are as widely different as the climates of the two countries. In such works as the Presbyterian Baptism we are introduced to the clean cool interiors of Scottish homes, precise, modest, and careful; in his Spanish subjects, on the contrary, we find ourselves in the open air of a country glowing with colour, and deep and rich in tone—whether contemplating the group gathered round the young Murillo in the market-place of Seville, or waiting while Juan Morales, .&cribano y mernorialista, indites the letter which is being dictated by the young senora in basquine and mantilla. Both his Letter-Writer and the Baptism created considerable attention at the Paris International Exhibition of 1855.

Regarding the personality of this very distinguished artist, it is almost needless to mention his high character for straightforwardness and manly generosity. He never put such high prices on his works as they might fairly have commanded, and the enormous advance upon the value of some will be readily seen by a glance at any list of his pictures sold during his lifetime, or after his death. His latest and unfinished picture of Spanish Boys playing at a Bull-fight has found a fitting repository among the works of art in the Scottish National Gallery. It measures fully 7 by 454 feet. The artist intended it for this gallery, for which it was purchased by the Scottish Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts after his death, which body paid the full price, a very modest one, previously agreed upon.[1]


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