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Art in Scotland
David Scott


DAVID SCOTT, R.S.A.
Born, 10th October 1806; died, 5th March 1849.

This eminently original and poetic artist, who is sometimes designated the Michael Angelo of Scotland, was born in the old house in Parliament Square, already alluded to, from which his father, Robert Scott the engraver, the master of John Bumet, removed to St Leonards, in the suburbs of Edinburgh, still retaining the former dwelling as a workshop. His father and mother suffered from a depressing melancholy, resulting from the deaths of their first four children, all of whom died within a few days of each other. The deaths of other members of the family, less closely related, occurring about the same time, still further deepened this melancholy, which had probably much to do with the formation of the future character of the artist, as exhibited in his serious, reflective, and sometimes mystical works. He very early shared in the enthusiasm which then existed among the rising generation of Scottish artists in Edinburgh, and further imbibed a love for art from seeing the drawings and pictures which were being engraved from in his father's workshop, where he also early became familiar with the illustrations to Blair's "Grave," by the somewhat like- minded William Blake. During the few years which he wrought at engraving with his father, he executed a series of plates for Thom- son's 'Scottish Melodies,' from Stothard's designs, diligently pursuing the study of the classics and the French and Italian languages, besides attending the Trustees' Academy, his first drawing at which was a large eye, dated March 182 1. He soon afterwards gave some time to the study of anatomy under Dr Munro, and in 1827 was chiefly, instrumental in starting a life-class in a room in Infirmary Street, the subscription-book of which contains the names of Macnec, Hutchison, John Steell, M'Innes, Campbell, Wilson, Masson, and Fraser. This class continued for five years, when it became unnecessary owing to the greater facilities then developed for studying art in Edinburgh.

His natural impulse for art soon impelled him into a higher and more original line than merely engraving reproductions of other artists' ideas, and in 1828 he attempted a picture of Hopes of Early Genius dispelled by Death, followed by Lot and his Daughters, Fingal and the Spirit of Lodi, Cain, and other similar subjects. These led to his election as an Associate of the Scottish Academy in 1830, after which he painted his Nimrod, a large and powerful conception, in which the somewhat overstrained seminude figure of the mighty hunter is represented in the act of blowing a horn, girdled with a tiger's skin, and a wounded fawn at his feet. Other works of about the same period were, the Death of Sappho, Wallace defending Scotland, Sarpedon, and Adam and Eve, some of which were full of the strange weird feeling which so strongly characterises his later works. He seems even then to have had to contend against an inappreciative picture-buying public, as his diary records: "1831, Feb. 23.—Sold the 'Cloud' to Francis Grant,—the first of my pictures that has been sold. He very handsomely said, 'The picture will be mine at the close of the exhibition, at your present price, but in the meantime put double the sum upon it; it should be sold for more." In the following year, in January, he sent his Lot, repainted, to the British Institution. Up till about this time he was still in the employment, to some extent, of his father, and now etched and published his six Dantesque outlines of the Monograms of Man, which, as was to be expected, was not a commercial success. In addition to these, he employed the winter evenings of 1831, and those in the beginning of the next year, in his designs for Cole- ridge's "Ancient Mariner"; after which he writes, "Doing little but thinking of going abroad. Mr A— has brought back my designs for the 'Ancient Mariner.' Lot has been rejected at the British Institution ; it was too large. Reject a work of art for its size! You might as well reject a man for being too tall. My pictures in our exhibitions are all coming back to me. The Monograms altogether a loss as a publication. Several resources cut off. Difficulties in study; for nothing but the best is worth a thought. Doubts of every kind. Sister Helen, where art thou now in the shades of the Unseen?" His spirits, thus low, were little cheered up when he wrote Coleridge inquiring if any publisher was interested in his great poem, to whom he might offer his designs, and received the saddening reply, that "were he to sum up the whole cash receipts for his published works, the sum-total should stand something like this-

adding that he did not believe there was London publisher with whom his name would act otherwise than as a counterweight.

In such depressed spirits he left Edinburgh for the Continent in August 1832, with introductory letters, &c., from Handyside Ritchie, the sculptor. After a brief study of the treasures of the Louvre, among which the hard and severe classical pictures of David attracted his attention, he proceeded to Italy, visiting Milan, Venice, Siena, and Florence, settling down at Rome for about fifteen months, where his enthusiasm was excited by the great works of art congregated there. In Rome, where he narrowly escaped assassination, he further prosecuted his study of anatomy, made a large number of life-studies and numerous sketches and copies from Michael Angelo's works, besides painting several pictures, including the Agony of Discord, and Sappho and Anacreon. It is curious to compare his first impressions of the works of some of the great Italian masters with those which he formed after a more intimate acquaintance with their excellences. Titian he characterised as an old man without invention, Tintoret a blind Polyphemus, Paul Veronese a Doge's page; and wrote in his diary of the knotty, bandy-legged strength of Buonarotti, his incorrectness, and passing over deficiencies or crudities, affording a great contrast to the art of the Greeks—adding that while grotesque and even ludicrous, his devils are all laughing sneering demons. This and the fact that the earlier Italian artists did not seem to have excited any admiration, can only be explained by the knowledge that he was suffering from feeble health, a nervous sensibility easily shocked, and an almost heartless effort towards obtaining qualities in art which had eluded the grasp of most of the artists of antiquity, and of all those of his own time. He judged of a picture at first perhaps too exclusively by its sentiment and mental bearing, but latterly, still while in Rome, was again and again struck with the great beauty and simplicity of Michael Angelo's colour: "it is truer than Titian; very broad and real; it is the most severely grand that exists." These remarks he applied to the Prophets and Sibyls, and his admiration for the works of Raphael similarly increased. The details of his working life while in Rome, duly entered in his diary, are sad reading: want of health and vigour, swollen hands and every limb is affected, and almost continual depression of spirits. When one reads that he wrought for thirteen and fourteen hours a-day, sometimes from five o'clock in the morning, it is not to be wondered at that he should complain of exhaustion, and sometimes even feel that poetry and painting were entirely worthless.

The study of the great works in Rome seems unconsciously to have given birth to an unapproachable ideal standard of excellence and expression; but on his return to Britain in the spring of 1834, the state of British art struck him by the forcible contrast which it presented with the works of the strong and powerful men whose spirits he had been in communion with. He was at this time only in his twenty-eighth year, and had been elected a member of several of the Italian academies. In the year following he was elected full Academician of the Scottish Academy.

To the Edinburgh exhibitions of the succeeding years he regularly contributed pictures of great power and character, which were looked at by an inappreciative public, and either passed over altogether or unfavourably commented upon by the press. The noble and poetic design of his works, and their qualities of colour, were invisible to the public. The daring and boldness of his conceptions, besides being startling and bewildering, were strangely unfamiliar to the ordinary frequenters of exhibitions, who, even now as then, in many cases fail to recognise the expression of original imagination and subtle thought, unless conveyed through the media of academic form and scientific schemes of colour.' His works, although therefore unpopular, had, however, many appreciative admirers, among whom were Professor Nichol of Glasgow University, the Rev. George Gilfillan, Dr Samuel Brown, Emerson, and the eccentric but accomplished Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe.

Among his more important pictures may be mentioned his Kiss of Judas, 1836; the Alchemical Adept Lecturing on the Elixir Vit,2 1838; the Agony of Discord, 1840—a great picture, but rather forced and dramatic; Queen Elizabeth witnessing the Performance of the 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' a fine work badly hung at the Royal Academy, which, with the rejection two years before of his Achilles addressing the Manes of Patroclus, determined him to send there no more: on the picture of Queen Elizabeth he spent over two years. A year or two later he painted the Death of Jane Shore; the Duke of Gloster entering the Watergate of Calais, a most poetic conception, in which the doomed man seated in a barge, with his two armed warders standing in the stern, appear with their backs towards the open sea and daylight; Richard III. and the Princes ; the Dead Rising at the Crucifixion; the Triumph of Love; the Baptism of Christ; and a picture in four compartments representing four great Italian painters—Michael Angelo, Titian, Raphael, and Correggio, each at work on one of his masterpieces—a beautiful work, exhibited in 1843. His greatest painting, however, is his Vasco da Gama, the Discoverer of the Passage to India, doubling the Cape of Good Hope, which hung on the walls of the Scottish Academy at the time of the death of the artist in 1849. This truly noble and great work, nearly twenty feet in length, was the subject of a meeting held in Edinburgh immediately after the artist's death, the result of which was that it was purchased by subscriptions easily obtained, and placed in the Hall of Trinity House at Leith, where it now remains. Recognising the picture as an epic of the very highest order, the object of the subscribers was to retain it in Scotland, and it was accordingly placed in the Trinity House, on account of that building and its associations being more congruous with the subject than any other in Edinburgh or the neighbourhood. It is unfortunately badly seen and seldom visited. The deck of the ship is represented crowded with figures, in every variety of expressive action of terror, defiance, and wonder at the great spirit of the deep rising through the sea-mist and foam. It was commenced shortly after the death of his father in 1841, when he built a studio at Easter Dairy, in which he subsequently painted his Peter the Hermit, finished in 1845.

Having devoted much attention to the art of fresco-painting, he was one of those artists who answered the challenge of the Royal Commission, for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, to the British artists, to repel the insinuations of their inability to execute historical works of sufficient importance. To this competition, in 1842, he sent Drake witnessing the Destruction of the Spanish Armada, and Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk, neither of which obtained an award—the first prize being bestowed upon Armytage. At the succeeding competition he was still more unfortunate. His principal work was put aside; his other one was placed in a disadvantageous position, and, with the fine specimen of fresco-painting which he also submitted, passed over unrecognised. The superiority of his work over that of many of the artists who were employed on the Westminster works has not been denied; and since his death his pictures have steadily come to be recognised as of the very highest order, deservedly placing him in the very foremost rank of British historical painters.

His pictures often remained on his hands unsold. Twice he was unsuccessful in obtaining a position as a teacher in the Trustees' Academy. The failure in the Westminster competition preyed upon his mind, and he is said to have died another victim to the narrow prejudices and confined patronage of the Royal Commission which, like many other similar bodies, undertook a duty it failed satisfactorily to perform. It has been said that he could not adapt himself to his surroundings, and it is little wonder that latterly his studio came to be his little world, where he found solacement in the practice of his art. He proposed at one time to paint the roof of the Trustees' Academy with groups from Michael Angelo's Last Judgment; but the project, although warmly advocated by Andrew Wilson, came to nothing. Later on he painted gratuitously, the material alone being provided, a Descent from the Cross, for the Cathedral Church of St Patrick in Edinburgh. So little was it appreciated, that during some repairs in the church it was consigned to a lumber-room, where it lay neglected, and was sold as rubbish to a common broker, from whose shop its fragments were rescued by an Edinburgh collector. This work has been badly rendered by a mezzotint engraving. Still another disheartening event has to be recorded. Four years after his return from Italy (1838) he produced a set of soft ground-etchings of groups from Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, along with which he had prepared a paper on the thought and style of that great work. No publisher would undertake it, and the matter subsequently appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine' (1840), followed by other articles on Raphael, Titian, &c. He also wrote several pieces of verse and some tales, including one entitled a "Dream in my Studio," published in the now almost unknown 'Edinburgh University Souvenir' of 1835.

In 180, the year after his death, appeared the Blake-like series of designs illustrating his friend Professor Nichol's 'Architecture of the Heavens,' careless and free in point of drawing, but full of strange motive. His grand series of illustrations to the "Ancient Mariner," already mentioned, etched by himself for the Scottish Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts, is as full of weird poetic feeling as the poem which they interpret, and are highly prized by their fortunate possessors. Like most of his other works, there are many instances among them of careless and even bad drawing; but in those passages in which beautiful form and graceful outline is demanded, the artist is at least equal to the occasion—as in the illustration of the two ascending spirits; but it would be difficult throughout the whole series to correct the drawing without sacrificing some of the earnest expression which they convey. His brother's reproductions of the illustrations to the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' perhaps the most popular of his works, unfortunately have been denuded of nearly all their original expression in polishing them down to suit the public taste. An easilyto-be-compared example is given in Mr John M. Gray's admirable memoir of the artist, from which, and Mr W. B. Scott's life of his brother, many of the facts here given have been extracted.

Regarding the man himself, "it was his nature to be sad: of a feeble constitution, and conscious of the capabilities of art, he could not be otherwise. He was delicate of build and solitary of soul from the earliest time. Carefulness about his future destiny oppressed him from the first. Long before any real or supposed neglect by the public, or misunderstanding of his very aims by the press, or disappointment in friendship and in love, had vainly endeavoured to chill his spirit, he was the victim of care and apprehension. Years before he would have dared to exclaim with Correggio, 'I too am a painter,' he had muttered in the solitude of his dairy—

"From off my brow, oh raise thy chilling hand,
Anxiety, slow digger of the tomb."

He was a man of great culture and refinement, and enjoyed the friendship of many eminent men. In addition to those already alluded to, there may be mentioned the names of Professors Pillans and Wilson, and Lord Murray. "The large and solemn studio in which he painted and preserved his picture-poems, had gradually become one of the most curious and significant features of Edinburgh and its School of Art, and its master-spirit one of the most individual of Scottish characters belonging to the age in which we live. It was there that men of eminence in the Church, in politics and law, in science, in literature, and in life, discovered what manner of man he was, and left him with surprise, seldom mingled with pain, and always ennobled by admiration." Fifty years after his death his works were collected and exhibited in Edinburgh.

The artist is represented by three works in the Scottish National Gallery. The Vintager is a half-length figure of a female standing under vines—broad, well drawn, and fresco-like in colour and treatment. The Ariel and Caliban (not one of his best works) is a strikingly original conception of the two characters which play such an important part in the "Tempest": accompanied by newts, the monster is crouching on the ground, an uncouth heap, with his bundle of sticks, and face averted from the airy sprite ascending into the sky, and touching with his heel the head of Caliban. The most recently added work is the Paracelsus Lecturing on the Elixir Vitte, a great and powerful work, full of strongly pronounced, almost Gothic character, many of the numerous heads and figures in which have evidently been painted without models, and almost in defiance of all the accepted canons of taste. On a raised platform in the middle of a lecture-hall the alchemist is perched on a stool, which the straightened action of his right leg resting on the heel has thrust back, till it only rests on two of its supports. He is the very incarnation of cunning and imposture; every part of his body is expressive of the character, from the twisted feet to the bony lank-fingered hands manipulating the elixir upon which the attention of his audience is directed, and the whole work is strong and powerful in colour. It was purchased in 1838 by the Scottish Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts as one of its prizes, who at first proposed to offer £150 for it, but afterwards agreed to £200, Mr H. Glassford Bell accompanying his ratification of the purchase by an intimation that it was only by a majority of one that the committee had so agreed. When brought to the hammer at the sale of Mr J. T. Gibson-Craig's collection in 1887, it only realised £54 12s., after which it was deposited in the Gallery.


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