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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter I. Introductory


That there should be within the narrow limits of Great Britain two peoples, politically welded in an incorporating union, speaking the same language, and of very much the same racial elements, but with characteristics sufficiently distinct to constitute nationality, is a fact slow to be apprehended by the world beyond. And when, as in this case, one population far outnumbers the other, the less numerous is apt to be forgotten, or regarded merely as a sub-division of the larger. So, in general literature, the term England is often held to include Scotland, and in nine cases out of ten the Scot abroad is dubbed an Englishman. What is true in the general sense applies equally to the various activities and accomplishments which have grown up and flourished amongst us.

Superficial observers have a difficulty in realising that, after two centuries of union with a much more powerful neighbour, the Scots should still retain the attributes of a nation. Yet it almost seems as if the removal of the political barrier had accentuated those attributes, so that in many departments of its corporate life the Scotland of today is more distinct from her southern neighbour than was the Scotland of three hundred years ago. And those who have read Sir Henry Craik’s “Century of Scottish History,” will find little in it to indicate that the stream of our national life flowed less strenuously during the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century than in any former period. Like those rivers in which, we are told, the waters of tributary streams flow side by side, refusing to mingle, the currents of English and Scottish national life are still clearly distinguishable. It was not before, but long after, the union that our literature and art became genuinely Scottish.

For more than a century there has been a Scottish School of Painting, but it is only of comparatively recent years that the phrase has had any significance to the European, or even to the English art public. Beyond the frontier of our Ultima Thule, only such of our painters as had made London their home were known at all, and these, not unnaturally, were regarded as of the English school. That there should be painters of ability beyond the Tweed was hardly dreamed of, and though Raebum exhibited in London, and was elected a member of the Royal Academy in the earlier years of last century, he was almost unknown to English connoisseurs two generations later. Redgrave, in his “Dictionary of Artists of the English School,” published in 1874, after some faint commendation of his portraiture, concludes “but they were simply portraits, and do not possess any high interest as works of art.” This slighting tone is no longer in vogue. For some twenty years, owing to various causes, not least to the greater frequency of International Exhibitions, and the enterprise of our younger painters in taking advantage of the opportunities these afford, the Scottish school has taken an increasingly prominent position, with the result that writers, both English and foreign, have been led to investigate the genesis and history of Scottish art.

A distinguished painter, recently deceased, has been credited with the statement that there is no such thing as national art—that one may as well talk of national mathematics. This, like most such sayings, is in a sense true, but misleading. Art is everywhere and at all times conditioned by the same general laws and principles; but in their manifestations the Arts, unlike the exact sciences, are coloured by the temperament, beliefs, and outward environment of the peoples amongst whom they flourish. There may be no Scottish art, in the abstract, but there has certainly been, and there is to-day, a Scottish School of Painting.

To those whose temperament impels them to search into the why and wherefore of things, the various degrees in which peoples have been gifted with the art faculty and its distribution, are fruitful subjects of speculation. Sometimes the determining causes seem to lie very deep, at other times it looks as if some comparatively trivial or temporary circumstance had power to suppress, or to delay, the growth of the art instincts which, to a certain extent, are indigenous amongst all peoples. It is generally admitted that some degree of material well-being is necessary for the development of the Fine Arts. But would not one have said that the England of the later sixteenth century was ripe for that school of painting which blossomed so splendidly a hundred and fifty years later? All the conditions seemed present. Here was an old civilisation, in close proximity to countries where schools of sculpture and painting had long flourished. Their equal in material wealth, and with a literature rivalled only by that of Italy,

England had for a century been at peace internally, and then, as now, though haunted by alarms, she was secure behind her silver streak. The nobility lived in great state, many of them were men of culture, collecting pictures and other art objects, and giving employment to numerous foreign artists. One would have expected, as the outcome of all this, a native school of painting. But in art as in other things the expected does not always happen. Was it that the Reformation, or the later Puritan movement, which in Holland only gave a new direction to a school of painting already established, delayed the coming of Hogarth and Reynolds and Gainsborough? These are questions more easily asked than answered.

In regard to Scotland we are troubled with no such enigmas. The distracted condition of the country, and its dire poverty, which had increased rather than lessened during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, made the cultivation of the arts impossible. During the first half of the eighteenth century, and notably during the twenty-five years succeeding the Union, the already existing poverty was intensified by the removal of many noble families to the new centre of political power, and also by the ruin brought on such industrial enterprises as were attempting to gain a footing, by laws directed against them by English influence in Parliament. It was only after the middle of the century, when political unrest had been ended by the suppression of the last rebellion, that things began, as one might say, to look up. During its later decades prosperity increased by leaps and bounds, and with the advent of material well-being, and with a suddenness almost unexampled, there came our golden age, our national literature, and our Scottish School of Painting.

Those who have dealt with the history of Art in Scotland have usually—and rightly—harked back to the dim and distant past. Celtic art, its illuminations, sculptured stones, and metal work bring them so far. Royal and Burghal accounts yield some side lights, but the Church and the various phases of its architecture are their mainstay till Reformation times. They have had to investigate in obscure and dubious records the frail survival when the Church was no longer a friend but an enemy, finding a name here and there, sometimes native, sometimes foreign, in Aberdeen, or Edinburgh, or Stirling, to link the fifteenth century with the eighteenth. Happily our subject relieves us, in the main, from such a task ; for though there were Scottish painters, and amongst them men of ability and reputation, there was no school of painting till Raeburn and Wilkie gave it the characteristics which endure to this day. But, for the understanding and appreciation of later developments, it will be necessary to devote some attention to the forerunners of our national art.


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