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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter II. The Forerunners


1600-1750

Till after the first quarter of the eighteenth century these came at long intervals. The wonder is that they came at all, in a land almost destitute of examples of the painter’s craft. For, whatever may have been the case under the art-loving Jameses, little seems to have survived the later decades of the sixteenth century. What fragments of pre-Reformation art were saved had either been obliterated, as in the case of the remarkable mural painting of the Crucifixion in the church of Fowlis Easter, from which the whitewash was removed so lately as 1845, or taken out of the country, like the Trinity College Church panels, now happily restored to Holyrood.

Aberdeen, which has given us so many distinguished artists, has the honour of being the cradle of Scottish painting. Though far removed, one would say, from the influences of southern culture, the northern seaport had been a centre of learning since the days of Barbour and Elphinstone, whilst its commercial relations with the Continent favoured the introduction of some knowledge of the arts. Its very distance from the Border was an advantage, in respect that it was far removed from the conditions which rendered everything unstable in the counties south of the Forth. Neither does Aberdeen seem to have been in the forefront amongst the iconoclasts of the earlier Reformation, for we know that much of the Catholic adornment of the Church of Old Machar remained till the year 1640, when it was destroyed by order of the General Assembly, by this time inflamed with the new Puritanism of the Solemn League and Covenant. The decorations which then perished, and the wood carvings for which the city was famous, and some of which still remain, would exert some educational influence on the boyhood of our earliest painter.

George Jamesone was the son of an architect, and he is said to have been bom on the day on which Queen Mary was executed, February 8,1587. He commenced painting early in life, and had attracted considerable notice amongst his fellow townsmen before he went to Antwerp to enroll himself amongst the pupils of Rubens, then drawing to his studio the cream of the art talent of Belgium. Tradition says that he was there a fellow student of Vandyck, which enables us to fix the date approximately, as we know that the greatest of his pupils left the master’s studio in 1619, when Jamesone would be about thirty. After his return to Scotland he practised for a year or two in his native city, but finally removed to Edinburgh, where he died in 1644. During his residence in the capital, as in his earlier Aberdeen period, he was kept in full employment painting many of the most prominent personages of those stormy times, Royalist and Covenanter alike*— Montrose and Argyll were of the number. Though his remuneration was small, his diligence was such that he died in considerable affluence. He is said to have painted both history and allegory, but few of his compositions in these departments have survived, and we have to judge of him by his portraits, of which happily there are many veil authenticated examples in the residences of the nobility and gentry of Scotland.

Concerning John Scougal not much is known save that he had a very extensive practice, and that he died at an advanced age in 1730. Towards the close of the seventeenth century his studio was in Advocate’s Close, then a fashionable part of the metropolis. In spite of his long-continued activity his works are comparatively rare. Some confusion exists as to whether there was a second artist of the name, but, on the whole, the evidence seems to be against such a supposition.

By far the most popular portrait-painter in Scotland during these times was Sir John Medina, a Fleming by birth though of Spanish parentage. Whilst practising his profession in London, whither he had removed during the reign of James II., he made the acquaintance of David, Earl of Leven, and was induced by him to visit Scotland on the promise of a number of commissions. Walpole tells that he took with him a number of bodies already painted, to which he added heads as sitters offered. Of his work there is no lack, few of the castles and mansions of the Scottish nobility being without several specimens. During the period of his artistic activity in the North he is said to have painted half the nobility of Scotland. He died in Edinburgh in 1710, but a son and grandson kept the Spanish surname associated with Scottish art till the century was far spent. Sir John’s work, at its best far from robust, often descends to a feeble and vapid imitation of Lely.

Joseph Michael Wright, though he practised mostly in England, was a Scotsman, and is said to have been a pupil of Jamesone. At an early age he went south, and soon obtained a considerable reputation as a portrait-painter. Whilst still young he lived for some time in Italy, and in 1648 he was elected a member of the Academy of St. Luke at Florence. Nearly forty years later he again visited Italy in connection with the embassy of the Earl of Castlemaine. His absence in this official or semiofficial capacity seems to have been rather disastrous, for on his return to England he found that Kneller had supplanted him in public estimation, and towards the close of his life we find him applying, unsuccessfully, for the position of King’s Limner for Scotland, an office which then earned with it some little emolument. Pepys speaks rather contemptuously of him, contrasting his work with that of Lely, to the disadvantage of the Scotsman, but some of his portraits, notably those of John Lacy, the actor, in three characters, at Hampton Court, and of Thomas Chiffinch, in the National Portrait Gallery, are marked by much ability.

A young Forfarshire laird, William Aikman, born in 1682, carried his enthusiasm for art so far as to sell his ancestral estate of Cairney to find the wherewithal for foreign study. After a stay of three years in Rome he paid a visit to Syria and Constantinople, returning to his native country in 1712. For some years he practised in Edinburgh, but subsequently, like so many of his compatriots of a later day, he removed to London, where he died in 1731. In both places his abilities as an artist were recognised, and he associated on intimate terms with many of the notabilities of the reign of Queen Anne.

Jeremiah Davidson, or Davison, though of English birth was of Scottish parentage, and having accompanied his patron the Duke of Atholl to Scotland he practised for a while in Edinburgh. He was a pupil of Lely, and his work has sometimes been confused with that of Aikman, but it lacks the verve and artistic quality to which the latter frequently attains. Besides the portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Atholl, he painted Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1730, and a full length of Admiral Byng.

The names of several Scottish painters of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have come down to us, but they are little more than names, and have hardly any bearing on our subject. Thomas Murray, William Ferguson, John Smibert, John Alexander, and the Nories are of the number. Some of them worked mostly abroad or in the sister kingdom: the two James Nories were decorative painters in Edinburgh, and seem also to have practised landscape-painting. Their names, and that of John Alexander, appear in the list of the founders of the Academy of St. Luke, an association modelled on that of Rome and other Continental cities, which we find established in Edinburgh in the year 1729, and the subsequent history of which is obscure.

Of the artists whose careers ended, or were drawing to a close before 1750, Jamesone, Scougal, and Aikman may be taken as representative Scottish painters of the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries ; and, as such, their work deserves some attention. Of the three, it was, perhaps, inevitable, owing to his early date and the numerous works attributed to him, that most consideration should have been given to Jamesone. In the preceding remarks the traditional view of Walpole and Cunningham in regard to his Flemish training has been adhered to. In quite recent times this view has been strongly upheld by his townsman, John Bulloch, in his exhaustive and interesting work, “George Jamesone, the Scottish Vandyck." No positive evidence is adduced, and the case seems to rest entirely on oral tradition. Such is not to be set aside lightly ; but, under the circumstances, it is natural to ask, what is the evidence afforded by his style and methods? An examination of the well-authenticated and typical portraits in the collection of Mr. Erskine Murray will suffice for this purpose.

Of these, that of Lady Mary Erskine—Countess successively of Marischal and Panmure—is undoubtedly the best. Mr. Bulloch says of it, “This is probably the finest portrait of Jamesone extant.” One can feel at a glance the difference between this fine untouched example and the bedaubed and painty works often shown as specimens of our earliest painter. It is a quiet and reticent presentment of a lady no longer young, though comely still and of a pleasant countenance. The flesh is delicately modelled, with rather more shadow than usual in his female portraits, and with an impasto—nowhere heavy—of a creamy white, toned with age, and harmoniously blended with the auburn hair and dark background. From the soft half-tones of the flesh the brown eyes tell finely, and the mouth has, in a modified degree, the artist’s mannerism, being slightly crescent-shaped. In the shadows the pigment is thin, with an underlying ruddy tone. The dress of dark green, brocaded jvith gold, the puffed sleeves, and collar of fluted lace are painted with care and precision, though without the force and delicacy of his Flemish contemporaries. The same qualities characterise the portraits of her three sister countesses. Of the male portraits it may be said generally that they are darker in tone, though the subjects are of the ruddy, fair type. The shadows of the flesh are warmer, and the hair—tending to auburn at times—is painted in transparent umbers. The same general characteristics may be seen in the bust portrait of a man in armour at Yester House, dated 1644, the year of the artist’s death.

There is little, it must be confessed, in these canvases to suggest the studio of Rubens. Nay, it is impossible to think of the painter of those portraits of Scottish knights and gentlewomen with their set pose and timid handling, taking part in such work as, for instance, the Medici series in the Louvre, or others known to have been executed mostly by his scholars. This has been a puzzle to those who have accepted the tradition. Cunningham says: “ Were it not settled to a certainty that he studied under Rubens, I confess I should have set it down that he had taken Hans Holbein, or some of the old religious painters, for his model” ; and though Sir Walter Armstrong detects “ a manner in which the paint is put on thinly,” which he attributes to Flemish influence, both he and other critics are compelled to admit that much of Jamesone’s work is opaque and heavy handed. Other considerations tend to throw doubt on the story, not least the great difficulty of getting admission to Rubens’s studio. “He had been forced,” he tells us, “to refuse a hundred persons who had been obliged to go to other painters, amongst them several who had been recommended by his own family and friends.” That there is a something Flemish, both in the thin ruddy shadows of the flesh and in his manner of treating the hair, may be conceded. The whole matter is obscure ; nor is there much likelihood, at this time of day, of its being made clearer. Having regard to the persistent tradition, the probability is that Jamesone had been to Antwerp, where he had seen, and perhaps copied, the works of Rubens. That he had for some years been under his direct tuition, as the tradition has it, seems very unlikely. Our Scottish Vandyck would surely have made more of so great a privilege.

The works of Scougal are less numerous. In the Scottish National Gallery there is a bust portrait of himself, rather under life size, representing a man of about thirty-five, dark-haired, and of swarthy complexion. It does not possess much technical ability, but the painter appears to more advantage in a portrait of Sir Roger Hog, Lord Harcarse, in the Parliament Hall. Here the face is strongly modelled in pretty full impasto; there is little shadow, but the arrangement of light and dark is well managed, and the lace work of the bands daintily touched. Of much the same quality are the portraits of Sir Archibald Primrose, and those of Sir John Clerk, first baronet, and his wife, Elizabeth Henderson, at Penicuik. In all these there is a careful modelling, with no attempt at an artistic treatment of light and shade, and they all want that lightness of touch which can give charm and esprit to the most conventional arrangements.

Considering his short working life of under twenty years the works of William Aikman are numerous. Redgrave describes them as “weak but pleasing, not showing much original invention.” The latter part of the phrase is only too true, but it applies to British portraiture of the period rather than to Aikman specially. Though the terms “weak but pleasing” may be accepted in regard to the general run of his work, the description is certainly inadequate when applied to such portraits as those of himself in the National, and National Portrait Galleries of Scotland, and that of William, Fourth Marquis of Lothian, at New-battle. The two former are .bust portraits, the latter something between that and a half length. All three are in painted ovals—the fashion of the time. The portrait in the National Gallery represents a man of about thirty-five, of refined and intellectual cast of countenance, in brownish yellow costume, with the wig of the period. It is painted with great skill; the handling is painter-like, easy yet reticent, and the modelling admirably expressed. Fairly fresh in colour, a finely descriptive touch, notably in the management of the crisp higher lights of flesh and drapery, gives vivacity to the whole. Though there is no “original invention,” this portrait has neither the dulness nor the spurious glitter which characterise so much of the painting of the time. Placed as it is between fine specimens of Raeburn and Watson Gordon, it suffers little by comparison. At the National Portrait Gallery the likeness seems that of a younger man; the arrangement and costume are somewhat similar, with the exception that an outer garment of neutral blue, with puce lining, is folded over a coat of old gold. The Newbattle picture differs considerably from these two portraits of himself. It is less conventional in treatment, having a richer and more luminous colour wrought with a fuller brush. Besides the portrait mentioned above, there are several Aikmans in the Queen Street Gallery, portraits of the poets Ramsay, Thomson, and Gay, amongst the number. Examples of his work may also be seen in the Parliament Hall, at Amisfield House, and in various other collections in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood. Of the more important commissions executed during his eight years in London we know little north of the Tweed. At the time of his death he was engaged on a large picture of the Royal family in three compartments. The last, containing a portrait of the King, was left unfinished. It is said to be now in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire. Aikman at his best was a capable craftsman, but, in common with the painters of his time, he lacked the strength of character to substitute an outlook of his own for the conventions by which he was surrounded. The awakening was not yet.

Of contemporary Scots painters who practised beyond our borders, only Joseph Michael Wright need be further noticed. In point of time he forms a link between Jamesone and Aikman, and he may quite well have been a pupil of the former, as is said, in his youth. His work shows little affinity with that of the Aberdonian, but his early removal to London and the subsequent years spent in Italy sufficiently account for that. In his rather chequered career he never attained to a foremost place amongst painters, falling always under the shadow of abler, or at least more popular, men. First Lely and then Kneller had the cream of the practice, and the Scotsman had to be content with the crumbs which fell from the table of the foreigners. Thus we read of his painting for the Corporation of London the portraits of the Judges, now at the Guildhall, which Lely refused to paint unless they would sit at his studio. It must be conceded that there is little trace, either in these Guildhall full lengths, or in his work at Hampton Court and the National Portrait Gallery, of the facility and fluency of handling which form part of the equipment of the fashionable portrait-painter. But the very absence of these qualities with which the accomplished Germans weary us in their countless square yards of portraiture adds an attraction to Wright’s less pretentious canvases. The Hampton Court picture of John Lacy, the actor, in three different characters, is a work of much ability, altogether devoid of the mannerisms of the period. Its low tone and want of fluency impart a something of heaviness and monotony ; but, in compensation, there is an individual outlook on nature rarely found during the hundred years which separate Vandyck from Hogarth.

Of Wright’s works in the National Portrait Gallery that of Thomas Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Jewels during the reign of Charles II., is the best, and, being free from the eccentricities incident to the Hampton Court picture, it affords a better test of his abilities as a portrait-painter. The fine features are carefully modelled, the half-tones well gradated, and the quality of the flesh is softer and more flexible than usual. And here, at least, the costume and accessories are rendered with a freedom quite unusual in his work. Pepys records his impressions of a visit to Wright’s studio after having been to Lely’s, with a “Lord, what a difference!” Before this portrait of Chiffinch, with many examples of the fashionable painter in its immediate vicinity, one is inclined to agree with him, but to ask—is it not the other way about?


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