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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter III. Later Eighteenth-Century Painters


The Academy of St. Luke, formed in Edinburgh in 1729 by a number of gentlemen, lay and professional, though short-lived, gave an impetus to art in Scotland, as did the more ambitious venture of the brothers Foulis in Glasgow some quarter of a century later. The famous printers and booksellers were the first to associate the western city with the Fine Arts, establishing an Academy there in 1753, partly in connection with their business, but also for the study and encouragement of the arts generally. To this end they brought together a considerable collection of pictures, and secured the services of foreign professors of painting, sculpture, and engraving. The rather Quixotic establishment of the patriotic brothers early involved them in financial difficulties, but their enthusiasm enabled them to carry it on for over twenty years. The Academy was broken up and the collection dispersed about 1775, but during its existence several artists prominent in the later part of the century had received in it their preliminary training.

A pupil of the earlier institution, Allan Ramsay, son of the author of “The Gentle Shepherd,” was the first Scottish painter who had a conspicuous success in London. Conforming to the fashion of the time, he set out for “the seat of the beast” beyond the Alps—as his father puts it in a letter to his friend Smibert—about 1736. He remained in Italy three years studying successively under Solimene and Imperiali. During these years he acquired a taste for antiquarian and classical lore, which subsequent visits developed to the disadvantage of his art. He became an accomplished linguist, speaking most European languages ; he wielded the pen as well as the brush, writing with vigour and facility on various subjects, and entering with spirit into the public controversies of the time. Amongst his correspondents were Voltaire and Rousseau, with both of whom he had become acquainted abroad. In London he lived in great style, was a favourite at court—where his knowledge of German stood him in good stead—and had many friends amongst the leading men of the day. We are told by Allan Cunningham that Lord Bute, the Duke of, Newcastle, Lord Bath, Lord Chesterfield, and the Duke of Richmond in particular were frequently at his house, and that, more, it was said, on matters connected with politics than painting. Under such a plethora of culture and social distractions it is little wonder that Ramsay’s art faculty remained a stunted growth.

His works are numerous, few family mansions in Scotland being without one or two specimens. Though the average of merit is not high, his portraits are often placed on the canvas with great skill, and especially in his busts and half-lengths of ladies, sympathetically and elegantly drawn and modelled. In the latter he has a pleasing way of placing the figure in profile and showing the face at the three-quarter angle, thereby imparting a Watteau-like grace, to the lines of neck and shoulders. The elegance of the costume of the period, with its combinations of filmy lace and delicate hues, adds a further resemblance to the Frenchman. But here the likeness ends; for Ramsay’s colour is, as a rule, opaque and heavy, and his work lacks both breadth and atmosphere. The want of vigour of handling and of any well-conceived scheme of light and shade gives undue prominence to the linear design or contour, and as that is often feeble, much of his work is un-painterlike. But there are not wanting indications in some of his earlier works that he might have risen to higher things. The portrait of his wife, in the Scottish National Gallery, is of singular charm, strangely contradicting the defects and conventions of his average work. Here the arrangement is easy, the gesture and expression animated, the light and shade well conceived and appropriate. There is nothing of the cameo-like setting of figure against background, or overrigidity of contour, which characterise so many of his productions. Rather, in avoiding these, he has gone too far, for the crisp touch and keen accent are what one desiderates most in this softly and sweetly modelled face and tastefully costumed figure. If to the ease and grace and vivacity with which the hazel-eyed young matron is here depicted he had gone on to add the more robust qualities which experience should have brought, Ramsay might have been a not unworthy third to his two great English contemporaries. But it was not to be, and a full generation had yet to pass before Scotland produced an artist worthy of being named with Reynolds and Gainsborough. Several other portraits might be cited in evidence of the painter’s capacity, that of Lady Glenorchy* at * In the possession of Lord Torphichen.

Calder House, for instance, and his chalk drawings furnish various examples of that elegance of design which so charmed Northcote in his profile of Queen Charlotte. Cultured gentleman, court painter, and universal favourite as he was, he remained a mediocre artist. To begin with, he had a promising individuality of outlook. In presence of the portrait of his wife and others of his earlier days, one feels that the tradition of Lely and Kneller, which held Aikman in thrall, is a thing of the past. But Ramsay neglected his craft, and deficiency in this respect has been fatal to his continued reputation as a painter.

Of the pupils of the Foulis Academy Alexander Runciman was the first to distinguish himself. He had previously had some instruction from the Nories, from whom he may have caught his early enthusiasm for landscape. When about thirty he visited Rome, where he made the acquaintance of Fuseli. Being of similar temperament the acqaintance ripened into a friendship which, no doubt, had an effect on his future career. Henceforth he devoted himself to the almost impossible field—so far as Scotland was concerned — of historical painting, but his appointment to the Mastership of the Trustees’ Academy in 1771 enabled him to devote himself to his ideals. Inspired by memories of the Sistine Chapel and enthusiasm for the poetry of Ossian then agitating the literary world, Runciman painted for Sir John Clerk —surely the Maecenas of Scottish Art—a series of Ossianic subjects for the cupola of the great hall at Penicuik House. This, which he regarded as his magnum opus, was destroyed by fire some years ago, and it is now difficult to form an estimate of his powers in that direction, his work in our public collections being smaller in scale and of a less ambitious order. In the curious portrait group of Alexander Runciman and John Brown by themselves, the former is seen in profile, seated, with palette and port-crayon ready. He is somewhat fantastically dressed in a green striped dressing gown and high scarlet cap touched with gold braiding. The face has little direct shadow, is well modelled in rather thin material, and the fine brown eyes are deftly touched and full of character.

In a side chapel of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church—formerly Episcopal—in the Cowgate, there are four panels by Alexander Runciman: two of upright oval form represent Moses and Elias, the others are oblong—about five feet by two—the subjects being Christ and the Woman of Samaria and The Father Receiving the Prodigal Son. The last-named subject is especially interesting, seeing that the Prodigal in it is represented by the ill-starred Robert Fergusson, the precursor of Bums. The Prophets are of the size of life, and are seated in attitudes which recall the Sistine Chapel. In the Prodigal the pale up-turned face of Fergusson is seen in profile. The Father bends to meet him and stretches over him a protecting hand. There is a tradition that Runciman painted also a foreshortened Ascension on the inside of the dome which at one time rose above this chapel, but, if it still exists, a new ceiling has shut it off from view for over half a century.

Of his younger brother John, who died at the early age of twenty-four, our National collection contains specimens which give the impression of a more robust talent than can be claimed for Alexander. The three small canvases The Flight into Egypt, Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Emamaus, and The Temptation indicate a curious individuality. In treatment they are reminiscent of some of the early sixteenth century Flemings, who in their rendering of such incidents of the sacred narrative gave considerable prominence to the landscape. These pictures indicate a weird and lively fancy, which in a more important canvas, King Lear, borders on imaginative power. The group of the mad' King and his attendants—rather flimsily painted—serves only to give one or two more positive colour-notes in the confusion of sea and sky and shore by which they are surrounded. The scheme of umber, amber, and indigo in which the fantastic scene is wrought recalls certain landscapes of Rembrandt’s. Rembrandtish, too, in its conception is the remarkable design for Belshazzar's Feast at Penicuik House. In this sketch—for it is little more— the tumultuous conception is rendered in that luminous scheme, with local colour not too pronounced, so characteristic of the Dutch master. The detail of features and costume is, in parts, touched with daintiness and precision, elsewhere it is vague and slight. But with much that is immature, both in handling and light and shade, this little canvas, more, perhaps, than any other, suggests the measure to which John Runciman might have attained. The young artist destroyed the bulk of his work before his death, but enough has been left to give him an honourable place amongst Scottish painters of his time.

David Allan, though he never attained to much proficiency in his craft, was the first to break ground in a department which, within half a century in the hands of Wilkie, was to form a corner-stone of Scottish painting.

He was a pupil of the Glasgow Academy, and afterwards spent ten or twelve years in Rome. This probation, far from confirming him in the Roman ideals, seems to have awakened him to the futility of the classicism then fashionable. That he had made some progress on the conventional path may be gathered from his picture, The Origin of Painting, in the Scottish National Gallery. This small oval, of simple and elegant design and telling chiaroscuro, is well known through Cunego’s engraving. It gained for him the gold medal of St. Luke’s Academy, Rome ; and one might have predicted from it a successful career in such subjects, which were then much sought after, both as pictures and for mural decorations. But Allan was not one of the strong personalities who take fortune at the flood. He had a glimpse of something different, and it is to his credit that he followed the light that was vouchsafed him. On his return to Scotland he devoted himself—not to high art like Runciman—but to the observation and delineation of the pastoral life of his own country. As there was no demand for paintings of this nature he made drawings, which he etched, of various incidents of humble life and from the songs and ballads, both humorous and pathetic, in which Scottish literature is so rich. The most widely known are a series of designs from “The Gentle Shepherd,” at that time and for long afterwards, the staple of the secular reading of the Scottish peasantry. These drawings are not of a high order. The action and character are often rendered with considerable spirit, but the design is feeble and scattered, and the drawing uncouth and amateurish. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how one who had attained to such a degree of proficiency in these directions as is indicated in The Origin of Painting failed so utterly to give evidence of them in the work which was most congenial to him. They are chiefly valuable as a record of the costume and general environment of Scottish rural life of the period, and for a certain spirit with which the artist enters into the scene delineated. Nevertheless, because of the initiative he took in breaking away from classic conventions, David Allan remains a personality in the evolution of Scottish painting.

Contemporary with these were several whose working lives were spent mainly in Italy and other European countries. The career of one of them, Cunningham, is involved in some obscurity. After completing his studies in Italy, he worked successively in St. Petersburg and Berlin. In the latter capital he is said to have attracted the favourable notice of Frederick William II., as his subjects dealt chiefly with Prussian history, and especially with the battles of Frederick the Great. The names of Jacob More and Gavin Hamilton are better known. More had been apprenticed to the Nories, and by them he had been initiated into the practice of landscape, which, unlike Runciman, he never forsook. For over twenty years he practised this department of art with great success in Rome, assisting in the decorations of the Villa Borghese, and executing many important commissions, through which he accumulated a considerable fortune. In 1787 Goethe, then enamoured of art and artists, was taken by Angelica Kauflmann to More’s studio, and was impressed by his works. He speaks specially of one, The Deluge, as being highly original in conception, and of “a splendidly beautiful Morning.'" Alas, for the great poet’s opinion on art! More’s landscapes are little removed from the decorative work which was common at the time. They have all the conventions of the classic compositions of the period, with little of the simplicity and distinction by which such works are often redeemed in the hands of capable craftsmen. Neither can a set of his drawings in the Laing bequest at the Scottish Academy be said to give one a more favourable impression of the Scoto-Roman landscapist.1

In the more ambitious walks of history and mythology Hamilton was the counterpart of More. A pupil of Agostino Masucci, he was early fascinated with Rome and the classicism of which it was the centre. His art proclivities lay all in that direction, as may be learned from the titles of his works—Agrippina Weeping over the Ashes of Germanicns, Heralds Leading Briseis from the Tent of Achilles, The Death of Lucretia, &c. Like More he had a hand in the decoration of Prince Borghese’s villa, in one of the rooms of which he illustrated the story of Paris. He lived in great style, “ maintaining,” says Brydall, “ much of the dignity and state of the great old Italian masters.” During the rare visits he paid to Scotland he painted several portraits, and it is mainly from these that his qualifications as a painter have now to be determined. The group at the Scottish Portrait Gallery is historically interesting as containing, besides the eighth Duke of Hamilton, his tutor—Carlyle’s “ witty Dr. Moore of Glasgow ”—and his son, the future hero of Corunna ; but there is little to recommend it to those who attach value to the painter’s craft. Executed in a touch monotonously soft, it is unpleasantly warm in the shadows and poor in its quality of grays. Nor could anything else be looked for, as it was part of the classic faith to depreciate everything but form and design. The profile of Hamilton of Bangowr shows the artist in his classic vein ; the low square-cut vest, the toga-like arrangement of the red robe, and the fillet-bound hair match well with the medallion-like setting of the head against the background. Colour and brush-work are both feeble, but are less missed here than in the portrait group.

Sir George Chalmers, Martin, Willison, Donaldson, and Skirving are names associated with Scottish portraiture during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The last named only survived well into the nineteenth, and he is the only one of whom it can be said that his practice was entirely north of the Tweed. He was a son of the stalwart East Lothian farmer, who is said to have written “Hey, Johnnie Cope,” and who certainly wrote the less known, but still more humorous, ballad of “Tranent Muir,” which brought him the challenge he treated so lightly from one of Sir John’s officers. The artist, to judge from George Watson’s portraits of him, seems to have inherited some of his father’s fine physique, and he is remembered as much for his eccentric habits as for his art. He began work as a painter of miniatures, but after his return from Italy, which he visited rather late in life, he devoted himself almost entirely to pastel. His oil portraits of his father and of Dr. Alexander Carlyle (“Jupiter”) at the Scottish Portrait Gallery, are more interesting from the personal than from the artistic point of view. That of himself in pastel shows a young man of handsome type, smartly attired in coat of bluish-grey, and low-crowned black beaver, which shadows the face to the eyes. The material suits him better than the oil, and here he handles it freely both in face and costume. The professional lives of the others were only partly spent in Scotland. Of Donaldson we read that he had what would now be called socialistic notions, which led him to look on his art with contempt. George Willison had considerable capacity. His seated half-length of Beugo, at the Portrait Gallery, though slight and rather thin, is the work of an expert brushman. A larger work in the Albert Institute, Dundee, is painted with a fuller brush, and both there, and in a small head of Romney, he shows technical ability of no mean order. He worked for some years in India, but later resumed practice in Edinburgh, where he died in 1797. David Martin had been one of Ramsay’s assistants. His average work is mediocre, but now and again he shows himself a fairly competent craftsman, as witness one or two canvases in the Queen Street Galleries, and at the Archer’s Hall.

A word may be added concerning two lady artists. Miss Ann Forbes was a grand-daughter of William Aikman. Her work is scarce; a portrait of the Duke of Queensberry at Penicuik House does not rise above mediocrity. Miss Katherine Read, daughter of a Forfarshire gentleman of good family and Jacobite leanings, is said, at the time of the Rebellion, to have painted portraits of Isabella Lumsden and her brother Andrew, afterwards secretary to the exiled Prince. Some five or six years later she studied in Paris and in Italy. Smollett, Hayley, and Fanny Burney speak of her crayon portraits with enthusiasm. After having painted most of the notabilities of her day, Miss Read, in 1775, went to India, then a happy hunting-ground for such artists as were prepared to risk the voyage and the climate. The latter especially was a serious consideration, and it proved so in this case, for after a year or two’s residence. Miss Read fell ill, and died on her homeward voyage on December 15, 1778.

Many of these precursors of Scottish painting were men of varied accomplishments, and some had attained to considerable skill in their craft, but they lack those characteristics in common which would entitle us to regard them as forming a school. The majority, indeed, might have been omitted, so far as their bearing on the present subject is concerned, had it not been necessary to show that the raw material was abundant. After Jamesone’s time the abler men worked mostly in England or abroad, where they naturally fell under the influence of whatever style was in vogue for the time being; whilst to those who remained north of the Tweed conditions were anything but inspiring. Allan and the elder Runciman only, amongst the latter, ventured beyond the role of the conventional portrait, and that with indifferent success. Landscape in the tentative efforts of the Nories and De la Cour was but an echo of the classic mural decoration of Roman villas and French chateaux. In all branches painters were influenced rather by the general trend of European art than by each other. Ramsay owes nothing to Aikman or Scougal, just as the Runcimans have nothing in common with David Allan and little with each other. One thing only Scottish painters from the days of Wright and Aikman had in common, the Roman apprenticeship. A glance at the condition of painting beyond the Alps during those times will be neither uninteresting nor irrelevant, and may explain much.

The fascination exerted by Italy on those of the painter’s craft is coeval with the revival of art in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. If, somewhat later, Italy turned to Flanders and the new processes of the Van Eycks, it was only for a moment. Ere the sixteenth century was well on its way, Durer, Mabuse, and Van Orley were across the Alps ; so great, indeed, was the attraction of this golden age of southern art, that before long we have in Belgium a school of painters known as the Italianised Flemings. Holland soon followed in the person of Antonio Moro, a forerunner of the numerous Dutchmen who, a hundred years later, made Rome their headquarters. Indeed, it was during that second efflorescence of which the later Carracci, Poussin, Claude, and Salvator Rosa were the leading spirits that the attractive power of Italy became, as one might say, magnetic, and some years study there was regarded as a sine qua non of the artist’s education. From that date onward, Rome had its colonies of artists from most European countries. The influence of the Renaissance which had so powerfully affected the greater masters tended more and more to exalt the traditions of the ancients. Painters like Poussin and Claude lived in, and have bequeathed to us, a charming Arcadian world, frankly pagan; but on their descendants who had to execute the commissions of the Church the loss of the earnest and devout spirit of the earlier times was nothing less than disastrous. It is pitiful to read of the long succession of the uninspired who during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were entrusted with such commissions. Thrice pitiful is it to think that to such a source painters from all lands came for instruction.

Come they did, nevertheless, Michael Wright and William Aikman being amongst the earliest from these islands. When the former had first known Rome, the Poussins, Claude, and Salvator Rosa were still in their prime, and the immediate successors of the Carracci were at work under the direction of Bernini, executing the princely commissions of Pope Innocent and his cardinals. Ere the date of his second visit Colbert had established the French Academy, and Carlo Maratta was leading a revival of painting based on the study of Raphael, “without losing sight of the Carracci and Guido.” During Aikman’s student years, 1707-12, Maratta was still living, though in extreme old age, and his influence dominant. The young Scotsman may, at times, have attended the French Academy, now one of the established institutions of Rome, for we are told that students of other nationalities were welcomed at the Capranica Palace. Several other Scottish painters worked in Italy about the same time, and would share the same influences as Aikman, but their work is little known amongst us, and their associations with the country of their birth were of the slightest.

Before the next group of our painters comes on the scene a new influence had begun to make itself felt in the art world. The ideas propounded in some of the writings of Shaftesbury, and in a treatise concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design,f by Professor Hutcheson of Glasgow, had led on some quarter of a century later to the works of Winckelmann, Lessing, and others, the builders of the .Esthetic Philosophy. .Esthetics is a department of knowledge deeply interesting as determining the relation of the Fine Arts to other spheres of mental activity, but it has always been perilous stuff for the professional artist to meddle with. Unfortunately, the most prominent Roman painter of the day—Raphael Mengs—could not let it alone, and the lesser lights followed in his train. The trend of the new philosophy was to make painting more hidebound than ever. Raphael and the ancients was the burden of their song, or rather of their long-winded and metaphysical speculations. It was to an aesthetic symposium, such as is revealed in Goethe’s “ Letters from Italy,” more than to a school of painting that our later eighteenth century artists came, and it is not wonderful that whilst their intellectual culture was widened, they learned little of their craft. With Tiepolo and Guardi the neglected tradition of the great Venetians was expiring on the Adriatic. From masters such as Masucci, Solimene, and Imperiali our Hamiltons, Ramsays, and Runcimans could gather little more than the minimum of skill necessary for the conventional history and portrait painting of the day. David Allan’s common sense had wearied of it; but it needed a stronger than he to shake off the long-established incubus of classicism. In 1785 the predestined man was already amongst them in the person of Henry Raeburn.


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