Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter IV. Raeburn, 1756-1823


In the foregoing chapters a resume has been given of the work of various Scottish painters who practised their art from the earlier decades of the seventeenth till nearly the close of the eighteenth century. They are not very numerous, considering the length of time, but the country was unable to support even these few, and, like the scholars of a still earlier date, our painters had to find employment in England or abroad. It is not surprising that, under such circumstances, painting remained something of an exotic in Scotland during this long period. By the great bulk of the people it was altogether ignored ; and even by many having some claim to culture it was looked on with suspicion, as a mystery brought from far lands to administer to the vanities or the hobbies of the great. It reflected nothing of the struggles and aspirations through which our country passed during the dolorous or stirring times of the Covenant, the Union, and the Jacobite rebellions. Men’s minds were set on other problems, nor was there within our borders the minimum even of that material well-being indispensable for the cultivation of the Fine Arts.

To those who live in times when fresh problems and new outlooks on nature follow each other thick and fast, and when the technique of art seems revolutionised with every succeeding decade, it seems strange that the painters of those days should have followed, and with such ardour, ideals from which the study of nature was almost excluded. Such was really the effect of the teaching of Winckelmann and Mengs, and, in the Rome of 1785, their authority was hardly questioned. It is always difficult to break with long established conventions. This is no less the case in the sphere of Art than of Religion or Politics, and our indebtedness to those who have first trodden new paths in any department of human knowledge can hardly be over-estimated. It is undoubtedly to the strong and original personality of Henry Raeburn that we owe the existence of a Scottish School of Painting.

The causes which underlie new movements are always obscure. Such changes are generally the summing up by some masterful individual of what has been “in the air” for some- time. The genesis of the Scottish School is especially difficult to diagnose, owing to Raeburn’s having left almost no notes of his professional career or his art preferences. The times, no doubt, were ripe for change, and though in high places the classic ideals still held sway, there had been revolts both in England and France. In the former, Hogarth and Gainsborough had boldly cut themselves adrift from conventional notions; and if Reynolds, judged by his “ Discourses,” still held by tradition, his practice did not always correspond with his theory. In France, Watteau, and later, Greuze and Chardin had responded to French views of life on its frivolous, homely, and sentimental sides. But what of this handsome young man from Scotland—surely the Ultima Thule of art in those days P What would be the result of the “worship of Michael Angelo ” prescribed for him by Sir Joshua? Would he return north conformed to the Italian type as so many of his countrymen had done, or had. he the grit in him for something better?

In his native country it was a time of rapid change and development. The long stagnation which had followed “the killing times,” and the feeling akin to despair engendered by a reluctantly accepted Union, had lifted shortly after the ’45. Folks began to realise the blessings of a settled government, and the possibilities of well-being by which they were surrounded. Slowly at first, but with increasing momentum as the century drew to its close, the nation set itself to make up leeway. It is unnecessary to repeat the story of those times as it has been preserved for us in many interesting records both contemporary and more recent. With almost startling rapidity the material resources of the country were developed. Thousands, reared in straitened circumstances, found themselves well-to-do agriculturists, prosperous tradesmen, or even affluent merchants before they were well past middle life. Fortunately there were elements which kept the country from becoming engrossed in the merely material. The ardours and impassioned regrets of a lost cause, in which half the community had been more or less implicated, and with which more than half sympathised, were powerful checks on that “lust of gain” to which nations as well as individuals are prone. Seldom, indeed, have the romantic and prosaic elements of life been brought closer than in the Scotland of those days. It is hard to realise that even a quarter of a century after Raeburn’s visit to Rome Scott could sing:

“Yet live there still who can remember well
How when a mountain chief his bugle blew,
Both field and forest, dingle, cliff, and dell,
And solitary heath the signal knew.’’

As a youth our painter must have known some who could remember the Scottish Parliament, who could discuss “Mar’s Year” and the Porteous Mob from personal recollection, and to whom the ’45 was a recent event. Here at last was some approach to the ideal conditions so long wanting. Literature and Science had kept pace with the material development of the country, and towards the end of the century were represented, in their various departments, by men of wide culture and even of European reputation. The learned professions contained quite an unusual number of practitioners of strong character and commanding personality. These, with a still resident gentry of sharply divided political views, formed a society which, with its picturesque setting, has been delineated for us, and for all time, by its own master spirit. It would have been nothing less than a national calamity if such a generation had passed away without some worthy pictorial record. This was averted by the timely appearance of Raeburn, and a recent author has well remarked that it is difficult to say which was the more fortunate, the sitters who had such a superb artist to paint them, or the artist who had such admirable figures to copy.

Descended from an old Border family, Raeburn, who early lost both parents, was brought up till of school age by a brother twelve years his senior. Like many other sons of burgesses in similar circumstances, he received his education at Heriot’s Hospital, after which, about 1771, he was apprenticed to James Gilliland, a goldsmith in Parliament Close. Whilst there, Mr. David Deuchar, seal engraver and etcher, who had frequent occasion to see Gilliland on matters of business, took a liking to the young apprentice, then a tall handsome lad of engaging manners. Finding him one day gazing intently into a small mirror, “Hullo, Henry,” said he, “are you admiring your good looks?” “No,” said the boy, “but I am trying to draw a likeness of myself,” and he presented a sheet of paper on which he had made a very creditable portrait of himself in pencil. The upshot of the incident was that, through Mr. Deuchar’s good offices, young Raeburn, while nominally continuing his apprenticeship, was allowed time for study, and after some tentative efforts in the direction of miniature-painting, he was introduced to Martin, then the fashionable portrait-painter of the Scottish metropolis, with a view to instruction in oil-painting. Martin has already been introduced to the reader. According to Cunningham, Ramsay took him to Rome, when he was acting as the latter’s assistant, to astonish the Italians with his skill in drawing. Whatever his ability may have been at that time, the treadmill of Ramsay’s studio work seems to have left him destitute of any freshness of perception, and when one thinks of the scores of copies of bedizened royal and other personages he and Reinagle had to supply during their master’s long absences in Rome, it is not to wondered at. He rarely rises above the feebly respectable, and to-day, what reputation he has, he owes to his association with Raeburn. Raeburn knew little of the struggle which generally attends the outset of the painter’s professional career.

Brought up in fairly comfortable circumstances, he found patrons almost from the beginning, and, before he had well entered his twenties, marriage with a wealthy widow made him independent of his earnings. A dangerous position, one would say, for the budding artist, but it does not seem to have damped the ardour of Raeburn, who, all through life, was pursued by the passion of industry. He had to pick up the elements of his craft in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Training school there was none in the Edinburgh of his day, for it was only from the appointment of John Graham as master in 1798 that the Trustees’ Academy assumed the position of an Art School in the sense of imparting instruction to painters. Nor, with the exception of Martin’s, was there any studio where, in accordance with immemorial usage, he could learn from the example of an accredited master. Some arrangement of the sort seems to have been attempted with Martin, but there early occurred a hitch which threw the young artist on his own resources, probably to his ultimate advantage. With the precocity of genius, Raeburn had already assimilated all that Martin could give, and henceforth we can trace through a series of works, the dates of which are at least approximately known, his gradual advance from the state of pupilage to the comparative facility he had attained when he crossed the Alps.

A full length of George Chalmers of Pittencrieff, painted in 1776, is the earliest work of which the date is certainly known ; but nowhere can one better follow the artist’s development during the first fifteen years of his professional career than in the series of pictures at Raith. The earliest of these, a somewhat ambitious group of Mrs. Wm. Ferguson and Children with a landscape background was painted about 1780. That of Wm. Ferguson and his third Son seems of slightly later date, and the Major Buchanan may also have been painted before the Roman visit—1785-7. Then we have the well-known oval of the boy, Wm. Ferguson of Kilrie, which Sir Walter Armstrong thinks prior to the half-lengths of Sir Ronald and Robert Ferguson practising Archery, of date 1790. The full length of General Sir Ronald, in sportsman’s dress, comes two years later, and lastly, so far as this earlier period is concerned, there is the equestrian portrait of Sir Ronald painted in 1795. As these are typical pictures of their respective dates, a glance at the qualities they reveal will carry us to the beginning of what may be called the artist’s middle period.

Returning to the pre-Roman pictures, and remembering that they are the work of one who but lately had been a painter of miniatures, the technique is surprising. In adopting the stronger medium Raeburn seems to have broken, once and for ever, with the softness and stipple of the ivory tablet. Already, both in the full length of Mrs. Ferguson and her Children, and in the three-quarter length of her husband and their third son, we have a manner of seeing and painting unlike that of any of his Scottish forerunners. In these earliest canvases one finds the direct painting, the broad flat surfaces and the precise square touch—afterwards such a weapon for the seizure of character—in the management of the narrow shadows and the modelling of the features. As yet he avoids effects, and what of light and dark the pictures have comes rather from the opposition of local colours, and the setting of the subject in its surroundings than from that learned use of chiaroscuro which stood him in such stead in after years. Thus, in the more ambitious group we have the broad light mass of the white-robed lady and girl opposed to the brown costume of the boy, the black retriever, and the deep umbers of foliage and foreground. In the other, Mr. Ferguson is relieved against a shadowed breadth of leafage, whilst the boy tells dark against the sky and landscape distance. Raeburn’s methods have never much of the mysterious; for well-nigh half a century one can read his manner like a clear handwriting over the twilled canvas he uses from first to last. Here it is quite simple ; in faces and costume alike there is that tendency to generalise which became later so marked a characteristic. The broad lights and half-tones of the flesh are brushed in with a pigment somewhat wanting in body, and a handling which lacks as yet the vivacity which can save this almost shadowless treatment from tameness. The darker markings of the features and the folds and overlappings of the dresses are often superimposed, instead of being a substratum as with Wilkie and his followers. The want of the finer shades of modelling gives to the large spaces of the costumes, and even to the flat planes of the flesh a feeling of emptiness, and the scumbles by which he tries to give variety to the former too obviously show their intention.

Little is known of his Roman experience. His visit, of some eighteen months, coincided with that of Goethe; but the “ Letters from Italy,” while they extol the classic painting of Jacob More, make no mention of his greater countryman. They may have met, for the art community of Rome, which the poet affected during his residence there, could not have been large; but to Goethe, brimming over with aesthetic theories, the realistic tendencies of the young Scotsman would hardly prove attractive. Raeburn had the advantage of the friendship of two compatriots who had been long resident in Rome, Gavin Hamilton, already known to the reader, and James Byres, of Tonley, in Aberdeenshire, an architect and archaeologist. It was to the latter that he owed the advice never to paint anything without having the object before him. Strange words for the time and place, and to which the painter used to acknowledge himself deeply indebted. It seems one of those happy sayings falling on fruitful soil, which give the bent to a lifetime and direction to future generations. It recalls the saying of the Devonian Gandy to Reynolds, that a picture should have a richness in its texture as if the colours had been composed of cream or cream cheese, to which the great President owed, perhaps, as much as to his heloved Michael Angelo.

In 1787 Raeburn is back in Edinburgh, where for six and thirty years he held undisputed sway as a painter of portraits, making his own and all succeeding generations of Scotsmen his debtors for the work he so quietly accomplished during those eventful years of our national history.

To return to the pictures at Raith, and first to that of William Ferguson of Kilrie, which was probably painted within a year or eighteen months of his return to Scotland, the first thing that strikes one is that here we have Raeburn experimenting with an effect, the face in broad shadow with cheek and nose catching the light from behind. The touch is fuller and the pigment more juicy than in the pre-Roman portraits, but he has not yet attained to all the skill necessary for this treatment. The indication of eyes and mouth within the shadow

lacks something of subtlety, and the transition from light to shadow has hardly the naturalness he afterwards reaches in the portrait of his son on the grey pony. There is in it a something of Greuze as well as of the stronger masters, but the interest attaching to new departures and the winsome expression of the languorous eyes and slightly parted lips combine to give it a unique place in the painter’s earlier work. One regrets that Raeburn did not oftener make use of this arrangement, so fascinating from an artistic point of view; but the shadowed countenance does not commend itself to sitters. Rembrandt’s partiality for it cost him his practice as a portraitist, and, unlike the Dutchman, Raeburn was no dreamer.

In the half lengths of Sir Ronald and Robert Ferguson practising Archery we return, as one might say, to the, artist’s normal development, for this quaintly conceived and entirely unconventional picture is, as regards technique, only a more forcible restatement of the manner of the two earlier canvases. The advance here is the abandonment of those set arrangements into which painters— and especially portrait-painters—are so apt to fall; and the effort to grapple with the figure set simply against a background of sky is indicative of the open mind and innocent eye which have so much to do with what we call originality. The portrait of General Sir Ronald Ferguson, in sportsman’s costume, painted two years later, though more conventional in arrangement, shows great advance in technical skill. Both face and figure are modelled with a fuller brush and more graphic touch. There is less of the flatness of the mosaic, and the accessories are executed with the increasing ease and fluency which come of experience. Three years later the General is again depicted in one of Raeburn’s earliest equestrian portraits. Is there again an advance ? At all events, there is a change. The laird of Tonley’s advice is bringing new effects to the cognisance of the painter, and here, in place of sharp contrasts, he adopts the broader and more subtie treatment of bringing light against light, the fresh com-plexioned face, powdered hair, and grey riding coat forming a delicate harmony with the silvery sky.

A review of Raeburn’s earlier practice has been given in some detail, because it concerns not himself only, but marks the rise of a school which thenceforth takes a unique, if not a very prominent, place in European art. The Raith pictures have been made use of, as exhibiting specimens of various dates so placed as to be easily compared or contrasted; but the same development can be traced in such characteristic portraits as Bailie Galloway, Principal Robertson, and Mrs. Macqueen, of the years immediately succeeding his return to Scotland, the three-quarter lengths of Mrs. New-biggimg,$ of Mrs. Campbell of Balliemore, the halflengths of Dr. and Mrs. Wood and in various portraits of the Gibson-Carmichael family.

Raeburn was now verging on forty. Few great artists have entered their fifth decade without having accomplished part of the work on which their fame bas ultimately rested. Nor was it otherwise with the Scottish painter, for within the last four years he had painted Dr. Nathaniel Spens and Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, either of which can take rank with the great portraits of any age or school. To most painters there come occasions when all of knowledge they have acquired flows from them in a white heat of strenuous effort. Something congenial in the subject, some happy combination of circumstances, brings all their experience to bear effectively, and, as if on some seventh wave of inspiration, they are borne far beyond their previous attainments. Such an occasion came to Raeburn when, in 1791, he was commissioned by the Royal Company of Archers to paint Dr. Spens.* The painter was an adept at archery, and, as he faced the firm-set figure of this athletic bowman, he doubtless felt within his own frame all the tension of the moment he has chosen to depict. In a portrait it is always a risk to select an attitude or expression which can only be momentary : the result here is a triumph. The perfect calm of the figure, just swayed from the perpendicular, communicates itself to the spectator, and we wait for the flight of the arrow, already drawn to the tip, with no sense of the irritation such pictorial representations are apt to provoke. Clad in the picturesque costume then worn by the Royal Body Guard, Spens—seen full face—is set against the painter’s conventional landscape with, for this special occasion, the national symbol, erect and prickly, in the foreground. The composition is admirably balanced by the not too obvious diagonal line of the tree stem.

Examined more closely, the picture is found to include, alike in arrangement and execution, all, and more than all, of the best we have seen in the works already passed under review. The main light—the white expanse of waistcoat and breeches—is no longer surrounded with dark umbers and strong contrasts of local colour, but is carried upwards through cross belts and silver trappings to the sun-tanned face and gloved hands which form the secondary lights, whilst the neutral tones of the tartan carry the eye through russet foliage to the sky and distance. The face, low toned by comparison and ruddy cheeked, is modelled with a skill and precision which summarise the gathered knowledge of fifteen years. In this masterly study of a countenance, fixed for the moment in all its lineaments, nothing is omitted, nothing overstated. The firmly compressed lips and wide open eyes intent on the forthcoming arrow flight, betoken the marksman’s nerve and the centre of the gold. A film of shade from the bow-string crosses the cheek, the crisp shadow under the tightly-drawn cap gives keenness to the glance, whilst the reticent modelling of cheek and chin unite the more vividly marked features with the silver grey of the hair. The very adjuncts of bow and arrow, in their unswerving certainty of line and absolute rightness of curve, add to the impression produced by this great creation.

Some critics, Sir Walter Armstrong and Mr. Pinnington amongst the number, place the Sir John Sinclair on a still higher level, and it may be conceded that the four or five years which separate the two works have added power to the elbow of the painter. “ By dint of consummate skill, admirable technique, and sheer audacity,” to quote the last-named author, he has successfully grappled with the difficulties of a costume which verges on the ridiculous. The attribute of “ good taste ” omitted from the quotation, is more doubtful. Speaking from recollection of the picture as it appeared at the Glasgow International of 1901, the riot of colours, and the incongruity of the elements of which the dress is made up—an inconceivable combination of Highland chief and regimental officer— bulk too large in the sum total of the impression produced. Like The Mactiab, of which Lawrence is reported to have said that it was the best representation of a human being he had ever seen, it is a marvellous tour de force, but the something of reticence is wanting which gives dignity to the Spens. Long years have yet to elapse ere Raeburn gives us in Glengarry a consummate presentment of the ideal Highland chief.

For the next twelve or fourteen years one can trace through numerous portraits, both male and female, the artist’s gradually maturing powers. The thin, somewhat starved pigment, and whitish or hectic tones of the Mrs. Newbigging and Mrs. Campbell of BaUiemore, are replaced by a more generous material, a fuller blooded flesh and a greater breadth of shadow. The brushing becomes more fused, and in such works as Mrs. John Hope and Mrs. Cruikshanks f better expresses the modelling both of face and figure, carrying with it something of the mystery with which nature veils her transitions. The latter portrait has a piquancy of character which is quite delightful. The same general trend is visible in his male portraiture from that of his son Harry on the gray pony, of 1796, to the Hr. Alexander Adam of 1808, to name two masterpieces of the respective dates. In the former J he returns to the effect of light he had experimented with some halfdozen years earlier in the William Ferguson of Kilrie, but In the possession of Sir Henry Cook, with vastly increased knowledge. He has gone a long way beyond the IJaith picture in this masterly study of broad shadow and reflected light. The full length of Rollcmd of Gash in the National Gallery of Scotland, Lord Chief Baron Montgomery at Kinross House, and the equestrian portrait of Professor Wilson in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, of the years from 1800 to 1805, lead on to the Dr. Alexander Adam, which may be said to stand on the threshold of the artist’s greatest period. In this simple and charming presentment of the Scottish Arnold, as he has been called, we have, perhaps, the finest example of Raeburn’s power of generalising. In face and figure alike everything has been analysed, and with masterly synthesis placed on the canvas.The kindly nature and the teacher’s gift are at once conveyed to us in expression and gesture, rendered by the simplest arrangement and technique. The dress is dark throughout, and the formality of the buttoned coat is relieved only by the loose folds of the academic gown; the left hand holds a small volume closed over the forefinger, the right being outstretched, palm downwards, as if expounding some passage from the classics. The whole is relieved against a finely gradated olive background. There is neither strong contrast of lighting nor bravura of handling; all is broad, simple, and appropriate. The finely lit, full complexioned face, accented by a touch of pure white in the neckcloth, tells for the most part as a warmer against a cooler light, and is united with the strongly illumined hands by the sheeny surfaces of silk and broadcloth.

Raeburn was now approaching the zenith of his powers, and the great studio he had had constructed in York Place was thronged with sitters representing the rank, the beauty, and the talent of Scotland, with occasionally a stray client from the south. During these later years we have glimpses of the painter and of his family life, of his hobbies and amusements, all tending to raise him in our estimation ; but of his art life, alas ! there is no record, and the sequence of his works, when not revealed by some side light, has to be guessed at by the internal evidence of style. Were his leading pictures gathered together in some great gallery for a few weeks, it might not be very difficult to determine their dates approximately, for seldom has an artist’s technique shown a growth so gradual and uninterrupted. But, scattered as they are over the length and breadth of Scotland, and seen under varying conditions of light and surroundings, it is impossible to do even this much ; and in a carefully compiled catalogue of works, which has been drawn up by Mr. Caw, of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, only a hundred and fifty out of seven hundred and one enumerated have a date annexed. So that one has to be content, in most instances, to speak of periods rather than of years. From the painting of Dr. Adam, there yet remained to Raeburn some fifteen years, which one may well call “crowded years of glorious life” to change slightly Scott’s well-known line, for the bulk of his greater achievements belong to this later period. In a work not dealing specially with Raeburn, one can only select some of the more outstanding, and so follow a development which, in his case, continued almost to the end. In Dr. Alexander Adam and Lord Newton of the Scottish National Gallery —which may have been almost contemporary—he has reached his zenith so far as grasp of character is concerned. In the latter—widely known through Turner s mezzotint —Raeburn has immortalised for us a typical senator of the Scottish College of Justice, as portrayed in sundry memorials of the period. But all written descriptions pale before this triumph of the brush which keeps the man in his bodily presence before us after the lapse of nearly a century. The painting is as concise and summary as that of Dr- Adam, and has an added virility which suits the subject. The coarse features, the flabby flesh, and the small peering eyes, which earned for him the name of “the Sleepy Judge,” are delineated with a minimum of brushstrokes ; and if in the broader planes of cheek, brow, and chin there is a hint of the careful fusion which came later, the painter has compensated himself by such a bravura of handling in the reds of the official robe as at once sobers the vivacity of the modelling and the full-blooded complexion. But, in common with Dr. Adam and other works of this date, there is here a rather unpleasant juxtaposition of the yellows and reds of the flesh. Neither are of a very fine quality. It looks as if, in getting rid of the slaty grays of his first period, he had gone too far, and eliminated them altogether. It is accordingly in the gradual acquisition of those transition tones which give bloom and subtlety to the countenance, and in the enrichment of his scheme of chiaroscuro that Raeburn’s future development consists. If, in the former direction he never quite reaches the standard of the great colourists, he goes far beyond his earlier practice, whilst in his adaptations of the latter, and in much that pertains to the incidence of light, he sometimes anticipates qualities that are considered quite modem, as did Velasquez in a more consistent way nearly two hundred years earlier. In the Scottish painter this is best seen where he discards the conventional landscape background, and paints his subject with the environment in which he posed to him.

No better instance of what is meant can be given than the full-length portrait of Colonel Alastair Macdonell of Glengarry in the Scottish National Gallery, and, for the purpose, it has this additional advantage that in its present position it has as pendant another masterly full-length, painted probably a year or two later—Major William Clunes. Macdonell, said to be the prototype of the Fergus Mclvor of Waverley, stands as he might have posed to the artist in his own hall, with an arrangement of target and crossed broadswords and other Highland trophies on the wall behind. Major Clunes, as fine a specimen of the British officer as Macdonell is of the Highland chief, is depicted with his charger, against the conventional background of sombre trees and cloudy sky. As regards technique, both pictures take rank with Raeburn’s greatest achievements; the Clunes is more of a tour de force. The vivacity with which the fine head, in full light, the brilliant scarlet of the uniform, the trappings and military accoutrements of man and horse are brushed in, the daring juxtaposition of contrasted tones and colours in the central passage of the picture, and the skill with which these are carried off in the glossy hide of the restive bay horse, and the sombre but resonant hues of sky and foliage, make this picture a treat to all who can appreciate the alchemy of the brush. We accept it, as we accept the great bulk of the portraiture of the time, as an arrangement in which a studio-lit figure is set against a landscape which has little in common with what sky and woodland present to our modem eyes. Most of the great masterpieces of the past have been so composed. A portrait by Vandyck, a figure picture by Titian, or even a landscape by Gainsborough, takes little account of an element in nature which has come to bulk more and more largely in recent times—that element of atmosphere which the late R. A. M. Stevenson has somewhere called the “ third dimension.” Atmosphere, in this sense, signifies the ether which enfolds the nearest as well as the farthest off objects, which comes between the portrait-painter and his sitter, as between the landscapist and the distant range of mountains. In the Parisian studios of to-day, the theory of tones or values which arises out of the recognition of this all-pervading element, has been reduced to a system, so that the merest tyro gets, with the accurate arrangement of a few tones, a coherence in his work unknown to many accomplished masters of the past. It is a powerful auxiliary, and it has been largely responsible for recent changes in technique, but, like everything else in the field of art which can be reduced to a system, its dangers are almost as great as its advantages. A few there were, however, to whom the values and the tonalities, to use the studio terms, came not as a cut and dry system, but by reason of a native insight, and just because of this, that aspect of their work is never obtrusive. Velasquez is the great example of this prevision of the modem way of seeing; it is found also in the little Dutch masters, Terburg, de Hooch, Vermeer, and others, and one recognises something akin to it, after a century and a half, in Raeburn. Both Mr. Stevenson and Sir Walter Armstrong have laid stress on the likeness of the Scotsman’s methods to those taught in the studio of Carolus Duran in the painting of a head; and the analogy is only less applicable to his treatment of the ensemble, because of the artificial arrangements he so often adopted in obedience to custom, and against his own better judgment as he somewhere tells us. The Glengarry, as the most notable example known to the writer of that simpler treatment which allows free play to the artist’s recognition of “ the third dimension,” deserves special attention.

It would be interesting to know, were there any means of getting at the facts, whether this portrait was painted under the usual conditions in the artist’s studio. A comparison with the run of his work leads one to doubt it, for some of his mannerisms are absent, notably those which arise from the constant use of a very high light. Here the fall of the shadows indicates a side light. This, taken in connection with the nature of the background, suggests that it may have been painted in the chieftain's own hall, or in some similar place easier of access. Such conditions would be ideal to one of Raeburn’s instincts, and to some such circumstances may be owing the qualities which differentiate this portrait from the bulk of his work. The Glengarry was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812, and would in all likelihood be painted shortly before that date. It is thus a product of that phase of the artist’s work when he had added to his square touch the fusion of surface which preceded the “smear with the blurred edge” of his latest stage. The subject was inspiring; Macdonell was, one may say, the last representative of his order, and the artist has risen to the occasion. The Colonel is attired as chief of his clan, and this dress, with all its elaborate appointments, he wears with a simple dignity very unlike The Macnab, or Sinclair of Ulbster; partly, no doubt, because it was his habitual garb, but mostly because of the masterly treatment adopted by the artist. For Raeburn knows now the significance of Reynolds’s reply to the question how he overcame the difficulties of modem costume—“ Have not all these light and shadow?" He has placed the athletic Highlander, of the fair blue-eyed type, at such an angle that his "tartan array” with its disconcerting accoutrements of sword, dirk, and philabeg are to a great extent swallowed up in broad shadow. Grasping a matchlock by the muzzle with extended right hand, he turns, with somewhat haughty mien, to face the light, which comes from a direction quite unusual in Raeburn’s later practice, just such as an ordinary window would give. That its source is close can be seen from the strong shadows, and its level incidence gives him the opportunity of painting the eyes in full light. In his usual practice, the eyebrows, the lids, and the overlapping flesh at the outer angles, cast strong and decisive shadows, often to the extent of giving a lack-lustre appearance to the eyes themselves. Here all is different, and, to the writer at least, there is nothing finer in the master’s achievement than the play of light across the steel blue eyes of this gallant chieftain. Only half-tones are used, but they are used with consummate knowledge and intimacy of observation. The painting of the eyes has been mentioned, because it presents the most obvious contrast to the artist’s usual treatment; but the picture is all of a piece, the same level light floods the fair complexion, making all horizontal markings more delicate, and the gradations of rounded cheek and chin more subtle; its impalpable influence harmonises the red and yellow elements of the flesh, which in Lord Newton and Dr. Adam lack these finer transitions. The warmth of the ear, the yellow hair, and the downy whisker are rather felt than realised, the shadow of the nose only comes strong and trenchant in this arrangement of sanguine hues, and softly modulated half-tones. The warm light of the face is repeated on the right hand and bare knee, and these primary and secondary lights are united by the glint of various adornments, and the lighter surfaces of waistcoat and philabeg. The pose is dignified, the inclosing line of the plaid, and the breadth of light and shade, imparting simplicity to a costume not easily amenable to artistic treatment. The drawing is everywhere firm and accurate— mark the decisive contour of the extended right arm— whilst in regard to chiaroscuro it has few equals in modern portraiture. The chieftain is set against a background, one should rather say in an environment, of tones, luminous above aud sombre below. His shadow falls on the wall behind, the bareness of which is relieved by a flat pilaster, and trophies of hunting horn, targe, and broadswords.

The distinguishing feature of the picture is the justness of its tonality. Compared with the surrounding portraits— and they are no mean rivals—it seems positively to swim in a bath of atmosphere. Glengarry keeps well within his frame; nor is this effected by depressing the tones—the picture is luminous beyond most—but by the rightness of the relations. Nowhere is salience sought for by forcing, an expedient which only defeats its own end. After studying this portrait for a while, let any one turn to Gainsborough’s Mrs. Graham opposite, and the difference will at once be felt. Both are masterpieces, but the Scottish painter has realised the elements of atmosphere and incidence of light in a way the other has never dreamt of. Mark how the luminous flesh comes against the background in either picture. One can feel round Glengarry's cheek to the atmosphere beyond; not so in the other case, where a somewhat forced dark follows the contour. This does not imply that Raeburn’s picture is the greater, only that it has that quality of “keeping” which the other wants. Observe how the point of the sword sheath, seen behind the chieftain’s knee, detaches itself from the background, though the difference in tone is almost impalpable. What a temptation to relieve it by some glint of light; but no, like everything else here, it keeps its place by virtue of a justness of values that no modem could better.

This portrait has been dwelt on at length, on its merits certainly, but also because it has been so strangely overlooked by recent writers on Raeburn. Mr. Pinnington makes no allusion to it, and Sir Walter Armstrong only to contrast it with The Macnab and the “amazing” Sinclair. There may not be such palpable feats of brushwork as characterise the painting of those earlier portraits, but surely there is a strength in its reticence which goes beyond either. One can only suggest as a reason for the neglect of this unique page of Raeburn’s career, its having been for years relegated to the portrait line in the Scottish National Gallery. Happily it is now restored to the line.

Shortly after the exhibition of Glengarry Raeburn was elected Associate, and in 1815 to the full membership of the Royal Academy. The honour came unsolicited, and the likelihood is that Colonel Alastair’s portrait had not a little to do with the election. One can hardly conceive of a body of artists overlooking the claims of such a work.

The explanation suggested by more than one writer, that Raeburn’s talent was only recognised after the Academicians had satisfied themselves that he had no intention of settling in London, can hardly be seriously entertained.

The ten years of active life remaining to the artist were signalised by many notable triumphs. Whether or not his visit to London in 1810, and the fuller opportunity thus afforded of seeing the productions of the masters of contemporary English portraiture, had much influence on the Scottish painter’s subsequent work is a matter of minor importance. From none of them had he much to learn ; but, naturally, he would see also some of the works of their two great predecessors, and the gradual enrichment of his impasto, and the increased suavity of his touch, has more in it of Reynolds’s “creamy” consistency of pigment than of either Hoppner or Lawrence. Numerous instances might be dwelt on, but so far as male portraiture is concerned, it is sufficient to mention the James Wardrop of Torbanehill, the John Wauchope, and the halflength of himself in the Scottish National Gallery, his Diploma picture—the Boy and Rabbit, of date 1821— the equestrian portraits of Sir David Baird, Lord, Hope-toun, and the Marquis of Tweeddale, the Robert Ferguson of Raith and the bust portrait of Sir Walter Scott. The two latter are amongst the last of the painter’s works. In the first mentioned, which must also belong tp his last lustre, this grand old man, who lived to see his hundredth year, must have been well up in the eighties when the portrait was painted. The treatment is exceedingly simple. The massive, square-built face, worn with age, and sunken in the lines about the mouth, is seen at the three-quarter angle and under the usual studio conditions.

This incidence of the light fuses into one mass the expanse of brow and the scanty silver hair, and spreads a lesser illumination on the finely modelled surfaces of cheek and chin. The eyes, which droop at the outer angle, are deep set, and tell dark by reason of their treatment rather than from their local colour. Their shadowed orbs are the most strongly accented of the features, and their decisive markings are echoed in the modelling of the lower parts of the face. A close-buttoned coat of dark material is relieved by the brilliant white of the neckcloth, and the whole is set against the simple background which the painter more and more affected towards the end. In technique there is little trace of the bravura he uses with such effect in some portraits not far removed from it in point of time. Unlike most Raeburns, it shows signs of repeated workings ; it is also pitched in a lower key, Rembrandtish and golden. His own portrait, 1815, is one of his most brilliant, giving us the man as described by a sitter when, hand on chin, he contemplated his subject before putting brush to canvas. In the Wauchope the flesh is rather unpleasant, both in tone and quality, and here, as in other examples which might be named, the fuller impasto and more complete fusion seem to be accompanied with a loss of some of the artist’s finer characteristics. The smear with the blurred edge does not always suit his genius.

There remains to be considered the female portraiture of these later years. Some have maintained that Raeburn was par excellence a painter of men, and certainly his robust style seems to qualify him better for dealing with the sterner sex. But when one comes to review his work there seems little ground for the assertion. It is true a collection of Raeburn’s portraits of women would not present such a succession of visions of loveliness as would those of Reynolds or Gainsborough. On this point, Sir Walter Armstrong remarks that pretty faces were not so common north of the Tweed as in England. This is an explanation which no Scotsman will accept, especially in view of the fact that Gainsborough’s Mrs. Graham “la plus seduisante de toutes les ladies Anglaise, apres Miss Nelly O’Brien,” was a Cathcart, and Sir Joshua’s Graces decorating a Figure of Hymen were Montgomeries. A more likely explanation is suggested by Mr. Pinnington in his interesting chapter on Raeburn as a painter of women, one which must have occurred to most who have given any attention to the subject, viz., that the English masters conform their sitters, especially their female sitters, to a type. Their women have not sufficient individuality to convince one of the likeness. Apart from this internal evidence, it is well known that Reynolds’s portraits, at all events, were far from giving satisfaction, even when folks were less fastidious about likeness than in these later photographic times. There is the story of the painter turning his deaf ear to the old lady who bluntly asserted that one of his portraits wasn’t like ; and Wilkie quotes Hoppner to the effect that “he wondered how Reynolds could send home some of his portraits: they were absolutely unlike.” This aspect of English eighteenth century portraiture has led the Hon. Mr. Collier to ask if none of their innumerable female sitters were broad-shouldered, if none of them had big, firm mouths and square jaws. A quite unnecessary question in the case of the Scottish painter. But one who has given us Mrs. Houston of Clerkhngton, Lady Steua/rt of Colt/ness, Mrs. John Hope, Mrs. Scott Moncrieff, Lady Montgomery, the golden-haired Mrs. Campbell of Hall-yards, and the Misses Suttie can hardly be charged with failure in the delineation of beauty.

The Mrs. Hamilton of the Scottish National Gallery, and the Lady Montgomery at Kinross House, are typical full-lengths of about the year 1810. The former, as it is now placed, has to compete with the charms of Gainsborough’s masterpiece. This juxtaposition shows how the painters of the early nineteenth century were handicapped in regard to costume, compared with those a generation earlier. This low-cut, short-waisted dress, with its plain length of skirt, makes a poor show beside the rococo adornments of looped satin and quilted petticoat which the English painter has rendered so superbly. Mrs. Hamilton has no pretension to beauty ; but with all these disadvantages she stands the test bravely; and if, as a harmonious arrangement of line and colour, the palm must be awarded to her fascinating rival, there is a virility in the flesh painting of the other which contrasts not unfavourably with the somewhat waxen hues in the face and hands of Mrs. Graham. The Lady Montgomery, on the other hand, shows that no change of fashion can hide the charms of a pretty face and a graceful figure. In this case, Raeburn has placed his sitter almost in profile. Standing on a flight of low steps the lady leans an elbow on the terrace wall behind, and turns her dark eyes on us with a pleasant smile. The arrangement, both of line and colour, is happier than in the Mrs. Hamilton, and there is a more elegant distribution of light and shade. The pose is graceful and the expression sprightly, added to which it has all the technical qualities of the master, now nearing the meridian of (his powers. The flesh, full and pulpy, goes well with the creamy tones of the dress, which contrast favourably with the slaty colour Raeburn sometimes uses in his white draperies. The half-length of Mrs. James Campbell is, as regards handling, the feminine analogue of Lord Newton. Judged by its style, it may have been painted a year or two later. Here Raeburn has placed on the canvas one of those old ladies, survivals of an earlier generation, of whom one reads in countless memoirs, and who seem almost as historic as their male compeers. The strong mobile features, alert and instinct with genial character, are rendered with a gusto which Hals himself has never excelled. It may be called the high-water-mark of the artist’s accomplishment in that direction. Like many of the works of the Dutch artist, it has been painted in a white heat, almost in a fury, one would say. The scheme is simple ; the face inclosed by the white breadths of cap and kerchief, and a red shawl folded about the arms and hands, are the elements of the picture. The background is dark, everything being sacrificed to concentration of effect. But it is questionable if here, as in some other instances, the painter has not overshot the mark, and whether the picture would not have gained by the introduction of something in the nature of a secondary light, such as a skilful treatment of the hands might have supplied. The glint of light on the broidered edges of the shawl seems barely adequate for the purpose.

But in female portraiture it is to the portrayal of the softer charms of youth and earlier middle-age one instinctively turns, and, happily, there are many examples of Raeburn’s excellence in this direction also. They are not all beauties, nor does he seek to prettify those to whom nature has denied the gift'. But what a fine presentment of the average well-favoured womanhood of our country he has left us in such portraits as Mrs. Cruikshanks, Mrs. George Kinnear, Mrs. McCall, and many others. The first-named lady inclines to stoutness, but with what a delightfully piquant expression she regards us, as she leans back in her arm-chair. Though comparatively young, her face is as full of character as that of Mrs. James Campbell herself; she may develop into just such an old lady. The Mrs. George Kinnear is one of the artist’s triumphs. With black lace shawl drawn about her shoulders, and seated in a garden-chair, this buxom matron leans back in a setting of sombre foliage, and with a slight turn of the supple neck, looks, not at, but to the right of the spectator. Her clustered locks are of a golden brown, the eyes deep hazel. The flesh, wrought with the suavity of touch and unity of surface of his happiest moments, is remarkable for the quality of its greys, whilst, as regards dainty modelling of the features, this example yields to none. The crossed arms are strangely low-toned—to the extent, indeed, of forming an enigma in the composition. This notwithstanding, its rare combination of qualities entitles it to a high place amongst the artist’s achievements.

The Mrs. Scott Moncrieff, which bears the impress of a still later date, is too well known to require description. It has the simple background of his latest phase, whilst the soft glow and creamy surface of the pigment approximate it to the ideal embodied in Gandy’s words to Reynolds. These qualities are shared by the Mrs. McCall and by the seated three-quarter length of Mrs. Campbell of Hallyards, which seems to be of about the same date. The latter is pitched in a mellow key, somewhat lighter than the others. There is less shadow than usual, and this treatment suits well the type of the sitter, a blue-eyed blonde. The beautiful face, which has all the charm associated with the complexion, is set against a background of warm tones and these harmonise finely with the fair flesh and clustered curls of one of the most lovely of Raeburn’s creations.

In considering the Scottish painter’s place in art, one or two things must be kept in mind. First, he was of the comparatively few very capable men who have devoted themselves entirely to portraiture. The great Venetians, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Vandyck, to name only a few amongst the earlier schools, exercised their talent in various directions. The same holds good in more recent times. Reynolds and Gainsborough in the eighteenth, Millais and Watts in the nineteenth century, are instances. This versatility undoubtedly marks the highest order of genius; it seems as if the imaginative faculty, exploring every outlet, gathered strength from the scope of its activities. This highest rank can hardly be claimed for Raeburn; he belongs rather to the more restricted order of Moro, Moroni, and Hals. Again, he differs from the great portraitists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in that he is not the outcome of a long line of able predecessors. Such forerunners as he had in his own country had, one may say, no influence on him. He was the founder, as well as the greatest exponent of his school, and this must count in weighing his genius with that of others. The distinction is to some extent shared by the two great English painters who preceded him by a generation; though, in their case, the English practice of Vandyck and his followers, Lely and Kneller, supplied more of a pedigree than did Aikman, Medina, and Ramsay to Raeburn. Nevertheless, it is with Reynolds and Gainsborough that we naturally compare him.

In thinking of their respective work as a whole, it cannot be denied that there is an element of the bald and prosaic in Raeburn compared with the English masters. The infinite tenderness of Sir Joshua’s Heads of Angels and Penelope Boothby; the consummate grace of some of Gainsborough’s masterpieces, one looks for in vain. On the technical side, also, one misses the charm that comes from a variety and complexity of brushwork and handling which was hardly compatible with the Scotsman’s direct methods, and this, as has been remarked, is emphasised by the severe simplicity of the costume with which he had to deal. Is it fanciful to think that the difference has something akin to the differences of the countries, and that each suits its environment? Students of Les Maitres cFAutrefois will recall how its accomplished author, comparing a Veronese with a Rubens in the Brussels Gallery, comes to the conclusion that the Venetian master looks best in Venice and the Fleming in the Low Countries. In like manner, one can hardly fancy Raeburn’s clientele treated by either of the English masters without the loss of something characteristic of their country. For if his direct painting lacks the fascination of the more complex processes, as a vehicle for the seizure of character it is infinitely superior, enabling the painter to embody at once the impressions which are apt to evaporate in the more dilatory methods. Where character counted for so much as amongst Raeburn’s sitters, it is difficult to overrate this advantage. It is due also to his simpler methods that, where ordinary care has been taken, with few exceptions, the Scottish master’s works are in such excellent condition ; and it would have been well for his successors if they had paid more heed to his practice in this respect. Comparing the technique of a picture like Glengarry with some manifestations of more recent painting, one is surprised at its fineness and evenness of surface. Nowadays many seem to model in pigment rather than to paint; one can recall instances where, even on canvases of very small dimensions, the depth of paint can be measured by the half-inch. How different id this great full length. Raebum did not use the transparent shadows of Wilkie and his fellowers; but his material, taken all over, is hardly thicker. Here, as in his work generally, the darker surfaces are composed of underlying Umbers with superimposed brushings of no great weight in the figure, and scumbles of lesser consistency in the more vague spaces of the background. And even in the lights the impasto is moderate, nowhere is there any loading in the modern sense of the word ; and it cannot be doubted that to this simplicity of method the fine preservation of the picture is, to a great extent, due. There is hardly a flaw on the surface of Glengarry, and the same may be said of its neighbours Dr. Adam, Major Clunes, and Mrs. Hamilton. Well may the author quoted above ask whence modem painters have derived their liking for a heavy impasto and clotted surfaces. It is, indeed, difficult to see what purpose is served by such overloading.

Raeburn can hardly be called a colourist in the highest sense of the word, for it is neither by the charm of their colour-schemes, nor by the quality of the colour itself, that his works primarily attract us. In regard to the latter he does not always very finely observe a rule to which all the great colourists conform, viz., that colour should undergo all the changes of light and shade without losing any of its constituent qualities, so that the lights and darks may be, as has been said, “of one family.” In his draperies and accessories, and even in the darker shadows of the flesh, he seems sometimes to lose touch with the local colour. But, taken as a whole, his finer works hold their own alongside even the greatest colourists, for, in lieu of the full charm of colour arrangement, and the subtle qualities of more complex processes, his pigment has the freshness and vivacity of direct application. There is none of the deadness and opacity of a material fumbled and overwrought.

But that which gives the distinctive note to his work, when compared with that of contemporary and immediately preceding English masters, is its modernity, and this, as has been hinted, comes largely from that prevision of the “ third dimension ”—to use again Mr. Stevenson’s term—which he shares with Velasquez and one or two other seventeenth century artists. It would be interesting to have some of Raeburn’s simpler and stronger pictures, where this quality is best seen, placed alongside of corresponding works by either of his southern rivals. In some directions, already indicated, the Scotsman would suffer; but it is not unlikely that his recognition of the element of atmosphere would impart to the others a something of the unsubstantial, flimsy, or unreal; as when one opposes a Rubens to a Velasquez, or compares some modern genre painters with Terburg. Such, at least, is the inference to be drawn from the comparison already made of typical examples in the Scottish National Gallery.* And is it not this, rather than any similarity of touch, which gives the kinship with the Spanish painter so emphatically claimed for him in Wilkie’s letters from Madrid?

Some have regretted that Raeburn elected to remain in Scotland, where he lacked the stimulus of competition. It is always a vain thing to dwell on the “ might have been ”; but if one may indulge such fancies, it is surely more to be regretted that, through the mannerisms of his almost constant use of one scheme of lighting, and his subservience to custom in the matter of arranged backgrounds, the modem note in his work is obscured. The Glengarry is an example of what he could accomplish when freed from these self-imposed trammels. One thing is tolerably certain, his removal to London would have seriously hindered the development of art in Scotland ; indeed, there might have been no “ Scottish School of Painting ” to write about, and that could hardly have been for the ultimate advantage even of British art. For over-centralisation, rather than its opposite, is the danger to which art is exposed in these later times, and it is owing not a little to the example of Sir Henry that Scotland, whilst sending many of its best painters to work in the wider field, has always been able to retain within its borders a strong and virile school of painting to develop on its own lines, in a way that would have beep impossible had all its abler artists gone south. At date of his death—1823—there was already in thp Scottish capital a school of portraiture, founded on his practice, for its exponents had the something in ^common implied in the term, and that something they owed to the stimulating art of Raeburn.

Note A.

PORTRAIT OF COLONEL MACDONELL OF GLENGARRY.

In the context the opinion is expressed that this portrait was not painted in Raeburn’s studio, but at Invergarry, or some more easily accessible mansion-house, where such conditions of lighting as are seen in the picture could be had. Its contrast in this respect to Raebum s normal portraiture of that period was first pointed out to me by a brother artist; and, as certain inferences are drawn from these differences, I have endeavoured to ascertain, by communication with the owner of the picture, what likelihood there was for the conjecture. In reply to my query, Mr. J. Cunninghame, of Balgownie, wrote me, August 15, 1904: “ I believe it was done in the Chief’s own house. I have looked through the family papers, &c., but can find no record of the picture being painted. I am, however, almost certain that my grand-aunt, Miss Louisa Macdonell of Glengarry, told me that the Raebum portrait of my great-grandfather, Glengarry, was painted by Raebum in the Chiefs own house. I am the more certain of this, because the shield which is hanging on the wall in the background is amongst the other Glengarry guns, arms, &c., which are in my possession.” This letter was followed by one of date August 26, in wlpch Mr. Cuninghame writes: “ From the inquiries I h^Y£ naftde of relations, I am quite convinced fhat the painting Was done at the Chief’s own house.”

Some doubts which arose as to the date of the portrait have also, I think, been cleared up by Mr. Cuninghame. As it was exhibited in London in 1812—it was No. 1 in the Royal Academy Catalogue of that year—the inference was that it was painted shortly before that date, and I have considered it as a product of that time. But in the Catalogue of the Raebum Exhibition of 1876 it is stated to have been painted about 1800. On this coming to my knowledge 1 endeavoured to find out the date of Glengarry’s birth, by which means, and judging by the apparent age of the chieftain in the portrait, an approximate finding might be arrived at. But, though one or two authorities give the date of Glengarry’s death—he was drowned at the wreck of the Stirling Castle in 1828—neither his age nor the year of his birth is mentioned. As, however, Mr. Cuninghame informs me that his great-grandfather was born on September 15, 1774, and as the portrait represents a man at least some years over thirty, there is little doubt that the picture was painted not very long before it was exhibited. In his letter Mr. Cuninghame quotes a relative whom he had consulted on the matter: “ I do not think it possible that the Raebum portrait could have been painted in 1800, when Glengarry was twenty-six; it represents a much older man than Angelica Kauffmann’s ’’; and he adds : “ This latter portrait is in my possession, and my mother used to tell me that Kauffmann’s portrait was Glengarry as a young man and Raeburn’s as an old man.”

Of course, Glengarry would be only in his thirty-eighth year, assuming the portrait to have been painted in the spring of 1812; but the very fact that it was contrasted with the other in this way, and the initial unlikelihood of Raeburn having sent to the Royal Academy a picture a dozen years old, seems effectually to dispose of the date given in the 1876 Catalogue.

Note B.

RAEBURN’S GLENGARRY AND GAINSBOROUGH’S MRS. GRAHAM.

Concerning the qualities attributed to the Raeburn, in the comparison made between these two pictures, a passage in Vdron’s “^Esthetics” may be cited: “Although this question of enveloppe (or ‘keeping’) obtains so little consideration from the public, we should not on that account conclude that they are insensible to its existence. Among the more or less conscious sensations which combine to form their opinions, it is a latent, but an efficacious factor. It attracts by a secret charm, which analysis might refer indeed to other and even absurd causes, but which is not the less real on that account.


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast