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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter VI. Art Training and Exhibitions in Edinburgh


The nineteenth century was not far on its way before a Scottish School of Painting had become a reality. To this two causes had mainly contributed—the new life and character infused into portraiture by Raeburn, and Wilkie’s genius and phenomenal success in London. But a third must not be overlooked—the teaching of John Graham at the Trustees’ Academy. To the no small detriment of his own practice this able artist devoted the forenoons and evenings to his scholastic duties, and, like Robert Lauder half a century later, in addition to the power of inspiring enthusiasm, he seems to have had the faculty of so directing the talents of his students as to conserve the individuality of each. During his nineteen years tenure of the mastership he counted among his pupils David Wilkie, William Allan, John Watson Gordon, John Burnet, and the elder Fraser.

The genius and ever increasing fame of the first-mentioned and greatest of Graham’s pupils, was the most conspicuous factor in the formation of the Scottish school, but northern art was no less indebted to Raeburn for the sobriety and virility he had imparted to portraiture. Such a combination of influences led to a great increase in the number devoting themselves to painting as a profession, and also to a quickening of public interest in art matters. This was further stimulated by the formation in 1808 of the Society of Incorporated Artists, which held exhibitions for six successive years with an amount of financial success which proved their undoing, for in 1813, when over £1800 had been realised, a resolution to divide the money was moved and carried, in spite of the efforts of some of the ablest members, including George Watson, Alex. Nasmyth, and Henry Raeburn. The annual exhibitions were continued until 1816 in the large gallery of Raeburn’s house in York Place.

The resolution referred to was a misfortune for Scottish art, but the six exhibitions of the society had demonstrated the existence of a native school, and the amount of interest taken in it by the Scottish public. “The Exhibition” had become a feature of the Edinburgh year, and could not long be done without. In biographies and memoirs of the period it is frequently mentioned. Scott drops in on his way from the 00014. Pet Marjorie hears it talked of amongst her west-end and suburban relatives, and more than once her precocious journal couples her desire to see a play with a longing to visit “the Exhibition.” Clearly some such show was a necessity, and it was only the expected that happened when, three years later, a more ambitious scheme was inaugurated by the formation of the “Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland.” Modelled on the lines of the British Institution, which had been formed in London some years previously, its purpose was to disseminate a taste for the Fine Arts by holding exhibitions of select works, mostly by the Old Masters. In a country like England, rich in examples of all European schools, this was an admirable adjunct to the exhibitions devoted to the furtherance of contemporary art. For a long series of years the southern association continued to draw from a supply which was practically inexhaustible. But north of the Tweed things were far different. Collections were few, and exhibitions of modern pictures had to be resorted to. Thus the Institution had in it from the beginning the seeds of dissolution, partly owing to this scarcity of material, but more immediately from its relations with the resident artists. These to the number of twelve had been admitted to the rank of associate membership, but they were excluded from any share in the management.

In 1826, after much discontent and misunderstanding, the more enterprising of the artists established an Academy on the model of the Royal Academy of London. As a majority of the professionals still adhered to the Institution rival exhibitions were held for some time, and the infant society had to face a combination of influences which threatened to stifle its existence before it had well got under way. The nobility and gentry at all interested in Art were with its rivals, its membership was only fifteen, and its application for a charter of incorporation was not only denied, but that favour was conferred on the Institution. It speaks volumes for the courage and wisdom of the founders of the Scottish Academy that, under such circumstances, they not only persevered, but in the course of a very few years, completely drove their opponents from the field. The artists who had held by the Institution, failing to find satisfaction there, in the course of a year or two came over to the victors.

It is beyond the scope of the present work to discuss the vexed question of the effect of academies on the Fine Arts, but, from the day it received into its ranks those additional twenty-four artists, many of whom had belonged to a rival body, the Scottish Academy may be said to have fairly well represented the resident art talent of Scotland; and from the time its associated artists parted company with it, the Institution, in spite of its newly obtained charter which added the word “Royal" to its title, became a moribund society. But nothing could better attest the wide-spread interest which was beginning to be felt in the Fine Arts north of the Tweed than the rise of these two bodies. That there should have been in the Scotland of 1826 a hundred and thirty-one noblemen and gentlemen who had subscribed £50 each for the privilege of becoming patrons of art, is a fact well worth the consideration of their successors, who, with greatly increased wealth, seem more inclined to disperse than to form collections. Though rendered nugatory by the want of tact of its managing directors, the aim of the Institution was a noble and enlightened one. It rendered yeoman service to the cause of Art in Scotland by its exhibitions, by its purchase of notable pictures which still enrich our National Gallery, and, above all, by the example given to the Scottish public by those who were then regarded as the natural leaders in matters of taste, thus in great measure insuring the success of the body which may be said to have risen from its ashes.

Turning to the professional combination, we have even more remarkable evidence of the growth of the Fine Arts. It is hard to realise that a country, which a generation before could find employment for only one or two portrait-painters, should be able to show such a muster-roll as the membership of the young Academy discloses. For they were no men of straw, these forty-two. Amongst them there is a remarkably large proportion of men of talent in various directions. The painters include the three Watsons, Colvin Smith, Graham Gilbert, Francis Grant, and Macnee representing protraiture; Allan, Harvey, Scott Lauder, Duncan, and Scott in the various departments of figure-painting; Ewbank, Crawford, and Hill, landscapists; and William Simson, who worked with success in all three directions. Nicholson and H. W. Williams—the latter, who was in sympathy with the movement, died before the amalgamation was carried through—were water-colourists of repute long before that branch of art had taken much hold in Scotland. Samuel Joseph, John Stevens, and John Steell represented sculpture; Hamilton and Playfair, architecture; and Lizars, engraving. Considering that several men of talent had already followed Wilkie to London, the list of the Scottish Academicians in 1830 gives remarkable proof of the vitality of the movement which had flowered so suddenly during the first quarter of the century.

Amongst the painters enumerated one can trace without difficulty the diverse influences of the two founders of the school. The portrait-painters, quite naturally, adopt the technique of Raeburn, whilst the figure-painters of various genres, with the notable exception of David Scott, follow, more or less, the methods of Wilkie. Indeed, till nearly half a century later, the practice of these two great craftsmen forms the basis of Scottish painting in their respective spheres. It is curious to note that landscape-painters are comparatively few, but Thomson, no doubt, watched with interest from his suburban manse the rising art movement which culminated in the establishment of the Academy, to the honorary membership of which he was elected shortly after its consolidation in 1830. The period immediately succeeding the establishment of the Academy was something of a golden age in the annals of Scottish Art. Not in any sordid sense of the term, though things had wonderfully changed for the better even in that way, but in the enthusiasm with which it was followed, and in the respect and reputation in which its professors were held by the public and the leading men of the city. This was attested in a very substantial way by one of the first acts of the young Academy—the purchase of the five large pictures by William Etty which, since its opening, have adorned the great room of the Scottish National Gallery ; and by the increasing support given to the annual spring exhibitions, which soon came to he regarded as one of the attractions of the Edinburgh season.


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