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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter IX. Social and Artistic Life in Edinburgh, 1773-1823


A glance at the conditions which, within forty years of Raeburn’s opening his studio in George Street, rendered possible the establishment of such bodies as the Institution and the Scottish Academy, may not be uninteresting. Incidentally it will have the advantage of throwing light on the social and personal characteristics of some of the painters whose works have been discussed, or will demand consideration in succeeding chapters. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century there is little to elucidate art life in Edinburgh. Alexander Runciman had died a comparatively young man in 1785. His contemporaries Willison and Martin survived him by a dozen and thirteen years respectively, long enough to witness the triumph of Raeburn—perhaps to wonder at it—we know of the latter’s contemptuous allusion to “the lad in George Street”; and David Allan, who, we may be sure, would hail the rise of a genuine native art, left the stage in 1796. With the deaths of Jacob More and Gavin Hamilton at Rome during the same decade, the old order may be said to have passed from Scottish painting; for though so long resident abroad, their occasional visits and the rumour of the state they held beyond the Alps kept them in touch with their native country.

Meanwhile a new art was rising from the ashes of the old. Its representatives were as yet few. Raeburn and George Watson in portraiture, Nasmyth in landscape, and one or two, like Carse and Weir, in genre, well nigh exhaust the list; but material conditions were improving, and, at the change of the centuries, John Graham had under him a band of eager students, several of whom were to add lustre to Scottish painting. Even in the earlier days of this revival, 1785-90, the city was by no means so behindhand in the arts as might have been expected from its long stagnation and outlying position. Communication with the south was still slow and difficult, but for that very reason Edinburgh remained the town residence of the greater part of the nobility and gentry of Scotland, and as rent-rolls improved the arts benefited. There is an interesting glimpse of the situation in regard to music in the opening chapter of the memoir of the marine painter, Schetky.* It is there told how the father of the future artist, having been engaged to play the ’cello at the St. Cecilia concerts, accompanied by his brother, rode into Edinburgh on a raw February afternoon of 1778. After refreshing themselves at Peter Ramsay's Inn at St. Mary’s Wynd, and having ascertained that a concert was to take place that evening “‘Why, Karl, we are in luck’ said Christoff; Let us go and hear what they call music in Scotland.’” Gaining admittance, not without difficulty, for the audience was select, they had not long listened to the performance when “Karl,” said the elder, “this is very fine, we do not do better than this in Darmstadt”.

There were doubtless many amateurs—in the true sense—of painting as well as of music in the audience, “crowded with the flower of the aristocracy,” before which Christoff Schetky performed that evening, for the new ’cellist had to throw off his incognito and make his bow to his patrons before he left the hall. So that even in those days the few professionals, apart from portrait-painters, would not be altogether without appreciation and employment. The families at Penicuik and Newhall had long been liberal patrons of the arts, and we know that about the close of the century there were in Edinburgh several ardent collectors, both of paintings and engravings.

When Schetky made his debut at the St. Cecilia Hall the great bulk even of the professional classes were still resident in the old town. He himself settled and brought up his family in Ainslie’s Close. But things were changing rapidly, and Princes Street was creeping westward on the slopes beyond the Nor’ Loch. By 1787 Raeburn has a studio in George Street, and year by year his walk to his labours on week-days and to the West Kirk on Sundays would be less through green lanes and more through the extending streets of the city. Towards 1810 when he used to have for company young John Watson from Ann Street, the new town was approaching the Water of Leith, and the owner of St. Bernard’s and The Dean was, no doubt, his projecting feuing schemes on the haughs beyond. His passion for building had thenceforth free scope, and many a talk he would have with his friend Nasmyth, who had been consulted by the city authorities in the laying out of the New Town. There is no lack of sidelights on the social life of Edinburgh during the ’prentice years of Raeburn and Nasmyth; but science and literature are more in evidence than art. There was no Scottish Reynolds to welcome Dr. Johnson in 1773, although Topham a year or two later flatters Runciman with the title; and though both he and Bev.ick were much impressed with the picturesque and commanding situation of the city, beyond the above reference there is little to be gleaned from their narratives concerning the resident painters. During his day or two in the capital Bewick’s only contact with the art community was a call he made on an engraver in Parliament Square, Hector Gavin by name. Ten years after Topham came Bums to electrify the city with his blazing eyes and ardent temperament. Of his admiration for “Scotia’s darling seat” there is ample record. At many a merry meeting he would have for companions David Allan, Alexander Nasmyth, and others of the small art circle. Nasmyth, we know, was one of his chosen comrades. They climbed Arthur’s Seat to see the sun rise, tramped the country together for miles around, and held high jinks with kindred spirits at Johnnie Dowie’s tavern. There, or at the Cape Club, the poet and Raeburn would certainly have met, had his visit not happened during the latter’s absence in Italy ; for “Doway College,” as the Libberton’s Wynd institution was named in compliment to the host, was founded by Martin, and thither we are toldf his more celebrated pupil often accompanied him in his younger days. At the “Cape” Raeburn was known as “Sir Toby,” Runciman as “Sir Brimstone,” and they had amongst their club-mates Robert Fergusson, the poet, and the afterwards notorious Deacon Brodie. What a portrait we might have had had Bums and Raeburn met. As it is we are indebted to Nasmyth for the bust portrait known to every one, and the small full length suggested on the occasion of an early morning walk with the poet to Roslin.

With the opening of a new century and the continued growth of the city the art circle widened. Wilkie and Allan, John Watson and Patrick Nasmyth, are entering on their careers. Andrew Geddes dutifully bows to the parental decree, takes his course at the university, and enters his father’s office, but his heart is otherwhere. The amateur circle expands in sympathy with the professional, and soon we have the Dilettanti Society holding its fortnightly meetings in “a commodious tavern in the High Street.” The society included besides artist members such distinguished men as Scott, Gibson Lockhart, Dr. Brewster, Professor Wilson, Jeffrey, Cockbum, the Ballantynes, and James Hogg, with the eccentric David Bridges, dubbed “Director-General of the Fine Arts for Scotland,” as secretary. The drinks were restricted to Edinburgh ale and whisky toddy. During the first ten years of the century several of the more notable painters went south. On the other hand, landscape received a notable accession in Thomson and Grecian Williams. The exhibitions of the Associated Artists helped the cause, and before another decade had passed, the strength of the art community in the capital, and throughout Scotland, was unmistakably shown by the founding of the Institution. The veterans, Raeburn, Nasmyth, and George Watson were living in a changed community; but even the prejudice of advancing years could hardly have preferred the earlier times. The abler artists have left the old town for more fashionable quarters. Nasmyth is settled over against Raeburn’s studio in York Place; Andrew Geddes is almost next door; George Watson in Forth Street, and Williams in Duke Street. The versatile “father of Scottish landscape painting” has need of all his faculties, for there is a family of ten to look after —four sons and six daughters—but the paternal industry and talent proved hereditary in both boys and girls, The painter, Patrick, is early doing for himself, and leaves for London in 1808. The girls, several of whom were capable artists, assisted their father in the “ classes,” which had become quite the fashion; and, as the youngest of the family—James, of steam-hammer celebrity—-tells us, would often conduct their pupils, sketch-book in hand, to the more picturesque points in the immediate vicinity, “or by the seashore from Newhaven to North Berwick Law.” His autobiography contains some delightful glimpses of the social side of art life in those far-off days. Raeburn often joined my father in his afternoon walks round Edinburgh. They took delight in the picturesque scenery by which the city is surrounded. The walks about Arthur’s Seat were the most enjoyable of all. When a boy I had often the pleasure of accompanying them and of listening to their conversation. And then there were the pleasant evenings at home. When the day’s work was over friends looked in to have a fireside crack—sometimes scientific men, sometimes artists, often both. They were all made welcome. There was no formality about their visits—the family went on with their work as before. The girls were usually busy with their needles, and others with pen and pencil. My father would go on with the artistic work he had in hand, for his industry was incessant. He would model a castle or a tree, or proceed with some proposed improvement of the streets of the rapidly-extending city. They brought up the last new thing in science, in discovery, in history, or in campaigning, for the war was then raging throughout Europe. Rizzared or Finnan haddies, or a dish of oysters, with a glass of Edinburgh ale, and a rummer of toddy, concluded these friendly evenings.” Writing towards the dose of the century, the great machinist is constrained to question whether we are “a bit more happy than when all the vaunted triumphs of science and so-called education were in embryo.”

Through those years the genial presence of Scott runs like a golden thread. Though the aesthetic was not the strong side of his nature, none were more welcome to his fireside, in town or on Tweedside, than the artist fraternity. It was not till later, when all were soliciting sittings from him, that he humorously says that the very dogs were uneasy when a painter made his appearance. Schetky tells how he and Willie Allan would step out to Ashiestiel —it was only some thirty miles—and sit listening to Scott’s rehearsings in the garden, regardless of Mrs. Scott’s appeals to come to supper ; and how the poet was “just distracted” as he told him of his chance interview with Prince Charlie’s brother, the Cardinal Duke of York, after his return from his tramp through France and Italy during the Peace of Amiens. Schetky soon leaves for his teaching appointments at the Military and Naval Colleges in the south, but the letters from various members of the family to him still furnish information regarding the art life of his old home. In 1818 a sister writes, “ Turner has been here to transact matters relative to the publication of a work comprising views of our Scottish castles. Turner took sketches of Roslin, Borthwick, and Dunbar Castles, but no one saw them except Walter Scott. We are all, however, provoked at the coldness of his manner. We intended to have had a joyous evening on his account, but finding him such a stick, we did not think the pleasure of showing him to our friends would be adequate to the trouble and expense. Nicolson had his promise to dine with him; and after preparing a feast, and having ten fine fellows to make merry with him, Turner never made his appearance.” A brother writes on the same sheet, “That wayward ecclesiastic, Thomson, has just finished a picture, one of the most splendid I have ever set my eyes on. Allan, poor fellow, has lately lost his health and still more his spirits. Geddes is here, getting on with an enormous and very clever picture of the Commissioners finding the Regalia of Scotland in the castle here.” Thomson’s coming had indeed been a boon to the art society of the capital. A pleasant two miles walk from the centre of the city, the Manse of Duddingston became a rendezvous for the artistic and literary notabilities of Edinburgh. There, it is said, in the garden sloping gently to the margin of the loch, Sir Walter sketched out his “ Heart of Midlothian.” Within a mile of St. Leonard’s and Muschat’s cairn, with the dwellings of “the Laird” and Reuben Butler full in face and “St. Giles’s mingling din” wafted on the breeze, the situation was certainly suited for the purpose. And with the hospitable minister Turner used to take up his abode when sketching about the city, hurrying out to dinner, then an early function, and back again, rather than spend anything at a tavem. It has been the writer’s good fortune quite recently to visit this garden haunted by memories of so much that is best in Scottish art and literature. The old ash under the shade of which so many congenial spirits met, known as Scott’s tree, no longer stands. It fell, or rather subsided, on a quiet summer evening a few years ago, but its bole, lying athwart the velvety lawn, is wreathed with creeping plants and flowers lovingly tended by Thomson’s successor. What meetings have been there when Wilkie or Collins from across the border would discuss art principles and “the Correggiosities of Correggio ” with their northern compeers, or Allan and Williams relate their adventures in the Ukraine and the iEgean to Scott and Will Clerk— the Darsie Latimer of “Redgauntlet.” A light refreshment and the strains of the minister’s violin would wind up many a pleasant gathering.

In truth one of the charms of the Edinburgh of those days was its limited extent. The devotees of brush and pen saw more of each other than nowadays, for they could hardly leave their studios or libraries for an afternoon turn without encountering a dozen friends and rivals. Nowhere is this feature of Edinburgh society better recorded than in the vivid autobiography of Benjamin Haydon. He made his first visit to the north in 1820. “The season in Edinburgh,” he remarks, “is the severest part of the winter. Princes Street in a clear sunset, with the Castle and the Pentland Hills in radiant glory, and the crowd illuminated by the setting sun was a sight perfectly original. First you would see limping Sir Walter, talking as he walked with Lord Meadowbank, then tripped Jeffrey, keen, restless, and fidgety; you next met Wilson or Lockhart, or Allan, or Thomson, or Raeburn, as if all had agreed to make their appearance at once. It was a striking scene.” No. picturesque point escapes him. Wilson’s light hair, deep sea-blue eye, and tall, athletic figure give him the impression of “a fine Sandwich Islander who had been educated in the Highlands.” In Lockhart’s “melancholy and Spanish head” he detects evidence of genius and mischief—the painter had been included in one of the attacks on the Cockney clique. “I never had a complete conception of Scotch hospitality till I dined at Geddes’s with Sir Henry Raeburn and Thomson (who set Bums’ songs to music), and a party of thirty at least. Thomson sang some of the songs of Burns with great relish and taste, and at the chorus of one, to my utter astonishment, the whole company took hands, jumped up, and danced to the tune all round till they came to their seats again, leaving me sitting in wonder. Raeburn was a glorious fellow and more boisterous than any.”

In the summer of 1822 the northern capital was en fite on the occasion of the visit of George IV.—the first royalty had made since the union of the Parliaments. Wilkie and Geddes journeyed north with their young English friend, William Collins, in high spirits and with infinite consumption of snuff—Geddes’s box exhausted before reaching Berwick—to take part in the proceedings and to commemorate the event. Of the doings of the three all may read in Cunningham’s biography of Sir David and Wilkie Collins’s life of his father; but for the artist community the proceedings culminated in the ceremony at Hopetoun House, where the King conferred the honour of knighthood on Raeburn. It was the first honour of the sort that had come to a Scottish artist, and the recognition gave status—it could do no more—to a profession whose ranks were yearly increasing in numbers. Alas! within a year the kindly and genial painter was no more. From boyhood he had been familiar to the dwellers on the northern side of the city, and he had become so integral a part of Edinburgh society that his sudden and mysterious passing away in the fulness of his power was difficult to realise. Concerning his views and preferences in art little is known, but the pictorial record he has left of well-nigh half a century is a priceless legacy. As regards his character and personality all are agreed. A merry companion, with a fund of wit and humour which made him an acquisition even in days when such qualifications were by no means rare, he had none of the eccentricity in which the profession has been only too prolific. “I was confirmed,” says Dr. John Brown in ‘Horae Subsecivae, by the grandchildren as to the simple, frank, hearty nature of the man, his friendliness and cheery spirit, his noble presence—six feet two—and his simple, honest pleasures and happy life.” Mrs. Ferrier’s childish memories of the household at St. Bernard’s, quoted in the same article, give a like impression, as do also Mr. Cumberland Hill’s recollections. “He was greatly respected,” says the latter, in Stockbridge. He lived there in the midst of its people, who knew him and who loved him. To this day even we can recall his face and form with strange vividness. His large figure was encased in capacious upper garments; he wore, in addition, knee-breeches, black leggings, and a broad-brimmed hat. Apart from his genius, there was something massive in the man himself.” He was only sixty-seven, but he had lived to see greater changes and developments than most who have attained the fourscore. Above all, he had seen the rise of a native school of art, of which, without undue self consciousness, he might consider himself the founder.

He had accompanied Sir Walter Scott and a few other friends on a week’s tour in Fife, and had just resumed work, when he was suddenly attacked by a nameless illness, against which all medical skill was vain, and which closed his career on July 8,1823. His statue, along with those of other notable Scotsmen, adorns the facade of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and an anonymous admirer of his genius has placed a tablet to his memory in the burial-ground of St. John’s Episcopal Church.


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