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 X. Landscape

In Scotland landscape as a vital art came late. In portrait and figure painting the northern may be said to be fairly abreast of the southern division of the island in point of time, but nearly half a century divides the painters who first seriously practised landscape in England and Scotland respectively—Richard Wilson and Alexander Nasmyth. Nor can it be said that the latter was of the same calibre as the Welshman. His work derived from the same source, but it lacks altogether the painter-like qualities which give distinction to Wilson’s art. The latter was, indeed, the one great painter of the British school inspired by the tradition of Italian landscape.

But a new breath was about to stir the dry bones. The hide-bound classicism which exerted so baleful an influence on art generally had well-nigh stifled landscape. The ideals which inspired Claude and Gaspar Poussin had withered under the stricter art canons of the following century, so that during its latter half southern landscape survived only in the kindred architectural works of the Canali and Guardi. In Holland, where its origin had been so different, matters were still worse, and no painter of note represented the traditions of Ruysdael and Cuyp. The naturalistic tendency which set in towards the later eighteenth century was a general movement, a reaction from long-accepted the ones in many different directions. Amongst the contributing causes of the movement the writings of Rousseau have been assigned aprominent place. In this connection, it is interesting to find Muther, in his “ History of Modem Painting,” calling our countryman, James Thomson, the first great nature painter among the poets, and quoting Taine in support of his statement to the effect that, thirty years before Rousseau, the author of “The Seasons” had forestalled all his sentiments almost in the same style. Every one is familiar with the' keener observation of landscape in the poetry of the time. Sometimes it is held that Bums was an exception, and in support of the allegation it is pointed out that, though he lived for years within sight of the rugged peaks of Arran, he makes no allusion to them in his works. This is <only another instance of the confusion so prevalent between scenery and the landscape with which art has to do. The former is gauged by extent of view or the number of striking objects embraced, the latter by the interest its possible aesthetic combinations may awaken. The former does not exclude artistic treatment, but, as a rule, the strength of the appeal is in proportion to the simplicity of the elements. Judged by these standards, Bums is perhaps more in sympathy with landscape than any of his contemporaries. He never dwells on scenic detail, but he has the much rarer power of suggesting with a few masterly touches. Often, as in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” or “The Jolly Beggars,” he gives in an opening line or two a landscape setting which imprints itself indelibly on the mind, and acts as a kind of underchord all through the piece. The moonlit stream in “Halloween” is a noctume in eight lines, whilst in “Tam o’ Shanter,” though the surroundings are only hinted at, one is conscious of a terrific landscape background all through.

As with David Allan in genre, Nasmyth’s talent was insufficient to give impetus and direction to the new era in Scottish landscape painting. That was reserved for an amateur—the Rev. John Thomson, of Duddingston. Nevertheless, Nasmyth, like Allan, marks an epoch. Both seem to have felt that the old order was about to yield place to something more vital, and though neither could lead, they prepared the way for the stronger men who followed. The elder Nasmyth was a man of many accomplishments, a mechanical genius, an architect, and a landscape gardener as well as a painter; he had a great and deserved reputation in his native city and throughout Scotland. In his capacity as architect he designed the fine bridge which spans the romantic gorge of the Water of Leith on the north-western boundary of the city, as well as the classic temple which guards St. Bernard’s well half a mile lower down ; and he was professionally consulted by the authorities in the laying out of the streets of the new town. In mechanics he was the inventor of what is known as the bow and string bridge, the principle of which has since been applied to the roofing of our great terminal railway stations, and he had much to do with the experiments of Miller and Symington in steam navigation. His son even claims for him the invention of the screw propeller; and in connection with this aspect of his talent, it is significant that to-day his portrait by Geddes hangs in the machinery department of South Kensington Museum beside those of Rennie and Smeaton and other great engineers and machinists. It was Nasmyth also whose ready wit suggested to the Duke of Atholl the means of clothing the rugged front of Craigiebams with foliage by firing the seed inclosed in canisters from a cannon. Like his ancestors from a remote generation he was of quick intelligence and ready hand, and his long life was spent in a variety of activities. To those already mentioned he added that of scene painter, while his art classes shared with those of Graham the responsibility for the instruction of most of the Scottish painters of the following generation. His family inherited more or less the paternal abilities, and two of his sons have left their mark in different directions—Patrick, the artist, and James, the inventor of the steam hammer.

Alexander Nasmyth’s faculties as a painter, whether of portrait or landscape, were not of a very high order. Most of his pictures are frankly based on the classic convention, like the Stirling Castle in the Scottish National Gallery, where the distance and middle distance are flanked by the greater and lesser clump of trees on either hand, with depths of brown regulated by their proximity to the foreground. In others one can feel a certain admixture of the coming naturalism, not always introduced with advantage to the picture. Of this class are England's Capital, Colzean CaMle, Wooded Landscape with Castle, and two views of Edinburgh, looking from and towards the Calton Hill respectively. The London picture— somewhat the same view as Constable's Waterloo Bridge— as well as the two of Edinburgh, were painted in 1825, when the artist was approaching seventy, and they go to prove that the veteran has not been unaffected by the new school of landscape which younger and abler men were leading, mostly in the south, but which would not be altogether unknown in Edinburgh. There is considerable dramatic power in the design of the other Newbyth pictures; and a small example at Riccarton—some bend on the Water of Leith where a tall ash or willow strikes athwart a grey sky over a red-roofed house is quite modem in feeling. But at no time had Nasmyth much of the painter’s delight in, or mastery over, his material ; in this respect his pictures remain cold and timid to the end.

His son Patrick, who settled in London in 1808, when he was about twenty years of age, has long had a great reputation in Loudon sale-rooms, where he is known as “the English Hobbema.” Judged by the works at Trafalgar Square, the reputation seems scarcely deserved, though the resemblance to his Dutch prototype is unmistakable. Possibly the one has a good deal to do with the other, for, next to being a personality in art—and sometimes before it—is the faculty of being able to adopt that of some established reputation. He was little affected by the new and more vigorous exponents of landscape ; in this respect, indeed, he seems to have had less of the open mind than his father. To one whose training was Ramsay’s studio and the Italian journey, the classic convention came naturally enough; but it is difficult to understand how the younger man, with his considerable technical ability, and with Turner and Constable at his elbow, remained contented with the formulas of the seventeenth century. The Landscape with Waterfall and * In the possession of Sir James Gibson Craig, Bart.

The Angler's Nook, in the National Gallery, have little but their resemblance to Hobbema to recommend them, and though the View in Hampshire and The Severn off Portishead show some feeling for English landscape, their elaboration of detail and fitting of parts are unsatisfying. Those browns and grey-greens and heavily-shadowed foregrounds were sanctioned by two centuries, but they fail in that more intimate interpretation of nature to which art was already awake. In a small picture of English scenery* the artist is seen to greater advantage. A sluggish stream flows by groups of park-like timber through low-lying meadows. A church tower and the red roofs of a village are seen in the middle distance, and to the right a level country recedes towards a range of low hills. The tree masses are finely silhouetted against a tender sky, while foreground and middle distance are flecked with quiet evening sunlight, which touches church tower, tree boles, and cattle wit a keener illumination. If there is much of this quality, it might go far to justify the reputation which still attaches to the name and work of the younger Nasmyth. His pictures are scarce north of the Border, and, as a rule, they have more affinity with the National Gallery examples than with that last described. Their technique is of the dexterous mechanical sort which takes no account of the mysterious or the infinite, but which, for that very reason, commended itself the more readily to the dilettanti. So it was that Backhuysen and the Dutch flower painters fared better at the hands of critics and connoisseurs than Rembrandt and Hals. Nasmyth lived an isolated life in London, which may partly account for the slight influence the work of his greater contemporaries had on him. He died at Lambeth in 1831, a comparatively young man. Several of his sisters, notably Anne and Charlotte, wielded the brush with no small skill. A fine example of the latter, at Riccarton, shows a technique different from that of either her father or brother.

A more virile landscape art was already rising in the north. John and Andrew Wilson, John Thomson, and H. W. Williams were earlier in the field than Patrick Nasmyth, and three of them are stronger personalities. The Rev. John Thomson, of Duddingston, is the most widely known, partly from his unique combination of professions, but also on his merits as a painter. It is difficult to assign an artistic lineage for him. “His model,” says Sir Walter Armstrong, “seems to have been Gaspas Poussin tempered by Claude and Wilson.” That is as near the mark as one is likely to get, but, after all, he is mainly Thomson. He is a personality; and this is what lifts him above the Nasmyths, and makes him share with John Wilson the honour of having given the first impulse to the Scottish school of landscape. The way of the Nasmyths was a blind alley, that of the artists with whom we are now concerned led onwards, though by diverse paths, to the naturalistic movements of the two following generations. Their art, like all that is truly progressive, was no abrupt departure. There was nothing in it of the “protest” with which more recent movements have familiarised us. They carried with them a sufficiency of the formulas of the past to make their practice a true development; and in what contemporary records we have, there is no indication that it was regarded as in any way erratic, Yet in their works there is the breath of a new life.

Thomson was more intimately associated with native art than the others. He was little out of Scotland, and his subjects were mostly found within its borders. His clerical duties, to which he seems to have been always attentive, made visits to the Continent or longer sketching-tours difficult of attainment. The annual holiday and rapid transit which permits the parish minister a month’s leisure in Italy, Egypt, or the Holy Land, were still in the distant future when the young Ayrshire pastor was placed at Duddingston in the autumn of 1805. An occasional Sunday off would be his opportunity for visiting his more distant sketching-grounds, whilst the shores of Fife, East Lothian, and Berwickshire were easily accessible within the week, even in the coaching days. This settlement in the immediate vicinity of the capital at the age of twenty-seven may be regarded as the beginning of his artistic career, for his month at Nasmyth’s classes and his solitary sketching-rambles in the Dailly woods cannot have carried him far. But now he was within easy range of much that was stimulating both to the intellectual and artistic life. Within a year of his “call” he was on intimate terms with the best society Edinburgh could afford, Walter Scott, William Clerk of Eldin, and one or two other men of law having been ordained members of his session on March 30, 1806. But there was a society yet more inspiring for young Thomson. In the neighbouring city were the studios of Raeburn and George Watson, and under the presidency of the latter the Associated Artists were shortly to open their annual exhibitions. In his Ayrshire charge Thomson had distributed the products of his easel amongst his parishioners, but now, we are told, “orders began to pour in upon him from all quarters in such numbers that, with all his rapidity of execution, he found difficulty in supplying the demands of his friends for his pictures.” To the exhibitions of the Associated Artists he contributed, sparingly at first, but more freely towards their close. In the catalogues of the first two his name is not in the list of contributors, though he had pictures in both, but after 1813 he seems to have shaken off the fear of publicity, and takes his alphabetical place amongst the professionals. A few more years and he is a power in the art world, his name standing with those of Wilkie and other eminent artists on the Honorary list, first of the Royal Institution and then of the Scottish Academy.

During the thirty-five years of his artistic activity his brush was rarely idle. His biographer, Mr. Baird,* has catalogued 226 pictures in various well-known collections, but their total number must be much greater. In following Thomson’s career through its consecutive stages one has to be contented with the facts deducible from the catalogues of the exhibitions to which he contributed. These give a rough idea of the localities he has been visiting, though it is unsafe to draw more than an inference from such data, seeing he worked largely from memory and from old sketches. This much seems to be certain, that during the earlier years of his ministry he did not go far afield for his subjects—the Lothians, Berwickshire, Fife, Lanark, and Ayrshire are the localities mostly indicated. Later, he adventures farther, seeing in succession much of the wilder and more inaccessible parts of the Highlands, the northeastern coasts of Ireland, and making one or two raids across the Border. To the first six or eight years in his new home may be assigned most of those somewhat characterless works, for which the undulating country across the loch and the waters of the firth seen over the wooded grounds of Duddingston Park supply the subjects Indeed, till the close of the 1808-16 exhibitions, his works, to judge from their titles, are not of the nature associated with his genius. But ten years later he has found himself, as artists say, and in his contributions to the Institution the ruined castles and keeps which fringe the coasts and dominate the straths of his native country are leading features. After 1829 loch and glen furnish the motifs; castles are still numerous, but the sea no longer fascinates. Coruisk and Blaavin, the weird forest of Rothiemurchus and the solitudes of Kintyre make a stronger appeal to the emotional nature of the painter. In 1822 and 1824 he exhibited two of these more characteristic works, A berlady Bay and Fast Castle. In the former he has adopted the scheme of warm greys, less usual in his practice than could be desired, which lends itself to a more natural lighting. Here and in similar pictures he may have been affected by the seascapes of John Wilson, who, though settled in London, was a contributor to the Scottish exhibitions. It is not quite clear which of Lord Kingsburgh’s two pictures of Fast Castle is the one exhibited at the Royal Institution in 1824. If that from below—as is most likely—where the insignificant remains of “ Wolfs Crag " are perched on the beetling cliffs to the right, it is the prototype of a class which included most of the seaward castles of Scotland, and culminated in the Dunluce of two years later. But few of these captivate the imagination as does this first essay on that rock-bound coast which furnished their original inspiration. In the later pictures the conventional creeps in, the steep cliffk are wreathed with foliage which seems strangely out of place, and the rocks which close in the composition of the foreground to right or left are conformed to a type which does duty for Tantallon, Dunluce, or Ravensheugh, as the case may be. In the Fast Castle the idealisation is on true lines; the character of the coast is conserved, and by an artistic exaggeration rendered more impressive. In Fast Castle from above, the sheer fall of the cliff, which, with its seaward battlements, shows light against the dark surface and high horizon of the ocean, is powerfully suggested. The castle tower is silhouetted against a breezy sky which casts flying gleams on the bold headlands to the right.

Of the large Dunluce Castle, it is hardly possible to speak to any purpose. The writer can remember seeing it some thirty years ago in company with Paul Chalmers. It was then in fairly good condition, and the impressionable pupil of Robert (Lauder was enraptured with its power and grandeur. But like so many of the artist’s works, it has been ruined by the bituminous base on which it was painted. A smaller version, still in good condition, in the possession of Lord Kingsburgh, serves to give some idea of a picture well known through Miller’s engraving, but which has paid the extreme penalty of the asphaltum craze of the period. The Martyrs’ Tombs in the Moss of Lochmkelt, Galloway, shows a mingling of the brown and grey manners of the painter—one might almost say of the conventional and more natural which these embody— for beyond a foreground of moss and loch and stream of the former, there is a mountainous landscape Over which cloud shadows slowly wander, which conveys something of the solemnity of those pastoral solitudes so sympathetically rendered a generation later by Sir George Harvey.

Thomson’s later development can be traced in a series of works far too numerous to individualise. The Dunure Castle, seen from the landward side, in Lord Young’s collection, is typical of those pictures where the objective is seen through a vista of flanking trees. Here the scheme is of gold and brown, and the atmospheric effect especially fine. Of the work of his later years the View in Glen Feshie, Inverness-shire, belonging to the Earl of Stair, is one of the best. It was exhibited at the Scottish Academy in 1855, and represents the fruit of long experience, whilst the artist was yet in his working prime. Just at such a juncture many eminent artists have produced their most characteristic work. If Glen Feshie is hardly entitled to such pre-eminence, it can at least be said that, in its kind, it holds a leading place. To this interpretation of the pine forests which lie into the roots of the Grampians, Thomson has brought all those powers of imagination which, ten years earlier, he had expended on castle and cliff. The funereal masses of giant firs, the rank undergrowth, the gleam of rippling water which seems to hurry across the shadowed silence, and the vista of mountain pass, is no topographic transcript, but an embodiment of the mood engendered by such scenes, which all experience to some extent, but which only the artist who is also a dreamer can capture and make permanent. The broken and blasted members of those monarchs of Rothiemurchus, telling of storm and tempest, enhance by contrast the stillness of this enchanted wood and the delicious blue and white of the summer sky, whilst the twinkle of antlers in the glade to the left suggests the bugle horn and all the romance associated with the hunter and the chase.

An adequate analysis of Thomson’s technique is difficult. The fate which has overtaken the larger version of Dunluce has been shared by many of his best works. Even in those which have escaped total destruction the pigment has so often blackened, or the surface has got into so curious a condition—as if roasted—that one cannot speak with much certainty as to their craftsmanship. But taken in connection with the more direct work of his sketches and studies, there is ample evidence that Thomson was a born painter, that he had the delight in and command over his material which distinguish painting from mere coloured design. His defects lie in a different direction and were inevitable under the circumstances. He was an amateur, and as such, precluded from the thoroughness of technique which separates the trained artist from the ablest of those who devote to it only a portion of their energies. It is not only that, as Sir Walter Armstrong has observed, “like all amateurs he was very uncertain, alternating landscapes worthy almost of Richard Wilson” with performances “feeble enough for a school-girl”; even his successes betray the amateur. A want of knowledge of the underlying structure of things gives an air of unreality to his compositions. The tree boles lack sinewy strength, their boughs are regardless of the laws of ramification, the tumbled mountains of the middle distance, and the serrated peaks beyond are oftener fantastic than truly idealised; but nowhere is this defect more evident than in the switchback lines of the promontories which indent sea or lake, and in the family likeness of the characterless ledges of rock in the foregrounds of many of his cliff and castle pictures.

It could not be otherwise. The long Divinity course and the pastoral duties of the country charge which came to him so early, absorbed the greater part of his time and attention during the period when the foundation of the painter’s craft must be laid. And when, as he was nearing thirty, a fuller measure of artistic inspiration came to him with his change of surroundings, he had, perforce, to be content with the superficial knowledge acquired in his sketching rambles about Dailly and the facility afforded by the adoption of such conventions as came most readily to hand. This and his restricted opportunities of study prevented his sharing fully in the new movements of his time; but evidence is not wanting that, in other circumstances, he might have been a leader amongst the modems. His sketches and studies now and again surprise by a perception of conditions of light and natural colour in advance even of his time. A small Fast Castle* with wind and wave for once at rest, literally swims in a translucency of light; whilst of those in his more usual golden brown key, some are wonderfully satisfying in the depth and richness of their restricted harmonies. But such were intermittent, the result of a sudden carrying out of himself by something seen and strongly felt. He mostly pursues the old paths, which enabled him to produce steadily, unaffected by the bewilderment of conditions which would have entailed a revision of formulas and a whole-hearted devotion impossible for one in his position. At all events, the facility with which he worked, and the readineis with which his pictures were absorbed all over Scotland, stimulated a branch of painting which till then had found little favour north of the Tweed. He may be said also to have awakened Scottish painters to the pictorial possibilities of their country. The greater part of the work of his three contemporaries was English or foreign in subject. John Wilson deals mostly with the shipping of the Thames estuary and the Dutch coasts; Andrew depicts the harbours and towns of the Mediterranean under Claude-like effects; whilst Williams went farther afield than either to the plain of Marathon and “Sunium’s marbled steep.” True, Thomson’s delineations of our lochs and bens and glens, and of those castles that o’erlook “the foam of perilous seas” are as much generic as local; but the minister of Duddingston gave the lead, and he gave it grandly, to those later painters who have better interpreted the native accent of Scottish landscape. The feebler productions of his studio are very numerous, but, when one knows where to find them, there are not a few which give him a place amongst the masters of landscape art. For vigour of conception and imaginative power none of his Scottish followers have excelled him.

John Wilson, who, after an apprenticeship with one of the Nories, and two years as a drawing-master in Montrose, spent the remainder of his long life in London, is yet intimately associated with Scottish art. He had already been ten years in the south before the Associated Artists commenced their exhibitions. To these he contributed only once. Nor was his work much seen at the Institution. He was a sympathiser with the movement which resulted in the founding of the Scottish Academy, of which he became an honorary member. In the south, after having been employed as a scene-painter at Astley’s, he early began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and he was an original and long adhering member of the Society of British Artists.

From the beginning, Wilson seems to have found his role, and to have kept to it with little variation for half a century. The landscape and coast line of southern England and the neighbouring shores of France and Holland supply his subjects, with now and then a stray canvas embodying the result of some visit to the north. Owing to the similarity of the titles, it is difficult to refer his pictures to their various periods; but the sea and coast scenes gain on the inland subjects during his later practice, and the artist’s reputation is mainly associated with these. He delights in the grey-green waters of the North Sea or of the Channel, when the flying clouds silver or darken their retreating surface; and in the picturesque craft whose tightened or flapping sails or bare spars tell dark or light against the sky. He deals little with the open sea, and even when the point of view is from amongst the shipping, there is generally on one hand or other the low line of shore at no great distance. The unnamed picture—No. 259 in the Scottish National Gallery, dated 1832—is an example, not of the best, being somewhat forced in its contrasts and puny in its forms. Wilson is seen to better advantage in two works of a similar nature in Lord Young’s collection. In the larger a sloop with loosened sheets and a small boat occupy the left; at some distance, a white sail tells strongly against a grey sky, whilst numerous other craft are seen farther off. The sea is dark in the left foreground and towards the right horizon. In the other, the composition is, as it were, reversed, a group of picturesque shipping with a boat making towards them, being on the right, and one with two dark sails on the left. Beyond are seen the spires and towers of a town, and a low shore where a windmill catches the light. The thousand and one combinations to be got out of such elements enable the artist to ring endless changes on these two favourite arrangements. The sails, mellow white or tawny brown, the polished prows, the finer detail of yard and shroud and cordage, the incisive colour in the dresses of sailor or fisher-folks, with the more delicate hues of fluttering pennons, give a field which, in the hands of a capable painter, there is no exhausting. But within his limitations, Wilson has a keen eye for Nature’s different moods. It is not always a racket of wind and wave, of flying light and shadow. On the broad waters of the Maas A Ferry Boat with its living freight moves slowly over its own reflections ; the sail is set, but it hangs loose, as does that of the hay barge in front, and oar and pole are in requisition. On one hand a distant town shows livid against a portentous thundercloud, on the other the oily surface of the river is silvered by a sky of luminous grey. On this setting of sky and shadowed waters, the brown sailed boat and the positive colours of passengers and live stock tell with the strange vividness which precedes a storm. Wilson’s landscape proper is not so well known, but that it shares the qualities of the coast pieces may be learned from the bright little panel, Landscape and Cattle,f where a man on a grey pony drives two cows—a red and a black—through low marshy ground. Here the wind-blown trees and rushes and low-lying distance are admirably associated with the strongly marked forms and colours of the animals; it has all the sparkle of a Cox.

In considering Wilson’s qualities as a painter, one cannot fail to note the contrast, he presents with Thomson. Their ways of seeing or conceiving and their methods of execution differ almost as widely as could be. The professional’s art is limited in range compared with that of the amateur; the imaginative faculty comes little into play, those marines and landscapes of Wilson’s being pictorial rather than emotional. This means a different temperament, but does not of itself '71 ply inferiority. In other directions the contrast is equally marked. In his manner of seeing, Wilson was abreast of his time; Thomson lingered amongst the old masters. In the main, the evolution of modern painting, especially of landscape, has been from dark to light, from brown to grey; and where Thomson, as a rule, is brown, Wilson is grey. Wilson has also the professional man’s more thorough knowledge within his own sphere, he knows the sea and ships and boats, the wooden piers, and towers and sand dunes of the coasts he loved ; and these he combines and handles with a suppleness to which the other is a stranger. And though, like some of his contemporaries, at times he over-emphasises the ambers and siennas of hull and prow in his slanting luggers, he comes a long way nearer the true conditions of colour and light than did Thomson. But with all this admitted, Thomson was the greater artist.

Andrew Wilson is better known through the part he took in the formation of various British collections, and his relations with other artists and connoisseurs than as a painter After some lessons from Alexander Nasmyth, and a few years at the Royal Academy schools, at some risk, owing to Continental troubles, he proceeded to Rome. There, like Ramsay and Gavin Hamilton, he fell a prey to the study of ancient art, as much in its architectural and archaeological aspects as from the painter’s point of view. He brought home with him, says Brydall, “ many sketches of architectural monuments and similar subjects about Naples as well as Rome.” His stay in this country was short. Perceiving the demand there was for old masters, and the advantage his already acquired knowledge would be in dealing with the possessors of such, he determined to return to Italy. Not without difficulty he reached Genoa—it was 1803, the year of threatened invasion. Settling there he was elected a member of the Ligurian Academy, and it was concerning one of his pictures exhibited in Genoa that Napoleon is said to have made the retort—“ Le talent n’a pas de pays,” when, stopping to admire it, he was informed that it was the work of an Englishman. During a three years residence in Italy at this time Wilson succeeded in purchasing and bringing to this country many valuable pictures. In 1818 he was appointed Master of the Trustees’ Academy, where he had as pupils several who subsequently left their mark on Scottish art, Robert Lauder, David Scott, and William Simson amongst others. About 1826 he resigned his appointment and returned to Italy, where he spent the remaining twenty-two years of his life in various cities of the peninsula, practising his art and collecting and transmitting to this country many important examples of the great masters. Like Hamilton’s half a century earlier, his house, when he was in Rome, became a rendezvous for Scottish painters visiting the Italian capital. He figures largely in Wilkie’s letters and journals, and later there is frequent reference to him in those of David Scott. He had the advice and assistance of the former in carrying through some of his most important purchases, notably of the Vandycks now in the Scottish National Gallery, and those secured for the Earl of Hopetoun and Sir Robert Peel.

Such a career almost precluded the attainment of any great distinction as an executant. But that Andrew Wilson was a capable, if not a brilliant painter may be seen in various works both of home and foreign subjects. Those at the Mound scarcely show him at his best. The Burntisland has more of the Mediterranean than of the Forth in its lighting, and is characterised by those vertical and horizontal lines which give an artificial aspect to much of his work. This treatment is more appropriate where architectural features are prominent, as in many of his Roman and Genoese pictures. The smaller View of Tivoli and Ruins of Hadrian's Villa are fair though trifling examples of his Italian manner. Better specimens both of his Scotch and foreign work may be seen in Lord Kingsburgh’s collection, where, in a view taken from about Aberdour, the still waters and undulating shores of our Scottish estuary are painted under a sky which better suits them than the Claude-like atmosphere of the Burntisland. In various other native landscapes in the same collection a different note is struck, and a manner resembling that adopted later by E. T. Crawford is successfully used, especially in two canal scenes. On the Tiber near Rome gives a favourable idea of Wilson in a nature of subject with which David Roberts familiarised us in after years. In a smaller picture of An Italian Town* the Claude-like effect of evening sunlight is more appropriately used than in that of the Fifeshire seaport.

Hugh W. Williams, though a native of Wales, early established himself in Edinburgh, and his professional life, with the exception of the time spent in Italy and Greece, was passed in the Scottish capital. He contributed to the exhibitions of the Associated Artists after 1810, chiefly views in the Highlands, then just opened to a wider public by the publication of “ The Lady of the Lake.” His “Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands,” published in 1820, and Select Views in Greece, issued 1827-9, earned for him the title “ Grecian ” Williams, by which he has since been generally known. Fortunately, his work, both Scottish and foreign, is well seen in the collection at the Mound, where, moreover, a large drawing, Caerphilly Castle, South Wales, shows that once, at least, towards the close of his life, he had revisited the Principality. Williams may almost be said to have introduced the practice of water-colour north of the Tweed—the earlier tinted drawings can hardly be considered such—and what surprises one most in some of his Scotch drawings—that of Glencoe for instance, exhibited in 1812 —is their modernness. Here the hill forms are broadly and boldly washed in in true colour of Nature, almost as they might have been by Cox or Bough. The same can hardly be said of many of his foreign drawings, which are executed in tones little removed from the tinted work just referred to. These, howrever, lend themselves better to the arid landscape of Southern Europe than to the full fresh colour of the Highlands. Had he given himself more to the study of native landscape, Williams might have become a stronger influence in the Scottish school; but, in electing Italy and Greece for his sketching-ground, he obeyed the strong impulse which was then beginning to send British painters abroad, not for the study of the old masters, but to find a new field in the manners, the costume, and the natural features of countries hitherto almost unknown, and to which the genius of Byron was drawing the attention of an ever increasing public. Many of these drawings were made for purposes of engraving, and from that point of view, their more monotonic scheme would be an advantage rather than otherwise. Whether the conventional tone was dictated by such considerations, or only by the more restricted gamut of less humid skies, is immaterial, for their charm lies rather in the daintiness with which his simple scheme and dexterous hand describe the picturesque surfaces and features of rocky headland and pillared temple, than in the force or realistic quality of their colour.

This skill of craft—especially indispensable in watercolour—distinguishes Williams’ drawings generally, but now and again he rises to a highly poetic conception of his theme, as notably in the Plain of Marathon. Its elements are simple ; local colour is suppressed, not here by any conventional scheme, but because of the hour chosen. Seen from a high foreground, under the mysterious glamour of night, the historic plain stretches to where in the distance a narrow strait separates it from the serrated ridges of Euboea. Behind those mountains that “ look on Marathon” the moon rises, its disc, only partly seen as yet, reflected in the waters of the strait and of a stream that winds seaward. Sombre masses of foliage diversify the foreground slopes, where a Greek muses with elbow rested on a rock. One can say no more than that the picture is worthy of its theme and the memories it recalls. And here again, as always, the technique goes hand in hand with the sentiment. But for the luminous and vibrant quality of those washes of darker or lighter tones which suggest the near and the far and the infinite, rising moon, star-spangled sky, and contemplative patriot would have been only cheap sentiment and tawdry trick. A replica at the Mound has not the full charm of the larger drawing which is in the possession of Lord Young.

The Temple of Minerva Sunias is a drawing of unusual size—50 by 30 ins. Such dimensions are not favourable to the medium, and most water-colours on this scale lack the strength necessary to carry them off with success. Nor can it be said that the work under consideration escapes this defect. The coloration is attenuated and thin, and the handling inadequate to the scale. But the central passage of the picture, where the marble columns of the Temple tell white against a stormy sky, is strikingly fine. The architecture is painted with a touch at once free and delicate, the detail of pillar and architrave lovingly recorded by a hand and eye sensitive to all the beauty of proportion and structure of a kindred art. Though the picture is not emotional in the sense of the Marathon, those marble relics of a worship long vanished, enswathed in a passing gleam of sunshine, supply that touch of sentiment which saves it from being a mere architectural drawing. For this one can forgive the not very convincing tones of brown rocks and neutral sea, and the conventional treatment of the foreground generally. Two drawings of almost equal size, but executed in fuller tones, View of Athens from the East and The Temvle of Jupiter Olympius, are in the collection at Raith. There are unfinished replicas of both at the Mound. Williams is known to have used the stronger medium, but his oil works are seldom seen. A small canvas in Kelvingrove Museum is not of such quality as to cause one to regret this. His “Travels in Italy, Greece, and the Ionian Islands” were in the form of letters inscribed respectively to his friends the Rev. John Thomson and Mr. George Thomson. They abound, especially those from Florence and Rome, in an independent and sometimes vigorous criticism of the pictures in the various galleries. His estimate of contemporary Italian Art is by no means high ; in no branch of painting does he think Britain need fear comparison, and it is to his own country that he looks for a revival of the splendours of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Besides Nicholson, several Newcastle men were attracted by the art movement in Edinburgh. During the ten years succeeding the establishment of the Academy, John Ew-bank took a prominent position as a painter of landscape and marine subjects, and his townsman, Fenwick, worked on the same lines. Ewbank was a painter of considerable talent. His sea-pieces especially, which show the influence of John Wilson and a certain phase of Turner’s work, exhibit a fine sense of composition, and an evenness of surface well suited to the moderate scale on which the best of them are painted, and to the expanses of sea and sky with which he dealt. Such characteristics link them with similar pictures by Simson, though he hardly attains either the quality of colour or the lightness of touch of the more versatile Academician. They are generally composed on the lines introduced, or at all events largely made use of by Wilson, which the picturesque craft of those days enabled the painter to vary ad infinitum. Suchlike Ewbanks are to be found in various Scotch collections. Of his harbour pieces, Leith Harbour may be taken as an average example. Here the crowded schooners in front, with sails hanging limp or furled, make a picturesque ensemble with the low bridge in the middle distance and the irregular line of houses beyond. Sails, masts and spars, the tiled or slated roofs, and a more distant spire to the right are backed by a luminous sky, whilst one or two floating timber rafts with figures give variety to the foreground. The arrangement of light and shade is happy, but the handling is heavier than in the smaller canvases just referred to. The darker shadows lack the transparency which so often in this manner of painting redeems the overwarmth of the umber fond, nor is the detail of spar and cordage touched with all the dexterity that could be desired. Even the Canal Scene with Shipping, at the Mound, wants that last suppleness of touch which gives ease and grace to Simson’s treatment of similar subjects. And here one observes that contrasting of warm whites, buffs, and siennas with umber shadows and the neutral tones of sea and sky, as also the thin, almost water-colour method of using their material, which characterised a certain phase of contemporary landscape. The quality of the colour in this canal scene—it resembles (more a broad river like the Maas —is fine, especially in the sky, and the whole is suffused with a mellow glow which harmonises its cooler and warmer tones.

Ewbank’s inland pieces are by no means equal to his marines. There is a something emasculated in much of the landscape of this period. Its chiaroscuro is forced, and the opposition of brown with whitish tones imparts an anaemic aspect to the scenes depicted. When more positive colour is used, it breaks out in spots like the hectic flush on the cheek of the consumptive. Unsubstantial—not truly ideal—such compositions reflect a phase of thought or feeling characteristic of the time, not in Great Britain only, but throughout Europe, a sort of aftermath of Byronism and “The Sorrows of Werther,” which affected hoth literature and painting. In Germany there are the sentimental Diisseldorfers; in France, Ary Scheffer and the Italian peasants of the unfortunate Leopold Robert. In England it is the age of Keepsakes, Books of Beauty, and the meretricious imaginings of John Martin. It has its stronger side, which inspired the romantic conceptions of Delacroix and the later works of Turner. To the strong it lends an additional grace, lifting their work above the prosaic; to the less robust, it is an element of danger. In Scotland there was, unfortunately, no landscape painter of sufficient stamina and sensibility to develop the possibilities of an influence where the truly poetic lay so near to the merely sentimental, and its weakness, rather than its strength, is reflected in the works of Hill and Stanley and Fenwick, and of Ewbank when he forsakes his true element, the sea.

Hill had considerable talent as a landscapist, but his abilities were dissipated in various directions, latterly in the painting of a large figure picture commemorative of the Disruption, which has only a historic interest to commend it. Incidentally, and partly in connection with the painting of this picture, he worked with great enthusiasm at photography, then in its earlier stages, and, in conjunction with Mr. Adamson, of St. Andrews, produced a series of works which, from an artistic point of view, are still unrivalled. These, which have come to be known as “Hill’s Calotypes,” form an invaluable record of the generation to which they belong. Almost from its foundation till his death in 1869 Mr. Hill was Secretary to the Scottish Academy, and as his time was given unsparingly to its interests, it is small wonder there is little to point to in the way of achievement in his own department. One of his more important works, Edinburgh from the Castle, is well known from the engraving. Another, The Valley of the Nith, is in Lord Young’s collection at Silverknowe. Both are scenic in character, and exhibit in various ways the influences already referred to. In his illustrations to “ The Land of Burns,” Hill depicts with a touch of true romance the country made famous by the poet.

The work of Fenwick and Montague Stanley is little known, though both had some reputation in their day. Two good examples of the former are in the possession of Lord Young—one, A View on the Forth near Stirling, the other a large composition of lake, mountain and meadow. In both the merits and defects of his master Ewbank, and of the school of landscape to which they belong, are apparent : the luminous skies and fine aerial distances, marred by forcing of effect and colour in the former, and by the ruddy brown tones of the dark foreground in the latter. Stanley’s work had all the weaker elements, with few of the redeeming qualities, of the two Northumbrians. He had left the stage from conscientious motives, and to this what reputation he had was largely owing. His abilities were not of a high order, and he carried much of his earlier into his adopted profession. Robert Gibb, with much of the same scenic element in his compositions, had a touch of the coining realism, his work allying itself in this respect with that of E. T. Crawford.

William Simson is difficult to class, as he painted with almost equal facility in various genres. Landscape, landscape with figures, portraits, animals, interiors, still life, marines, and historical pictures seemed alike to interest him. In this respect he was a kind of Scottish Bonington. With the Associated Artists he exhibits mostly Scotch landscapes and coast studies; at the Institution his versatility is seen in most of the departments enumerated above. This variety is continued in the works shown at the Scottish Academy, but after his removal to London, about 1838, he confined himself almost entirely to figure subjects. He is considered here amongst the landscapists, because he is best known by his Solway Moss and two or three smaller canvases at the Mound. Simson’s work shows various influences. His little' diploma Landscape, in which a heron sits motionless by the brown stream under a shady bank, suggests Gainsborough—alike in its luminous sky, its combinations of colour, and the feathery grace with which the foliage is touched. Constable is as clearly felt in the large landscape Auchenderman Bridge,* where the artist has realised much of the strain and stress of Nature in motion. Two smaller canvases,* Eel-traps on the Orwell, and A Suffolk Village, though they deal with Constable’s own country, have less of the East Anglian master in their manner. As in the two small panels at the Mound, Scene in Holland and Passage Boats becalmed on the Maas, Dort, a method is employed of which Simson himself is the best exponent. Umbers, reinforced one way or another with more positive colour, and of semi-transparent consistency, form the shadows. More body is added as the lighter surfaces are dealt with, but, even at its thickest, the handling resembles a glutinous wash rather than oil painting as it is mostly practised. The style, which would look flimsy on a larger scale, suits admirably those little panels where the edge of the wash describes the form of hull or tree or thatch almost as in an accomplished water-colour. It is this fluency, quite as much as their lightsome combinations of colour, that gives a peculiar charm to the two Dutch river bits, and character to those dealing with Suffolk and the homes of its rural inhabitants. A similar technique is used in the delightful sketch Twelfth of August, where two sportsmen mounted on ponies, with attendant keepers and dogs, are seen on a heathery moor with blue hills beyond. Here the neutral colours of the costumes, and the mellow white and bay of the animals, form a sober harmony with the luminous grey sky against which they are relieved, and the picturesque touch is in keeping with the plein air of the breezy uplands.

Simson’s most impressive landscape is the Solway Moss in the Scottish National Collection. From a dark foreground, where a herd-boy rests beside his charge, the eye wanders over a rolling country to a distant mountain range steeped in the amber glow of evening. The cattle, darker and lighter, and a shimmer of water, diversify the shadowed foreground, a smoke drifts across the middle distance, while aboT e, soft clouds swim in a golden vapour which merges sky and landscape. To most Scotsmen there is a charm about the scenery of the borders, and a fictitious value is apt to attach to the art which deals with it. But here the appeal is not to that deeply-rooted sentiment.

This combination of consenting forms and luminous vapours affects equally those who know and those who are ignorant of the romance of the debatable land ; for the appeal is to the aesthetic sense through the painter’s special medium of line and colour.

Simson’s portrait and figure-work is less known, being almost unrepresented in our public collections. Of the former, a small head of a lady in a cap with pale blue ribbons has all the charm of touch which characterises his small panels in other genres. Another, painted just before his death, of his brother David, shows a fuller brush and a less restrained handling. One of his last works, Gil Bias introduces Himself to Laura, shows a looseness and bravura hardly compensated for by the evident gusto with which the scene has been portrayed, while his colour and handling show to advantage in a sketch of Gipsies painted about the same time. Of his more important figure pictures, Redgrave says Cimabue and Giotto, Columbus and his Child at the Convent of Santa Maria di Robida, and others shown in London on his return from Italy, gained him much notice, but that his subsequent works did not maintain the expectation these had raised. The wonder is that he accomplished what he did, for with the versatility of a certain order of the artistic temperament, his talent wanted the strength necessary for a many-sided success. But his daintily manipulated small panels, and the more substantial technique of Solway Moss, give sufficient evidence that Simson also was a master of his craft. He seems to have been of delicate constitution, and died at the early age of forty-seven.

It is impossible to draw a hard and fast line separating the different phases of art, but one may say that with Simson, Ewbank, Fenwick and Hill there passed away a type of Scottish landscape. Macculloch, Crawford, and Harvey, though only a few years younger, lived to take part in later manifestations ; even Roberts, bom in 1796, one thinks of as more modem in his work than those dealt with in this chapter. At all events, its very different nature makes it convenient to consider him apart.

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