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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter XIII. David Roberts and the Successors of Thomson

During the thirties and forties Scottish landscape painting had shown symptoms of weakness, but a more virile art was to continue the fine lead that had been given by Thomson, John Wilson, and Williams. David Roberts, though his artistic career is associated with London rather than with Edinburgh, never lost touch with the country and the city of his birth, and his healthy productions, seen from time to time at the Scottish Academy, did much to keep in check the tendencies referred to at the close of chapter ten. After a hard struggle of some years duration, and considerable practice as a scene-painter, he found free scope for the peculiar bent of his talent—the delineation of architecture under pictorial effects. Beginning about 1821 with subjects from the picturesque Edinburgh of those days, and the ruined abbeys of southern Scotland, he soon extended his travels to the adjacent parts of the Continent, and ultimately drew his subjects from Italy, Spain, and the countries bordering the Levant. The example of Williams may have influenced him, or he may have been sent wandering by the same impulse that moved various other artists about that time.

In Roberts’s work there is less of sentiment than in that of the “Grecian.” From his brush there is 110 Plain of Marathon or Minerva Simias, but he has a perennial delight in the pictorial aspects of architecture seen under varying effects of light. Sometimes he essays extensive prospects like the Rome in the Scottish National Gallery, or the smaller Edinburgh from the Calton Hill at the Guildhall. Oftener some particular building or set of buildings is the theme, and perhaps he is at his best when dealing with the interiors of great churches or cathedrals, for these better suit the monochromatic scheme in which he loves to work. From first to last his methods remain the same ; his application of them is enriched by experience, but his simple technique was early determined by his scene painting. It is as pronounced in his Exterior of Antwerp Cathedral, painted in 1827—of which there is a replica at the Guildhall—as in the Chancel of St. Paul's Church, Antwerp, of twenty years later. In the Guildhall picture the scheme is already that of ambers, drabs, and warm whites, which served him through life; and this arrangement, as very often in his later works, is backed by a sky of blue with white clouds. The use of lines, drawn as if with a straight-edge, which plays so important a part in his work, is already evident, as also the picturesque introduction of figures, equally characteristic. The later Antwerp interior is typical of its class, and a fine example of how much can be got out of the methods adopted and a scheme so restricted in regard to colour. The interior, rather ornate in its lower parts, has the veiled light appropriate to sacred edifices; and the woodwork of the stalls, the pillared reredos and the pediments of the statues combine with the dark-robed figures of priests and congregation to give value to the aerial spaces above. The light from the high windows on the right illumines the opposite wall, leaving the apse beyond in half-tone. Colour, as usual, is used sparingly, but the reds of altar steps and draperies are better harmonised than in many of the artist’s works. The impasto has more body, and the vertical lines which give height to the vaulted ceiling are less pronounced than in his earlier practice. Everything is richer and fuller, the figures are more skilfully introduced, whilst the architecture is handled with extraordinary precision and picturesqueness of touch.

For such subjects as Rome, Sunsetfrom the Convent of Sun Onqfrio, Roberts’s methods are not so well suited. In his solemn and stately interiors one can forget the scene-painter, but hardly here. Yet, judged on its own lines, the picture is an undoubted success. It was presented by the artist to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1857, in fulfilment of a promise that when they got a gallery they could call their own, he would paint them a picture. Looking eastward from the cypress-clad slopes of the Janiculum, the nearer portion of the city lies in broad shadow, only the loftier towers and two stone pines in the immediate foreground catching the ruddy glow. The farther districts of St. Angelo and the Pincian, with the hills that fringe the Campagna, still bask in sunlight. Above, rosy cloudlets float on a saffron sky. A loop of the Tiber winds through the nearer quarters of the city, its waters reflecting in the middle distance the pale gold of the east. This gleam of light, placed in skilful but not too obvious juxtaposition to the darks of cypress and pine, is the point on which the eye rests, and around which the various elements of interest group themselves in accordance with that subtle law which is the secret of the composer. A subject and an effect like this, recalling Mrs. Hemans’s familiar lines

Thou hast the sunset’s glow,
Rome, for thy dower,

clearly demanded something more than the artist’s usual scheme of bufts and drabs. Roberts does not hesitate; he attacks the colour - effect, which would have tried a master, in no half-hearted way, and if he has not quite succeeded, neither has he failed as one might have predicted. All painters know how difficult it is to get reds to take on the quality of light, but the artist has not shirked the crimson hues of the Roman sunset, and he has come wonderfully near to attaining complete success. It is quality rather than tint that fails him. Something of the technique in which so many of his countrymen excelled, and less of the fresco-like tones of the scene-painter, would have been invaluable here. For both in the sunlit and shadowed expanses of this canvas, one feels the inadequacy of such methods more keenly than where the gamut is more restricted. They insist, so to speak, on their kinship with the drop-scene, and with that art of mural decoration in which a dead or flat colour surface is appropriate. On analysis, the workmanship exhibits in a marvellous degree the artist’s clever treatment of the masses and detail of architecture, and especially the use he makes of lines to enforce their leading features. The gaily-clad figures who lounge or disport themselves on the terraced stairs in the foreground, though cleverly introduced, as always, rather enforce the scenic element of this notable picture.

Though after the first few years Roberts’s subjects were mostly drawn from Continental or Eastern countries, he varied these with canvases from both England and Scotland, and towards the close of his life he was much interested in the more picturesque aspects of London. Both his qualities and limitations are found in the illustrative works he undertook at different times. The most important of these was Sketches in the Holy Land, &c., begun in 1838, for the six volumes of which Roberts’s sketches were lithographed by Louis Haghe. The work cost £50,000 in the production, yet so popular was it that it yielded a good profit to the publishers. The drawings are reproduced on a tinted ground, reinforced sometimes by deeper shades. White is freely used, and at times one or two simple neutral tones in sky, water, and draperies. The impression left after turning over a volume or two is not altogether satisfactory. Few of the plates give any sense of the glamour of the Orient or of the mystery of the Desert. And these drawings, even more than his pictures, are indebted to the skill with which figures are introduced. Often the picturesque groups of veiled women, Moslem soldiery or Arab caravan divide the interest with the landscape. The sweeping cavalcade of mounted spearmen in the foreground of Sebate recalls the canvases of Fromentin, or the no less graphic word-pictures of his Summer in the Sahara.

Roberts’s career, from the day he settled in London, was one of unvarying, one might almost, say monotonous success. His pictures were no sooner produced than sold, and the ease and certainty with which he worked enabled him to produce abundantly. Mr. Ballantine, his biographer, catalogues nearly three hundred, the great bulk of which were sold at prices ranging from a hundred to a thousand guineas. Added to sketches done for “The Holy Land,” “Picturesque Sketches in Spain,” and contributions to “Landscape Annuals,” this represents an immense industry, even allowing for the simplicity to which he had reduced his methods. And assuredly few men have attained such results with so simple an outfit as regards technique. In this matter he differs altogether from the practice of his countrymen. The pigment is applied more in the manner of water than of oil colour. It has the consistency of a thin paste, and its lack of quality is redeemed only by a consummate knowledge of the simpler and more obvious effects of Nature, and by the adroitness with which he uses architectural forms to give pictorial variety to sunlit frontage or shady interior. His use of lines in accenting structure and detail resembles somewhat and serves the same purpose as the pencilling with which the early water-colourists reinforced their brushwork. To sum up, Roberts’s art has its strict limitations. His pictures touch none of the deeper emotions, nor have they the versatility of observation or the higher graces of technique equally valuable in the painter’s art. No great mental effort has gone to their production, but within his limits he shows great talent, and few painters have brought more pleasure to their countrymen.

Biographical details have been avoided in the foregoing pages, but one can hardly withhold a few words on a career that reads like a romance. The son of a poor cobbler in Stockbridge, the story goes that the boy was caught by Raeburn on his garden wall, but gently treated when the laird of Deanhaugh found that the intruder’s purpose was to sketch a Gothic window in his summerhouse. He was early indentured to a house-painter, and the seven years of apprenticeship under an exacting master were solaced only by the companionship of two like-minded enthusiasts. The three constituted a small life class where they took turns in sitting. After various spells of work—once with a travelling circus, where he not only looked after the scenic department but took part in the performances when required—he was engaged as a scene-painter, first in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh, where, having some two pounds a week, he married. Shortly afterwards he accepted a situation at Drury Lane, collaborating there with Stanfield, whose acquaintance he had made in Glasgow. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship, as the familiar “Stanny” of Roberts’s letters sufficiently testifies. When nearly forty years later, in the zenith of their reputation, they were entertained at a banquet given in their honour by the Royal Scottish Academy, thoughts of these early associations must have been vividly bome in on them. The careers of both, after those first struggles, had been chequered by none of the disappointments that so often come to greater artists. In addition to professional honours and rewards, Roberts holds the unique position amongst Scottish artists of having received the highest compliment the capital of his country can give, his name ranking with those of distinguished statesmen, soldiers, and scientists, on the burgess roll of the city.

Though without his ideality, or even the graces of some of his own weaker contemporaries, Horatio Macculloch was undoubtedly the continuator of the art of Thomson. Had Simson lived longer and had he returned to landscape, the succession might have been in abler hands, but even so, his removal to London would have prevented his art taking the native direction Thomson had inaugurated, nor is there much likelihood of a talent so constituted having ever devoted more than a share of its energies to any one department. A resident landscapist in the sense in which Turner, Constable, and Thomson himself, practised the art, and not one who merely painted landscape by turns, was necessary to confirm the lead already given. These conditions were fulfilled by the talented Glaswegian, born on the night the city was illuminated for the victory of Trafalgar, and hence called Horatio. For half a century his undivided energies were given to the practice of landscape. During his later teens he had some instruction from John Knox, a Glasgow landscapist to whom Macnee had just been apprenticed. For some years he was intimately associated with the latter and with W. L. Leitch, painting snuff-boxes with them at Cumnock ; and later he and Macnee were employed by Lizars of Edinburgh to colour prints. Those experiences past, he settled in his native city, and the first field for his more serious efforts was the scenery within easy distance of Glasgow. The forest of Cadzow and the lower valleys of the Clyde and Avon were especially attractive to him. So congenial, indeed, were these scenes that for three years he took up his abode in the neighbouring town of Hamilton, and it was not till he was elected Academician in 1838, that he removed to Edinburgh. From that time till his death nearly thirty years later, Macculloch was the most popular of Scottish landscape painters. This popularity, to which various circumstances contributed, has not been maintained, and, as is not unusual in such cases, the swing of the pendulum has gone too far, and his work is perhaps as much underrated now, as it was overrated in his lifetime.

Amongst the adventitious circumstances tending to Macculloch’s popularity, the national character of his work bulks most largely, and especially his having turned to the portrayal of the Highlands when tourists were more and more flooding the scenes of “The Lady of the Lake” and “TheLord of the Isles, ’hitherto an almostundiscovered country to the “Sassenach.” His earliest pictures, as has been indicated, dealt with the scenery of the Middle Ward and the adjoining districts. But in Glasgow, and even at Hamilton, he was on the fringe of the Highlands, and he soon discovered the rich vein that lay to his hand. As early as 1833—he had first exhibited in 1829—such titles as Loch Lomond, Head of Loch Fyne, and Ben Cniachan, Argyllshire, show that he had found what was to become his speciality in art. And this new direction was the occasion, as his biographer* points out, of the strongly individual style by which it is henceforth distinguished. His earliest landscapes, as described by Fraser, were based on the practice of Thomson, and one is inclined to doubt whether into his new style Macculloch might not with advantage have carried something more of the richness of those early pictures. Later in his monograph Mr. Fraser admits it as a defect in Macculloch that, after this change, he tended to repeat and exaggerate his own peculiar qualities. Individuality is a great matter in Art, but a personality strong enough to assimilate the finer qualities of forerunners or contemporaries is better still. We are told that Constable he rather tolerated than admired, and that “praise bestowed in his hearing on John Linnell or David Cox always irritated him.” His own manner might have benefited greatly from a more tolerant attitude towards his contemporaries, nor, in abandoning the conventions of Thomson, was it necessary to forego his finer qualities, as in great measure he did.

But in one important direction Macculloch’s pictures show a true advance. They delineate a land we know and love in place of the cosmopolitan regions of Thomson and the Nasmyths. For assuredly no one awake to the charm of Highland scenery can fail to recognise in the placid waters, serrated mountain ranges, and breezy skies of the painter of Loch Acliray, Glencoe, and Dunstqffhage Castle,* a vivid reminiscence of such scenes, or, in his far-drawn straths and glens, something of the sentiment that broods over a land of wistful memories, depopulated that a degenerate lord might boast his sheep.” Macculloch has a keen eye for the more obvious characteristics of Highland landscape—boulder-strewn slope, clinging copsewood or weird contour of blasted pine in the foreground, the shadowed forms of mound or hillock seen against rising mist in the middle distance, and the shower-blurred ranges beyond—all are familiar in his numerous canvases. His failing is rather to overcrowd those features and to force the contrasts. In such pictures as Dunstaffnage Cattle and My Heart's in the Highlands* one would think he is striving to bring together every characteristic of the country, whilst in Mist on the Mountain, of 1862, the contrast of the dark wooded knolls with the rising mist is so pronounced as to injure an otherwise finely conceived subject. The Dwnstaffnage suffers from a weakness to which very oblong pictures are liable, the various sources of interest are too equally spread over the canvas. One coup does not suffice. The eye is attracted alternately by the castle dominating the wooded slopes of the middle distance, and the picturesque clachan and rough “landscape with cattle” foreground at the other end of the picture. In spite of the connecting link of quiet loch and encircling hills the composition partakes of the panoramic. My Heart s in the Highlands is better concentrated, but it would have lost nothing by a little less of serrated peak and broken sky than the artist has given. In the Deer Forest in Skye, one of his most poetic conceptions, the restful middle distance and massive grandeur of the mountain range beyond are sadly marred by the too fantastic peaks which mingle with the cloudland, and by the confusion of boulders in the immediate foreground. The deer are beautifully introduced; the proud leader moving off from the mountain ipool recalls the opening line of “The Lady of the Lake.”

As an execultant Macculloch wielded a facile—a too facile brush. The individuality of style and the tendency to repeat and exaggerate his own qualities led on to very pronounced mannerisms. He never got rid of the conventional treatment of foliage practised by the Nasmyths and earlier painters : witness A Lowland River and his diploma work Evening at the Mound. Fraser says that in painting his trees and foreground he used largely a goose quill sable. So long as the result is satisfactory the means are of little consequence, but to artists the weapon seems hardly one with which to attack broad masses of foliage. His technique has other and even more serious defects, considering the nature of his subjects. His way of expressing mountain and water, especially still water, sometimes verges on the spurious. Palgrave’s phrase about Loch Achray, shown at Manchester in 1857—“it is reflection without surface ’’—can hardly be gainsaid in presence of such pictures as Inverlochy Castle* and Loch Maree. In his treatment of the torrent-seamed flanks of great mountains such as those in Glencoe, and the tumbled masses of hills in Benvenue, detail of form is too little subordinated to the harmonising effect of atmosphere. It is hard and edgy; whilst the stones and boulders of his foregrounds which he introduces so abundantly, the lights on tree stems, rushes and other herbage have a false glitter that seriously disturbs the breadth and restfulness of his compositions. The want of atmosphere gives an unconvincing look to his coloration, which in itself is not of fine quality. For in spite of the devices of mist and cloud, of vapour-dimmed distance and the inevitable peat smoke, there is a want of true atmosphere in these canvases. A finer perception of this ever-present element would have saved Macculloch from various mannerisms. His production would have been lessened—for no one whose aim is to render truly the intricate character of Highland scenery is in any danger of over-production—but in quality he would have gained infinitely. It is useless to dwell on what might have been ; let us rather recognise thankfully what Macculloch revealed to us of the beauty of the Highlands.

Harvey, whose last fifteen years were devoted mostly to landscape, approached nature from a different standpoint. For backgrounds to his Covenanting pictures he was led much amongst the uplands of our south-western counties.

To the superficial eye there is little that is attractive or picturesque in those undulating grassy hills or the heath-clad table-lands which were the refuge of our forefathers. But the painter of Dmmclog and the Communion thought of them as in sympathy with his subjects, of their sunshine as soothing, or their mists veiling from the rage of the persecutor. Thus his landscapes are deeply emotional, even when, in later days, he treated themes far removed from such tragic memories.

Though such was its origin, Harvey’s landscape, like Macculloch’s, is mostly Highland, but their renderings differ as widely as did the spirit in which they approached them. Macculloch’s pictorial combinations make an irresistible appeal to the ordinary observer ; Harvey sets himself the more arduous task of interpreting the “ still, small voice ” which speaks through all Nature’s manifestations to her more thoughtful worshippers. What the tourist sees from the four-in-hand, or from the deck of the Clansman, is presented in sublimated form in Macculloch’s attractive compositions. Harvey’s pictures give the deeper sentiment which appeals to a smaller circle. Their number is limited—the artist was approaching sixty when he became a landscapist—nor were his works produced by Macculloch's facile methods. He seldom dealt in striking effects, rugged peaks and long-drawn vistas are rare ; but more thought and labour have gone to the painting of some of these comparatively featureless subjects than to a dozen of the more scenic effects of the popular Horatio. Of The Enterkin, his earliest notable landscape, Dr Brown says that “it gives the spirit, the idea of the place, its gentle gloom, its depth and height, its unity, its sacred peace.” And what a subject from which to evolve such emotions!—a zig-zag scaur with the steep, smooth slope of grassy hills on either hand. A few boulders mark the course of the mountain streamlet, tree stems, blasted or with scant leafage, lean over a diminutive waterfall near the foreground, and a road high up on the left winds towards the notch where a glimpse of sky indents the tame outline of the hills. The picture is saved by the wandering breadth of sunlight that crosses the valley and the vapoury shadow that enshrouds and disguises its undistinguished forms. Nor is there much more of pictorial in Glen Dhu, Arran perhaps the most impressive of the artist’s landscapes, where a ridge of hills of no pronounced contour crosses the canvas from side to side, leaving only the narrowest margin of sky. This mountain barrier, seen from a foreground which slopes rapidly downwards, shuts in the view at about half a mile’s distance. Nothing lends itself to the construction of a scheme such as artists love; there are no receding planes, escapes into a vague distance, or possibilities for picturesque and telling contrast of masses. From the foreground of heath and withered grass the eye passes at once to a great hollow scooped in the front of the opposing range. It is a picture of middle distance, and its charm consists in the breadth of veiled sunshine and slumbrous shadow which gives at once a great unity and infinite variety to what would else be prosaic enough. The glint of tiny burn below—one hears its tinkle—and the shepherds driving their flock towards the pen beyond, only accent the solitude, the pastoral peace, and the restfulness of the scene. As regards technique, it is closely akin to the Sheep Shearing of the previous year, though, owing to deeply wrought glazes and scumblings, it is unfortunately not in such good condition. The later landscapes are in excellent preservation. They present the same technical qualities, and mostly depict the same more subtle charm of Highland scenery, but few of them have the concentration of motive that distinguishes the Glen Dhu. Several are of the very oblong form which makes this difficult. A Drove Road* Inverarnan, Head of Loch Lomond, and the beautiful composition entitled Scenery in the Highlands, f are instances. In Callemish—Druid Remains, f a different chord is touched in sympathy with the subject, and the crowded standing stones of the Long Island are seen under a weird moonlight effect.

It is difficult to say how far the emotional element can make up for the want of the more pictorial arrangements in which most great landscapists have dealt. The grand massing and striking contrasts of Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner, are almost precluded in Harvey’s treatment of the grassy uplands of southern Scotland or even of the Highlands; but those who have come under the spell of Glen Dhu and The Enterkim have found their less pronounced chiaroscuro no less satisfactory.

Meanwhile, the delineation of sea and shore was continued by a survivor of several who had practised the same branch. Like Simson and Ewbank, E. T. Crawford shows the influence of John Wilson, and though only a little younger, he long outlived both. So that it is he who links the earlier sea and coast painting with the art of Bough and more recent artists. Later, the influence of Thomson adds something of its largeness to his work. Like his early contemporaries, Crawford painted inland as well as coast subjects, but it is as a painter of the latter that he is best known. For all three Holland had a strong attraction, and their renderings of its canals, wharves, and waterways, have much in common, especially those of Simson and Crawford. In those Dutch subjects, where white and reddish brown sails and varnished hulls are mirrored in waters whose shores are broken by the frequent windmill or church tower; where the blacks and reds of costume are the strongest notes and the tricolor droops on a pale sky, it is difficult sometimes to assign the authorship. On the whole, Simson’s are of a finer colour quality, and his pencilling in spar and cordage is more delicate ; but sometimes Crawford runs him so close as almost to justify the doubt.

Our own shores were treated in the same lightsome schemes. With sails spread or half furled vessels unload by wooden wharves, whilst lesser craft cluster about or are seen in the offing. Or carts and red-capped fishermen bustle about tbe sloop or schooner heeled over by the receding tide—all the picturesque incidents, indeed, of tbe coasting-trade of tbose days were taken advantage of by Crawford as by other painters of our coasts. His visits to Holland were repeated at intervals, the beach at Scheveningen, Dordrecht, the Port of Delft, and the quays of Rotterdam engaging his brush, sometimes almost to the exclusion of other subjects, till with advancing years he ceased to exhibit. In another class of subjects, where he deals with our rock-bound eastern coast, the influence of Thomson is felt. With a difference, however, for the brown and amber and deep indigo in which the amateur’s heroic schemes were conceived have approximated somewhat to the true colours of nature. In such pictures as Tantallon Castle and his diploma Coast Scene, Crawford shows in the large configuration of cliff and mouldering ruin, the inclosing lines of cumuli against which they are set, and darkening sea, much of the grandeur of the earlier master, in combination with something of the more natural lighting and local colour of modern landscape. They lack the glow and gloom of Thomson’s more frankly conventional schemes, but the infusion of the light of common day is some recompense for qualities which lent themselves so readily to the vagaries of a fancy not always under strict control. His work is neither imaginative nor emotional; on the other hand, it avoids that touch of the theatrical which with some contemporary landscapists did duty for those qualities. It is eminently sane and healthy. Crawford was a capable craftsman always, though both in method and subject his art was somewhat restricted; his work has little variety of surface, the material being of a rather monotonous consistency throughout. He avoids the more positive colours; warm whites, buffs and siennas, neutral blues and grays deepening to indigo and umber, with a green tending to drab, constitute his restrained gamut. Crossing the Bar, purchased by the Royal Association for the National collection, shows that the influence of Wilson was still strong in his work of the early sixties.

A word may be said here of a painter whose reputation hardly extends beyond the town with which his name is associated, John Fleming, of Greenock. As early as 1813 he sent to an exhibition held in the western seaport a picture —Peter denying Christ—and various landscapes, but he is best known by a series of works painted for “Swan’s Lakes of Scotland,” published in 1831. These are of small dimensions, but many of them possess great charm, both of composition and colour. Now and then his treatment of mountain and loch is highly poetical, whether, as in Loch Alsh, the effect is of brooding storm over naked precipice and sullen waters, or in Loch Oich, where the more fertile shores and the stronghold of the Macdonells are bathed in the golden vapours of a summer sunset. It is regrettable that in many of Fleming’s works the extreme beauty of distance and middle distance is marred by conventionally treated foregrounds. But this was a fault not confined to the provincial painter.

The Life of David Roberts, R.A.
By James Ballantine (pdf)

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