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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter XVI. Minor Portraiture and Miniature Painting


It is impossible in a work such as this to give more than a passing glance at painters who, though not entitled to a leading place, have yet helped to give body and weight to the national art. Some of these, even when they have worked in the larger centres, have a local rather than a general reputation, and they are usually spoken of in connection with the localities to which they belonged, as Tannock of Kilmarnock, Crabb of Laurencekirk, and, more recently, James Irvine of Montrose. Tannock, a contemporary of Wilkie, exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy from 1813 to 1841. The three examples at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery give a far from favourable idea of his powers. Crabb, who belonged to a later generation—he was born in 1811—practised both portraiture and historical painting, and his work in both departments had something of originality and talent. From 1851 till 1864 he was resident in London, and thenceforth till his death in 1876 in his native town, Laurencekirk. Before that he had lived both in Edinburgh and Glasgow. His more ambitious work is little known. A picture, Ahab in NabotKs Vineyard, seems to have made some mark at the Royal Academy in 1851, and an earlier work, Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu after the Combat, found its way to the Edinburgh International of 1886. It was spirited, if somewhat loose in execution, and forced in its scheme of lighting. His portraits often show a fine grasp of character and a handling indicative of great facility in the management of the brush, though they lack the completion of the true craftsman. A half-length of Mrs. Cowie, a middle-aged lady of well-marked features and somewhat masculine type has a technique reminiscent of Hals, the dark dress, coal-scuttle bonnet, and broad rilled collar, furnishing one of those black and white schemes in which the Dutchman delights.

William Nicholson has been more than once mentioned. He was a prolific contributor to the exhibitions of the Associated Artists, and one of the leading spirits in the movement which resulted in the formation of the Scottish Academy. He belonged to Newcastle, but he spent the greater part of his professional life in Edinburgh, where he had a large practice as a portrait-painter. The work on which his reputation chiefly rests is in water-colour and of small size ; but he also painted many oil portraits 011 the scale of life. Of the latter the National Collection contains a bust portrait of H. W. Williams; at Queen Street, and in the Royal Scottish Academy Library, there are similar portraits of Sir Adam Ferguson and Thomas Hamilton, the architect. The last-named is the latest, and shows an influence of Raeburn from which the others are free. In all three the character is well rendered, but the technique which suits so well the small water-colour portraits is less successful on the larger scale. Of his work in the slighter medium the galleries at the Mound and at Queen Street each possess an example, the former having a portrait of George Thomson, Burns’s musical correspondent, the latter one of Professor John Playfair. Later than these, and better representing the artist, is a halflength profile of William Etty. The fine head of the English colourist is rendered with a brush, soft or precise, as the surfaces of the flesh or accents of the features require, and the hand has lingered over them or treated them more freely with a true sense of their relative importance. Most of Nicholson’s drawings are executed with a minimum of background, but here Etty’s chef oeuvre, The Combat, is delicately indicated behind the chair on which he is seated.

A full-length of Mrs. Scott Moncriefff in walking dress with large fur muff held by her side, differs in this last respect, there being an elaborately painted landscape background, showing the city with the castle and the dome of St. George’s as seen from the south. The picture is probably of some years later date than the widely known portrait of the same lady by Raeburn, which was painted about 1815. Here she wears a black gown with loose jacket, and carries a red shawl over her arm. The pose is at once elegant and natural, the short waist and simple folds of the skirt suiting well her lithe and graceful figure. A wide open bonnet of dark material lends height to the stature and piquancy to the features. The expression is animated, and the large dark eyes, well marked brows, and lips slightly parted, are painted with all the care and with just a touch of the over precision of the miniature. Unlike the Etty and the two earlier portraits, the Mrs. Scott Moncrieff is painted in pure watercolour, without crosshatching or other reinforcement by the point. In a head of Mrs. Dugald Stewart, lately on loan at the Queen Street Gallery, Nicholson was seen at his best. On such matters it is difficult to speak from memory, but the face full of character, in its setting of frilled white cap, left an impression of the artist’s qualities which none of the others quite attain to. In his average work there is a lack of grit in the treatment of the flesh, which gives a something of effeminacy to the male portraits, and of over softness even to the female. In the Etty the delicate carnations and wavy brown hair impart a quite juvenile appearance to one already in middle life. This defect was less apparent in Mrs. Dugald, Stewart.

James Irvine worked mostly in his native county, Forfarshire, and it was only the companionship of his friend Paul Chalmers that brought him much about the capital in his later years. During this last period his style was much influenced by that of the younger painter, but all through his career Irvine produced many excellent portraits, which are mostly to be seen in the towns and mansion houses of his native district. A full-length of a boy in the Dundee Albert Institute, is a good example of his earlier work, when his style and methods were based on those of Watson Gordon and his contemporaries. In 1863 there appeared at the Scottish Academy a kit-cat portrait of George Torrance, in which the simple technique of Scottish mid-century portraiture was used in a manner hardly inferior to that of the leaders of the school. His later work gained much in picturesqueness through his association with Chalmers; it also lost something of individuality, but, on the whole, the gain was greater than the loss, the fuller body and more pictorial effects adopted more than compensating for the loss in directness of treatment. One or two studies made during these later years of the head of Quartermaster Coull, a naval veteran who had laid the Shannon alongside the Chesapeake in the war of 1812, show Irvine at his best, both as to rendering of character and technique.

The art of miniature painting has not been without its exponents in Scotland, though there has been no school of miniaturists in the sense of the corresponding English school which preceded the portraiture of Reynolds and Gainsborough. Robert Strange was one of the first to practise it on this side the border, but his success in the kindred and laborious art of engraving left him little time for the ivory and camel hair. The romance of his life which led him to exchange the graver’s tool for the sword, and the political complications which ensued, may have had something to do with this. At all events, hft miniatures are few in number; a list of ten or twelve is given in Dennistoun’s narrative of his life. John Bogle, a native of the west of Scotland, and George Sanders have been mentioned in an earlier chapter. By the former, who seems to have settled in London about 1772, there is at Queen Street a spirited little drawing of Henry Erskine. It is in pencil with slight washes of grey, puce, and neutral blue. There is fine characterisation in the animated features, and both in attitude and expression—he has the left arm raised—there is much vivacity of rendering. The bust portrait of a fair-haired young woman by George Sanders, at the Mound, hardly justifies the reputation he enjoyed and the prices he obtained in London, where he settled about the same time as Wilkie. But that Sanders was not without very considerable ability is evident from a series of studies from pictures by Dutch and Flemish masters, executed in a crisp and dainty wash, which used to form part of the water-colour collection in the same galleries, and of which one, after Rembrandt’s Syndics, is still placed. Of the miniature work of his contemporary, William J. Thomson, who had a great reputation in Edinburgh during the first half of the century, the writer has been unable to see anything. The public collections in Edinburgh and Glasgow are without examples, though he seems to have been a prolific worker till within a year or two of his death, which took place in 1845 at the age of seventy-four. H. W. Williams, no mean judge, in some remarks on modem Italian art, concludes: “In portrait painting, which of them can compare with a Lawrence, a Raeburn, or a Geddes ? or in miniature with a Sanders or a Thomson?” His portrait, by himself, a half-length, in the possession of the Scottish Academy, shows an elderly man of well-marked features and with iron-grey hair. The work is not of more than average merit.

Of the later exponents of miniature in Scotland, Kenneth Macleay was the ablest, and he alone continued the tradition of Nicholson in that department of the art which affords so much more scope for the artistic faculty than the ivory tablet. His work in this more ordinary branch shows also the hand of the capable craftsman, as witness the portrait of Mrs. James Dymock in the Scottish Academy’s library; but it is in his small water-colour portraits that Macleay’s talent reaches its high water mark. The full-length of Miss Helen Faucit is a fine example of the treatment appropriate for such work. There is no attempt to give the colour the force of nature, or to vie with oil portraiture. Only in the head does the artist depart from neutral tones, nor even there does he endeavour to attain the realism of the stronger material. The handsome features are modelled in warm washes, reinforced here and there in the more strongly accented parts by almost imperceptible point work with the brush. The dark hair, in ringlets, the more positive tints of the complexion, and the deep blue-grey eyes, are rendered with an easy descriptive touch. The gracefully posed figure in white flounced dress, the accessories, and the background, are executed in a technique which, though slight and admirably pictorial, never degenerates into the looseness or chic to which such work is peculiarly liable. This typical picture belongs to the artist’s prime, bearing the date 1844. In an earlier bust portrait of his mother, a profile, the methods are the same as in the later picture, but the effect is less pronounced and the washes and hues of the complexion and the accentuation of the features are more delicate. It differs from the work of 1844 also in the pencil line with which the neck and bust are indicated. The large and simple drawing of this contour gives an added value to the finish of the head. In male portraiture of this nature, the three-quarter length of Park, the sculptor, was one of the most successful. In later years, when miniature painting had been seriously interfered with by photography, Macleay painted many landscapes in water-colour, but here he was out of his element, and his standing in the Scottish School of Painting is to be judged by such works as those described above.

Towards the middle of the century Robert Thorburn, a native of Dumfries, had a great success as a miniaturist amongst fashionable circles in London. He had studied under Allan at the Trustees’ Academy, but beyond exhibiting a few portraits of royal and aristocratic personages in Edinburgh between the years 1846-55, his work was little known in Scotland. The stipple of the miniature minimises the distinction of schools, and the work of northern artists who practised it across the border can hardly be said to have any bearing on native art, nor had the subject-pictures in oil of Thorbnrn’s later years much affinity with Scottish painting.

Though scarcely coming within the sphere of the present work, mention may be made of the pencil drawings of John Brown—1752-89—of the better-known Kay's Portraits, and of Crombie’s Modern Athenians, a series of tinted etchings of prominent personages in Edinburgh during the thirties and forties of last century. These, and the remarkable series of photographs known as Hills Calotypes, mentioned in a previous chapter, have given Edinburgh a record of its leading citizens during three-quarters of a century, which is probably unique.


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