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 XVIII. The Young Men of the Forties

By the middle of the century Edinburgh had been a recognised art centre for more than a generation. At first, its artistic had been rather overshadowed by its literary fame, but the pencil was gaining on the pen. The presiding genius of the place had long gone to his rest, and his monument, designed and carried out by local artists, had provided a new attraction for its main thoroughfare. Of the talented men of letters who had been his contemporaries, those who remained were in the sere and yellow leaf, and their successors, Aytoun, Hugh Miller, and “Delta,” were hardly of the same calibre. But never, perhaps, has the city been richer in the literary and scientific culture that the presence of a great University and the headquarters of Church and Law assure. Around Dr. Chalmers, Sir William Hamilton, and Sir David Brewster, representing theology, philosophy, and science, there clustered others scarcely less distinguished in their several spheres, and these, with the steadily increasing artistic element, foimed a society such as could be matched nowhere in Britain outside of London. And Edinburgh had not yet extended its limits so far as to prevent the easy association of its citizens. The institution of a new ^Esthetic Club is just what might have been expected, and it is not

surprising to find such a society launched towards the close of 1851. Its chief object was the time-honoured one of “elucidating the principles of Beauty and reducing them to a science.” Some three years earlier, a club which bears more directly on the present subject had been formed by half a dozen young painters, under the title of “The Smashers.” The original members were John Ballantyne, William Crawford, William Fettes Douglas, John Faed, Thomas Faed, and James Archer. Fifteen years later, when the majority of the members had made a name for themselves across the border, the club was reconstituted in London under the less aggressive designation “The Auld Lang Syne,” and the names of Erskine Nicol, John Stirling, and Andrew Maclure were added to the roll. Crawford and Douglas put in an appearance on their occasional visits to London.

Edinburgh has been par excellence a city of clubs, and, as has been seen, the artistic fraternity had not been shy of them. But it is significant of the change time had wrought in social habits that such societies no longer met in places of public entertainment. Not in Libberton’s Wynd or Anchor Close did the staid professors, scientists, and litterateurs, discuss the principles of Beauty, as their predecessors had done at the “Dilettanti,” and even the more Bohemian “Smashers” had no “Doway College” for rendezvous. The meetings of both were held at the residences of the members in turn. The “Esthetic” concerns us little, but the other is interesting as the first of a succession of sketching-clubs which have since existed in the northern capital. A subject was given out, and an hour or two devoted to work before passing to what the records call “the serious business of the evening.” Very lively meetings they were, and the fully extended minutes give a delightful glimpse of the ait life of those days, and the theories discussed in jest or earnest by the members. The sketches made were mostly in washed Indian ink or sepia, and many of them forecast the more mature work of their authors.

Amongst these young painters William Fettes Douglas takes a leading position. He is less widely known than some of them, only because he remained in Scotland ; but, ultimately, it is a man’s work, not the locale in which it is produced, that determines his standing. Like Drummond, with whom he had many tastes in common, Douglas was a typical product of the Scottish capital, and though he dallied with the wider field on more than one occasion, it can be gathered from various entries in the minutes of “The Auld Lang Syne” that a London career never had much attraction for him.

He had begun by exhibiting several portraits in 1845, but his true bent soon asserted itself, and during the next few years his future metier is forecast in its main lines of historic and romantic incident, subjects from poetry and fancy, those founded on his antiquarian and collecting instincts, and, most characteristic of all, from that borderland of the real and the supernatural which had such a fascination for him all through life. In every direction he shows a marked individuality. Incidents gleaned from chronicles and annals are preferred to the more stately pageants of history, mediaeval lore and “Hudibras” to Shakespeare and more recent romance. Subjects like The Tempter and The Friend's Return from beyond the Grave are more suitable for literary than for pictorial treatment, but they help to show the versatility of the painter’s talent.

Douglas’s technique differs from that of his Scottish contemporaries as his temperament and conceptions differ. There is a minimum of that play of the brush, and of the varying consistencies of paint in which they mostly delight; yet his method is based on the same processes, with certain aspects of them—those which tempt the colourist to neglect other qualities—kept well in hand. It has all the native deftness and address ; no Fleming or Dutchman had a hand more agile than that which has given us the nicely discriminated textures of parchment and tapestry, the frayed leather of bookbindings, and the miracles of carved ivory and chased metal work of Douglas’s still life. And few had a keener perception of certain aspects of character, or could render them with such unerring precision in the physiognomy of conspirator, astrologer, or fanatic. The necessities of his subjects, and his original treatment of them developed, so to speak, a method which cost him some of the qualities he seemed at first to possess. A small head of Alexander Fraser, painted in 1850, shows the full impasto, the luminous shadow, and the fine fusion one expects from a young painter influenced by Duncan and the Lauders. In more important works of the two following years—Don Quixote reading the Romances and The Bibliomaniac %—there is still the fuller brush and material of the earlier portrait, and his handling as yet lacks the precision which became so marked a characteristic. A few years later in Oldbitck and Lovel § and Iludibras and Ralph visiting the Astrologer is changed: the artist addresses us in a technique which lends itself peculiarly to his manner of conceiving a class of subjects of which these are representative. In the first-named, the Antiquary shows Lovel the treasures of Monk-barns. The place is cumbered with quartos, folios, and parchments, strewn about the floor or piled on tables and on a long settle, in company with wood-carvings, porcelain vases, and other articles of vertu. In the midst, the laird, with a precious volume in one hand, propounds some learned theory, his beaming countenance contrasting with the half-amused, half-bored expression of his guest, who leans back in his chair with patient submission. In the subject from “Hudibras” Douglas reaches a still higher level. In a low-roofed apartment, to which window and open door admit a flood of light, Sidrophel prepares to receive the anxious inquirers. Seated at a table strewn with loose documents, his figure tells dark against the light cast on them by the window in front of him. Eyeglasses in hand, he turns for a moment to consult with Whackum who, drawing aside a fold of tapestry, thrusts a cadaverous visage into the room at his master’s call. Hudibras and Ralph are about to mount the door-steps, their strongly contrasted types having for background a landscape of river and meadow under a soft summer sky. Here colour-scheme and lighting show more variety than in the scene from the “ Antiquary,” but in both pictures the artist’s changed technique is manifest. There is a lighter and more equal impasto, colour and chiaroscuro are no longer the only, or even the chief, objectives, as with most of his countrymen. The reds and greys of the flesh are often of unpleasant quality, but the drawing and contour of things, down to the most delicate accent which makes for character—be it in carved oak, dog-eared vellum, or in human form or feature—are sought after, to the detriment, perhaps, of other qualities, but with an ardour, a keenness of vision, and a skill of hand, which go far to compensate for their loss. He is not insensible to the influence of a well-conceived chiaroscuro, but it is an open question whether Douglas is not seen to most advantage where the arabesque and design count for more, and the light and shade for less, as in The Spell1 The Whisper, The Ruby Ring‘d and An Eastern Merchant. In these, where a something of Holbein is grafted on the traditional methods, the artist's personality seems to have fuller play.

Dante arranging his Friends in the Iivferno, Hudibras and the Lawyer,§ and The Conspirators—Treason versus Treach-ry, of the years 1862, 1864, and 1867, show Douglas’s further development in different departments. In the first, the austere Florentine, pen and scroll in hand, contemplates a series of concentric circles traced on the floor, before fixing the fate of his friends, whose portraits lean against the walls of the apartment. His red-robed figure tells dark against a white wall, pierced with a window of double lights. Behind him is a table with patterned cover, and beyond a tapestry hanging. A few books and manuscripts scattered on the floor, and a crucifix on the wall, complete an arrangement of appropriate severity of design and sobriety of colour. In the two later works, where the portrayal of the passions and the meannesses of humanity is the leading motive, the artist adopts a rather fuller material and a more natural lighting than in the pictures of some years earlier.

Where he touches domestic life, Douglas deals mostly with its lighter aspects and situations. A picture painted in 1873, When the Sea gives up its Dead is an exception. In a room overlooking the sea two girls are seen near a window of Gothic form, from which one of them looks, leaning an elbow on a cabinet beside her. She is in a light-coloured dress and holds a closed book by her side. Seated near, her companion, whose slight, black-robed figure is seen in profile, bends forward in deep grief, hiding her face in her hands. A sheet of music with the title of Jean Ingelow’s song lies on the floor, suggesting that the poignancy of some like sorrow has been suddenly recalled. The light on the yellow hair, spread over the shoulders of the bent figure, illumines the sombre apartment, whilst under a leaden sky the cruel unresting waters stretch to the far horizon. The treatment is extremely simple. The dark and lighter dresses make a sober harmony with the neutral setting, whilst the dull reds of curtain and cushion, and the gleam of yellow hair, are repeated in the book and the brass-work of the cabinet. There is all the artist’s daintiness of touch, and the shadowed hands and wrists of the grief-stricken girl are of finer quality than usual; but one hardly thinks of the technique, so affecting is the theme. For the picture goes beyond the sentiment of the song. No wail of Border ballad has a deeper pathos than this painted story of the sea.

From the first, landscape had an attraction for Douglas, and one can gather from the glimpses some of his figure pictures afford, a forecast of the work of his later years. The vista of river and meadow seen through Sidrophel’s open doorway, the weird outlook on moonlit sea and Druidic stones in The Spell, and many other examples, might be cited. In a little picture, Her Grandmother's Gown, there is a narrow strip of street of quite Tumeresque delicacy. Apart from such indications, the artist had shown his capacity in landscape during a residence at Prestonpans about 1860, but it was not till the exhibitions of 1875-6 that this was shown on an important scale in two quaintly conceived pictures, Stonehaven from the Bervie Braes, and Early Morning— Herring Boats entering Stonehaven. Both are upright and narrow in form, in both the view is from high ground, with the consequent high horizon, in the one case of distant country, in the other of sea. The huddled roofs of the fishing village form a foreground for both. The former, in which the eye skirts the curve of the bay and follows the course of a stream through an undulating distance, is the finer of the two. The greater space occupied in the other by the tiled and slated roofs is detrimental, the reds being crude in quality, and rather harshly opposed to the silvery breadths of sea and sky. But it was in watercolour, and during his latest years that Sir William’s f sympathetic treatment of landscape showed to most advantage. From his summer quarters, by northern sea or inland moor or lake, he would return laden with sketches in which, if the range is more limited, the individuality is quite as marked as in his figure-pictures. The braes, which slope steeply to the shores of Angus and the Mearns, furnish some of his best themes. There he delights in the quieter moods of nature, when, from some warm tinted field, the eye wanders over still waters to where the distance melts into the sky, or some long spit of land breaks down to the sea. Sometimes he depicts the level fields and red-roofed cottages of the East Neuk, or draws his subjects from the lake and woodland of Monteith or Lochmaben. He attempts no dramatic effects, and his colour-scheme is limited, but within his range, and through the same strong personality, keen perception, and agile hand, which made his figure-work so interesting, he has produced a series of landscapes which are also unique in their kind.

Towards the close of its third year, the Laureate of the “Smashers,” after wishing success and prosperity to the club and its members, touches in a penultimate verse a more solemn note:

“Oh, who of us will be the last
Who shall sit all alone,
Haunted with crowding memories
Of the days that are long gone.”

It fell to the singer himself to be the last link between the old and the new. It is to be regretted that, with his retentive memory and literary gift, Mr. Archer has not left some more general record of the art life of Edinburgh during his early days than can be gleaned from his minutes of the “Sketching” and “Esthetic” Clubs. To listen to his eager discourse of those far-off times—of his grinding colours for Thomas Duncan; of the tall gentleman who one day came with Sir William Allan to the Sculpture Gallery where he was drawing, and who proved to be Wilkie; of De Quincey and others whose portraits he had painted—was a continual delight.

In 1842 James Archer made his debut at the Scottish Academy with The Child St. John in the Wilderness; and for the next fifteen years, Scripture subjects mingle with those of fanciful or romantic interest, and a large admixture of portraits, many of which were in chalk. Twice The Last Supper occupies his brush, in 1849 and 1856. The latter seems to have been the more important work, and was preceded by a sketch in water-colour in which the composition is treated on the old lines, but with a personal note which saves it from being a mere repetition. A bust portrait of himself, and a St. Genevieve of this early period, already give a forecast of his style, in their more definite form and contour and reserved colour and handling, as distinguished from the work of his compeers. In The Mistletoe Bough, of 1852, Archer has gained much, but neither in the type chosen, nor in the painting of the head, are there the refinement and distinction which mark the work of his prime, from Rosalind and Celia, exhibited in 1854, to The King over the Water, of 1877. In the former, the two heroines are seen in confidential talk, against a curtained and tapestried background. The darker, Celia, lays her hand on the breast of her more demure companion, and, with laughing eye, interrogates her as to some happy secret indicated in downcast look and conscious expression. Alike in the piquant profile and arch smile of Celia, in the more regular features of Rosalind, and in the various draperies and accessories, Archer here expresses himself in a technique which differs, in respect of a certain restraint, from the more racy or incisive handling of Faed, Nicol, and Douglas.

In Morte Arthur, 1861, Archer attains his highest level, whether as regards sentiment or the means through which it is embodied. To the writer it is a far off memory, and, though the charm of the picture remains, one cannot venture on any detailed description. It must suffice to say that the prostrate form of the dying king—his clear blue eye already fixed—the “weeping queens,” and the phantom angel presenting “the holy vessell of the san greal,” as well as the surroundings of landscape and darkling sea, were set forth in an impressive design and a workmanship which, while it had lost nothing of its sobriety, was everywhere more sensitive. At intervals the artist returned to the illustration of the Arthurian legend, as in King Arthur in Quest of his Mystic Sword Excalibur, and The Parting of Arthur and Guinevere. No subjects better suit his talent and temperament. In the last-named, the golden hair of the erring Queen was spread out like a great fleece about the feet of her reproachful yet forgiving lord.

About 1862 Archer made London his headquarters, residing for a year or two in Surrey before settling in the metropolis. Subjects of mixed landscape and figure interest were interspersed with those from history and romance during the next ten years. Later, his attention was turned mainly to portraiture and single figure subjects akin to it. These branches are finely represented by The Three Sisters, and The King over the Water. In the former, of two elder girls one is seated in front with a child sister on her knee, the other, leaning against a tree stem, exchanges words with the nearer, whose head, slightly lifted in response, is seen in profile. A park-like background with a glimpse of sky relieves the group. The scheme is of whites, yellows, and grey-greens, to which the brown feather and ribbon on the pendant hat of the standing girl, the black velvet bands both wear round the throat, and a note or two of colour, give’accent and variety. These two heads are painted in the almost impalpable gradations of grey and faint carnations in keeping with the out of door effect, and the drawing and modelling of the features have all the grace and distinction in which Archer rarely fails. The white muslin dresses are broadly and freely handled, with due regard to form and with a fine precision of touch. The same qualities, in conjunction with a fuller body in the flesh painting and a stronger colour-scheme, are found in The King over the Water, exhibited in 1877, where a fair Jacobite responds to the loyal toast in the manner understood by the followers of the white cockade. These two pictures represent Archer’s work on the scale of life at its ablest. In his average portraiture of this nature, one feels often a thinness and hardness, as in the three-quarter lengths of Sir Daniel Macnee and Professor Blackie, where, though the character is well caught, there is a want of the virility necessary for life-size work. By temperament, indeed, he was a painter of pictures, or of figures where his technique with its personal note of refinement could be applied without the risk of getting diffuse and slack, as it often does on the larger scale. Archer, like Sir Noel Paton, was influenced by the contemporary movement in literature. The Arthurian myths, revived by Tennyson, ballad poetry, and the older romance, take the place of Scott, in his subject-pictures. But his technique was less affected by the practice of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Two of the most popular Scottish painters during the third quarter of the century were of the Galloway family of Faeds. John, the elder, had begun as a miniaturist some years before his better-known brother—who first exhibited in 1844—and it was not till 1850 that his contributions in that genre were supplemented by subject-pictures. Meantime the younger brother’s talent developed rapidly, and towards the middle of the century, it can be gathered from the number of works exhibited as private property that his reputation kept pace with it. Nor is it confined to Scotland. Liverpool and Manchester, and soon London collectors and dealers were in search of “Tom Faeds,” with the result that in 1852, at the age of twenty-six, he had already sought the larger field, where his works for many years were increasingly popular. In the sphere of domestic genre, to which after that date he confined himself, he had a great success. His earlier works were of more varied character. Whilst his ultimate bent is discernible from the first, portraiture, history, and prose and poetic literature are represented. Scott and his Literary Friends at A bbotsford; Cains Marine in Prison; Ravens-wood and the Gravedigger; are examples. The first, well known through his brother James’s engraving, is a fine example of the traditional Scottish methods, though painted in a rather monotonous key. Venus and Cupid in the Teacher Collection, the People’s Palace, Glasgow, a small Portrait of Mrs. Brndie,* and various sketches, both in colour and sepia, of his Edinburgh period, show an extraordinary command over his material for one still in his student years.

Keeping the Queen’s Birthday, and The First Letter from the Emigrants, mark the beginning of more important subjects in the department with which his name is associated. In the latter, where a young man seated in the embrasure of a window reads aloud to the assembled family, a technique similar to that in the Abbotsford picture is combined with the more pictorial treatment permitted, or almost necessitated, by one of those picturesque interiors to which Scottish genre painters owe so much. The single light, against which the reader tells dark, illumines strongly the nearer figures of the group who hang on his words, giving opportunity for the delineation of varied expressions, under an effect which lends itself to a simple and telling scheme. Two years later, in Burns and Highland Mary* the conditions forbid any marked chiaroscuro, and it is the ease and completion of the modelling, and the simple rendering of the idyllic theme that fascinate. The passion of the young poet is expressed with fine reticence; but it is especially in the painting of the Highland girl, who is seen full face with eyelids modestly drooped under the ardent gaze of her lover, that Faed shows himself already a master of his craft. The fair complexion and rippling brown hair relieved against the sky, and the bare arms and breast, are given with a unity of surface, a tenderness of gradation, and a softness of touch which mark the accomplished artist.

Of the pictures painted during his earlier London period, many are widely known, The First Break in the Family, 1857; Sunday in the Backwoods, 1859; From Dawn to Sunset, 1861; Baith Faither and Mither, 1864; well represent the nature of the work to which his best years were devoted. With as yet no loss of technical skill, the sentiment in these and similar subjects is often too obviously displayed. In his critique of the 1862 International, Mr. Palgrave says concerning The First Break—which represents the rest of the family giving a send-off to their eldest hope—“Even the weather sympathises in its way, and repeats by clever signs the varied feelings of the family; here a gleam, and there a shadow, the rainbow on one hand and the shower on the other. All this is ingenious, but it seems rather after the manner of a tale for very young children, where the moral comes in at the end of every sentence.” One must agree with the critic’s strictures, but when he goes on to liken the technique to that of Frith, he is wide of the mark, for there is in Faed’s work a mastery of the brush to which Frith can make no claim. The picture at the Tate Gallery, Faults on Both Sides, and especially the smaller replica or finished sketch of it at the Guildhall, is proof of this. The latter—some 8x5 in.—shows in the painting of the figures seated side by side, all the daintiness of a miniature combined with the freedom of a larger handling ; and here the humour of the situation justifies the plain setting forth of the strained relations. There is just a tendency in the accessories and setting of this delightful little canvas to that over pronouncement of colour which marks another class of the artist’s pictures. These are often single figures, Highland or Irish girls, “got up” rather than clothed in their native garb, and with picturesque glimpses of loch and mountain as background. In his later works this tendency persists, and he adopts a larger scale which suits ill the nature of his subjects. The painter-like handling and keen accent are exchanged for a softer and somewhat woolly touch, till there is little but the titles to associate them with his early and earlier middle period.

The elder brother’s efforts, after the middle fifties, were moie and more directed to figure-painting, in which he deals mostly with the illustration of song and ballad, or of Scottish history and tradition. For a year or two, 1859-60, Biblical and Eastern subjects occupy his pencil, as indicated in the titles Bedouin Exchanging a Young Slavefor Armour; Scene in a Bazaar, Cairo; Boaz and Ruth. The Cruel Sister, 1851 ; The Raid of Ruthven, 1856; and a small canvas, The Death of Burd Helen, now in the Kelvingrove Museum, are examples from Scottish history and ballad literature, whilst in The Cotter's Saturday Night and The Wappenschaw he comes nearer the genre and character-painting of his brother. In all these the result of his practice as a miniature-painter is felt in the elaborate finish, the smooth surface, and a harder, less sympathetic brushwork. His diploma picture, Annie's Tryst, by which John Faed is most widely known, gives a less favourable impression of his faculty than some of the other works referred to. Burd Helen has much of the intensity of the “ woful ballad ” it illustrates, and both in Boaz and Ruth and The Wappenschaw there is fine character-painting. The latter, a large picture, with many figures engaged at target practice, before the advent of the modem rifle had reduced it to a science, furnished a fine field for variety of gesture and expression, of which the artist has taken full advantage.

It is not a little strange that the analogue, in the painter’s craft, of Lever and Lover should have been found on the shores of the Firth of Forth. It may be that Erskine Nicol’s interpretations deal with the surface of Irish life, that they embody only its humorous and picturesque aspects; they pretend to no more, but within their sphere, both as character-studies, and from a technical point of view, they give their painter a unique place in the Scottish school. A chance appointment as art master in Dublin during the later forties led to this unexpected development in the young Scottish landscape-painter. In 1850 he exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy An Irish Peasant Girl: a year or two later, by which time he had returned to Edinburgh, Irish subjects practically monopolise his brush. Paddy's Toilet; The Onconveniency of Single Life; A Word or Two on the Rint; The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties; Cushla Machree; Hould Me or Til Fight!!!; indicate the nature of work which, during the years immediately succeeding, brought Nicol a well-earned recognition. Those canvases were mostly of small dimensions, and though they want the finer artistry of the younger Faed’s contemporary work, they were executed in a technique which well expressed the more marked characteristics and facial expression of his subjects. Nicol’s brush has seldom to do with the delineation of beauty; the subtle transitions and suavity of handling that give charm to Highland Mary in Faed’s picture referred to above, were unnecessary for the farcical and humorous incidents he depicts; but his adroit touch is singularly happy in its application to the sun-tanned faces of pronounced physiognomy, and the dilapidated costume of the happy-go-lucky sons of Erin he introduces us to. Nor is he altogether insensible to the charm of its daughters, as witness the flashing black eyes and comely features of his “ Molly Brierleys ” and “ Cushla Machrees.” The technique in his earliest Irish pictures recalls Lizars in its sharp contours and mosaic-like disposition of the various colours, though there is less dexterous fluency, a fuller brush, and a heavier material, than in Reading the Will and A Scotch Wedding. Towards the sixties his pictures show more of the Scottish manner; the broad shadows are thinner and more umbery, and a well conceived light and shade veil the too pronounced divisions of his earlier colour-arrangements. This is exemplified in his diploma picture, The Day after the Fair, in Molly Brierley, and The Wheedler. In the first-named where Pat, in some dishabille, with bandaged brow, head thrown back, and hands clasped under one knee, ponders yesterday’s results, the thinner painting is in a blacker and more monotonous key than usual. In the other two, a something of his earlier colour-schemes is combined with a finer chiaroscuro and a more skilful use of the umbers, though, like various Scottish artists before him, he inclines to carry a fascinating method to the verge of abuse.

Some of the pictures by which Nicol is best known were painted during the years immediately succeeding his removal to London. Renewal of the Lease Rfused; A Deputation; Paddy—His Mark, are typical of these. Naturally, his methods are affected by contact with English art, though the considerable Scottish contingent by this time practising in London tended to counteract the southern influence. Still, the monochromatic schemes get modified, the umbery shadows contract, and before long, as with the younger Faed, the increased scale of his figures involves the adoption of a larger brush work, with like results. At a certain stage of their development most painters feel the ambition to enlarge the canvas and to use a broader manner of expressing themselves. There are various reasons for this. One begins to realise the shortness of life, and that the elaboration of complex subjects on the smaller scale takes too long a time, and hardly makes the impression that more broadly treated compositions do. The homely proverb that “a good big one is better than a good little one” comes to their aid, and the more mundane consideration that size is, after all, an element in the standard of commercial value, is not without its weight. But the proverb does not always hold good, and there are walks of art in which the experiment is dangerous. This is especially the case with domestic genre, as none have better understood than those who first practised it—the little masters of Holland. The Satin Gown and The Sick Lady of the Rijks Museum, The Visit, The Gallant Soldier, and the Dutch Interior at the Louvre, are models of taste in this respect as well as masterpieces. In the few instances where Maas and Steen and Vermeer have adopted the larger scale it has not been with advantage, and few would desire to see the pictures just named otherwise than as their painters have rendered them. Certainly modem genre has gained nothing by increased extent of canvas. Wilkie’s First Ear-ring, at the Tate Gallery, though the scale is still moderate, does not compare favourably with his earlier work, and the same is true of the later pictures of both Faed and Nicol. In more recent times this want of taste is increasingly apparent. Many instances will recur to those conversant with later developments of art both at home and abroad, where subjects quite suitable for a small panel are thus rendered uninteresting or positively objectionable. One of the charms of genre, that adroitness of touch in which its greatest masters have excelled, is altogether lost when the subject is presented on several square yards of canvas.

It were futile to speak in any detail of the humour of Nicol’s work. Much of it is broad and farcical, Irish and more, one would say; but, at his best, it has the true flavour of the born humourist. Not Leech himself has given us anything finer than some of the pictures already named, or such mirth-provoking conceptions as Fair Exchange no Robbery, in which an Irishman critically weighs the merits of his own damaged beaver against that of a scarecrow, before deciding on the exchange. In these, as with all the masters of genre, the dainty touch is one with the conception, and in proportion as this quality is lost, the rendering is less effective or gets vulgarised. A comparison of the work of Nicol’s prime with that of his latest period bears out this contention.

Robert Gavin and Robert Herdman are the youngest of the figure-painters whose birth-dates fall within the twenties, and though Herdman was for a year or two a pupil of Robert Lauder, both are products of the forties rather than of the decade associated with that master’s teaching. Gavin studied under Duncan. At first he seems to have had no particular bent, painting portraits, landscape, and figure-subjects with every variety of motive. Shakespeare and Scott, the sacred narrative, song and ballad, the peasant and pastoral life of his own country, come alike to him, till, when about forty, a visit to New Orleans deflects his artistic career. Mulatto, quadroon, and negro are now his models; nor does a return to Scotland bring back the old subjects, for, when his American sketches fail him, he seeks inspiration in Tangier, and only returns a few years before his death. Whilst there, and till he ceased to exhibit, his subjects were Moorish. In all its stages his work was of marked ability. It retains throughout the simple and direct methods of his student days, served by a capable hand and a keen intelligence. The productions of his first twenty years are seldom seen, and he is known almost exclusively by his Moorish and American subjects. This is unfortunate, if one may judge from a portrait of a young lady, and a small pastoral of the earlier time, known to the writer. The latter, in which a barefooted child with blue sun-bonnet and skirt has fallen asleep reclined against a corn-stook, with a bunch of poppies pressed to her breast, gives a high idea of his capacity in the treatment of such themes ; the landscape setting of shadowy foliage and half-cut cornfield carrying out finely the sentiment of the subject. It is difficult to get up much interest in the quadroons and “darkies” of Louisiana, or even in his African work, which he often treats poetically, sometimes adapting the Eastern life to such Biblical subjects as The Prodigal Son or Rebelcah giving Water to A braham's Camels. The artist’s diploma picture at the Mound, The Moorish Maiden's First Love, in which a dark-skinned girl caresses the head of a white Arab charger, gives a good idea of the work of his later years. But for the portrayal of Spain or the neighbouring shores of the “dark continent,” one desiderates something more of southern light and colour. The brush of a Phillip or a Delacroix is a sine qua non, and for this Gavin’s powers were hardly adequate.

Herdman, the latest, is not the least interesting of the group; and though, in point of time, he forms a connecting link with a later school, he stands apart from Lauder’s other pupils in remaining uninfluenced by the naturalistic movement, as also by a sojourn in Italy, now become unusual. The one may have had not a little to do with the other, for it was just when he was in Rome, or painting from his Italian studies, that the younger men were affected by something akin to Pre-Raphaelitism.

During the early fifties Herdman painted portraits, Scriptural pieces, and themes poetic and fanciful. Later, sacred subjects disappear, and Roman Pifferari, Highland reapers and fern-gatherers, with now and then an Orpheus or Hero, diversify his exhibited work. Portraits are not prominent,but inl865 there appeared several—of theWent-worth family—which, being more than sustained in a group, Dressing for a Charade, of the following year, gave him a leading position in that branch. Thenceforth, sitters never fail. In female portraiture, full-lengths of Mrs. Herdman and Mrs. Shand, and a three-quarter length of Mrs. Hamilton Buchanan, dwell in one’s recollection, whilst the half-length of his brother Academician, Mr. Hill, in the Academy’s library, holds its own with the best achievements of the school. It says much for the industry of the artist that he found time in this flood-tide of commissions to paint various important subject-pictures, of which After the Battle and A Conventicle Preacher brought before a Justice Court are representative.

Herdman early adopted a manner from which he never swerved—broad, simple, direct—and which remained unaffected by the disconcerting influences which troubled most painters later on. It takes as little account of the analysis of the Pre-Raphaelite as of the mystery of plein air and values; and if he loses something thereby he is untroubled by the many perplexities of the later technique. But with what skill he uses his simple formulas. They have no enveloppe—to use a modem term—those Phoebes and Sibyllas, and the fern-gatherers and reapers may have something of the happy peasant of the drama. What of that ? They are delightful all the same, with their vivid colour—gold and russet of corn sheaf or bracken—their picturesque costume and dainty handling. His manner of generalising, it is true, is accompanied with a tendency to conform the physiognomy of sitter and model to certain well-marked types. But in his best work this is less felt. In Dressing for a Charade,* for example, one can scarcely recognise Herdman in the painting of the girl who adjusts some brooch or bow of her sister’s costume. The contrasted dark and fair types of these two are earned out in their attire, the richly-laced black of the one, and the scarlet cloak of the other. In both heads the modelling is more carefully and closely wrought than usual, but there is in the painting of the fair complexion of the younger less of the mannerism one associates with Herdman. Again, some of the heads in After the Battle, that especially which is the centre of interest, show similar qualities. The features of the young man, now suffused with deathly pallor, are those of his class, the more thoughtful and better peasantry which gave strength to the Covenanting movement—for the Battle is of those times—and the painter’s brush has adapted itself to the serious type and occasion; the modelling is more dwelt on and the method less evident. And if, in the heads of the old man and the mother, there is more of the personal manner, that also is seen at its best. 'There is a touch of melodrama in the abandon of grief to which the young wife gives way, which seems accented— so subtle is the connection between expression and technique—by the colour and treatment of the loose upper garment she wears. Otherwise, the arrangement, both of colour and light and shade, is sober, low toned, reticent. Nor in the execution—a modification of the traditional technique—is there the exaggeration of transparencies and umbers with which Scottish painters are often chargeable.

Various others are more or less associated with this time. Macbeth, a contemporary of those just considered, and Barclay, some ten years older, continued the earlier tradition in portraiture, Ballantyne and Houston that of historic and romantic incident; R. T. Ross painted domestic genre, whilst William Crawford practised both portrait and figure-painting. Water-colour painting had not been conspicuous in Scotland, W. L. Leitch, an able exponent of the art, having removed early to London, but the interval betwixt “ Grecian ” Williams and Bough was not entirely barren, the slighter medium having been used by many of the leading painters in their sketches and studies. Houston and R. T. Ross, though their principal pictures were in oil, excelled in water-colour; the former supplementing his figure-painting by many landscape drawings. Ross’s work was more in the direction of sketches and studies for the setting and foregrounds of his figure-subjects, especially of those which deal with the life of the fisher-folk of the East coast. Particularly brilliant many of these are, and with a fine sense of the qualities of the medium. One cannot but regret that his work in this direction was so restricted and is so little known to the public.

Of animal painters, till quite recent times, there have been few. Howe and Shiels, at the beginning of the century, are little more than names. Sheriff and Forbes, of somewhat later date, both died young. The latter was of great promise. A small version of an engraved picture, Much between the Cup and the Lip, and a larger unfinished canvas, where three terriers sniff about a box or wooden trap in which they scent vermin, show, especially the latter, spirited action, combined with a free handling and telling chiaroscuro. Gourlay Steell is well known through his portraits of sportsmen, mostly in the pink, or otherwise associated with the hunting-field. These he varied with subject-pictures, in which Highland cattle are often a prominent feature. His large studies in tempera of stag or hound were particularly vigorous.

The leading painters treated of in this and the preceding chapter form an interesting link in the development of Scottish painting. They are little influenced by the art of Lauder, Dyce, and Scott, their immediate predecessors ; except in the case of Sir Noel Paton, who shows himself a disciple of the last named on one side of his talent. Neither in scale nor treatment is there anything in the works of the others, of the heroic nature of those of Scott and Dyer; nor are they much affected by the sober and dignified colour-arrangements of Lauder. Less ambitious in their subjects than some of those who preceded them, and less brilliant as technicians than several of their immediate successors Douglas and his contemporaries carried to a high degree of excellence some of the most distinctive qualities of Scottish painting, especially that skill of craft which has been its heritage since the days of Wilkie.

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