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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XIX -
A Note on Art


YOU easily understand that art and art culture had little or no place in old Scots life. The people had more serious and elemental things wherewith to concern themselves. They were indifferent or even hostile; more disposed to destroy what of artistic merit they possessed than cherish and increase it. The influence of the pre-Reformation Church made in favour of culture, its gorgeous and complicated ritual, was only one of many elements. In the time of James V. (1513-1542), for instance, Edinburgh possessed buildings beautiful without, splendid within; ornate caskets that held precious jewels! There was Holyrood Abbey, the Collegiate Church of St Giles’, the Monasteries of Greyfriars and Blackfriars, Kirk o’ Field and Trinity College, to name but the chief. Their altar-pieces, their stained-glass windows, their statues of saints were treasures over which we sigh in vain. Perhaps it is as well that we can only guess at what they were. In the troubled years of civil and religious strife that accompanied and succeeded the Reformation nearly everything perished. Greyfriars and Blackfriars and Kirk o’ Field vanished altogether. Some defaced stones of Holyrood Abbey alone remain. A few panes in the Magdalen Chapel are the sole survivors of scores of beautiful windows. In the centre of the Gallery of Kings at Holyrood you gaze to-day on a work of rare merit. It is a votive piece from the altar of Trinity College. It bears the portrait of James III. and his queen, Margaret of Denmark, and is supposed to be the work of Van der Goes (d. 1482). It had strange wanderings, but was restored to Scotland in 1857. We have reason for inferring that other religious foundations in Edinburgh held masterpieces of equal merit, but it was considered a good work to destroy them, and they were destroyed so thoroughly that not even their memory remains. We still have St Giles’. I have spoken of the change and mutilation it suffered.

In later times Old Edinburgh offered little employment to the artist. It held only one statue, that of Charles II., the man on the tun-bellied charger trampling on the grave of Knox in the Parliament Square of to-day. That dates from 1685. Two centuries passed. It still remained solitary and supreme. Then in 1888 Boehm’s statue to the Duke of Buccleuch was placed in the open space at the west end of St Giles’, almost the only available site for a statue in the ancient city. Three years later Lord Provost William Chambers was appropriately set up in stone in the centre of Chambers Street, but then Chambers Street is not the old town.

There were minor efforts in various directions. James Norrey decorated the interior of many of the Edinburgh houses. George Jameson, "the Scottish Vandyke," settled in Edinburgh in 1623, and painted portraits of many of the chief men of his time. The James VI. in red stockings in Dalkeith Palace is a noteworthy instance. David Allan, "the Scottish Hogarth," worked here in the latter part of the eighteenth century. As early as 1729 there was founded in Edinburgh the Academy of St Luke for the encouragement of the fine arts, but it did little and had a short career.

When the New Town arose this was changed. The citizens set themselves to decorate their beautiful city with a profusion of statues and fine buildings. Hostile critics have said that their zeal was not always according to knowledge; that they had not that abounding wealth which commands the best work and gathers to itself the precious products of other lands. To the stranger the art treasures of Edinburgh are a negligible quantity. His interest in the city will lead him elsewhere, yet the capital has museums and galleries well worth attention. You must visit them often and carefully if you desire to know your Edinburgh thoroughly. Much that you see belongs to Scotland, and not merely to its capital, but many things clearly appertain to Edinburgh alone. One of these museums may be dismissed with a word. The Industrial Museum of Science and Art in Chambers Street is, in brief, a lesser South Kensington. Much of its interest is drawn from lands or places in which neither Edinburgh nor Scotland is specially interested. If you happen to be a student of geology you dare not neglect the specimens there collected in rich profusion from every part of Scotland. To the lover of Edinburgh the most interesting thing is the beautiful model of Arthur’s Seat, recently added (1910), itself worth a special visit. Different altogether is the comparatively small collection known as the Corporation Museum in the Municipal Buildings, or Royal Exchange, opposite St Giles. It is all in two or three fairly large rooms, but these are filled with objects that bear directly on the history of the city. There are plans, engravings, portraits, tokens, letters, books, curios, all touching on Edinburgh. You want to know where exactly stood the Heart of Midlothian, or how the West Bow descended to the Grassmarket, or a hundred other things, there is the place to solve your difficulties. It is as a great bunch of keys to the secret places of the city’s past. Anyone who makes Edinburgh more than a perfunctory show ought to deem it first and last the object of his attention. If there were a rearrangement of museum contents you might be inclined to further enrich it at the expense of its fellows. Deacon Brodie’s keys and lanthron, and the pulpit in which it is quite possible John Knox preached, and the fauldstool, which at any rate must be similar to that hurled by Jenny Geddes at the head of Dean Hannay, were fitter here than in the Antiquarian Museum, and the same might be said of the memorials of the Old Tolbooth. Perhaps it is not desirable to have all the good things in one place, and you see them and much else very commodiously in their own house, which is the Antiquarian Museum in Queen Street. The contents, long in the charge of the Society of Antiquaries, were gifted by them to the nation in 1851—that is, the bulk of them, for the collection has grown much since then. The Society still issues the catalogue, a considerable volume of 380 closely-printed pages copiously illustrated. You learn much by simply turning over the pages; you learn a great deal more by looking at the objects themselves. Here is everything that Old Scotland used in recorded and much unrecorded time. You see what it ate and how it prepared its food; how it was dressed; with what weapons it fought; how it adorned and amused itself; how it tortured its prisoners, buried its dead, worshipped its gods. Of a keener interest is that which has a direct touch with famous people. Surely it helps your grasp of the past to stand by the Maiden that shore off so many famous heads, to inspect the very thumbscrews that compressed the knuckles of a Covenanter, or to look at the faded and tattered flag that once waved at Bothwell Brig. And you have trinkets, letters and what not of Queen Mary, the young Chevalier and Robert Burns, and most of the oddly mixed deities of the Scots Pantheon.

The same building contains the National Portrait Gallery, dedicated by J. R. Findlay, in 1890, "to the illustration of Scottish history." Thus it is only beginning its career, but already it has much to interest and instruct. The portraits of the James’s, Sir Henry Raeburn’s "Professor Wilson" and "Neil Gow," Beechey’s "Sir D. Wilkie," Flaxman’s statue of Bums are some of the most obvious.

To study the pictures of Edinburgh, however, you must get to the National Gallery on the Mound. In the eastern part is held the annual show of the Royal Scottish Academy. The Academy is rather national than local. Edinburgh at any rate is its head-quarters, and many of its members live and work there. In the western part is the permanent national collection; it is not large but it contains some gems. You will not linger too long over Rembrandt’s "Hendrikye Stoffels" or even over Gainsborough’s "Honourable Mrs Graham," for these are not of the soil. You will seek the works which have both artistic merit and illustrate the past history of Scotland. Such are Sir G. Harvey’s "Quitting the Manse," and "Covenanters’ Communion"; Sir D. Wilkie’s "John Knox administering the Sacrament," J. Drummond’s "The Porteous Mob," and W. B. Johnson’s "Murder of Rizzio"; and in Allan Ramsay’s "David Hume" you have the counterfeit presentment of one of Edinburgh’s very greatest men. The main feature, however, of the gallery is the thirteen portraits by Raeburn. That great painter lived between 1756 and 1823. He was born in Edinburgh, he was educated at Heriot’s Hospital, he spent two years in Rome, and for brief periods he was absent from his native place or native land. With these slight exceptions he lived in Edinburgh and he died there. He is buried in the dormitory of St John’s Church at the west end of Princes Street. He won early renown. He was, fortunately for his own time and ours, the rage, or rather the inevitable. The whole generation of that day lives for us on his canvas. There is one cruel exception. He did not paint Robert Burns, and thus he missed as a subject his greatest chance in life, and we also miss what would have been for us the illumination of a lightning flash. Again, what competent critics have considered his masterpiece, his "Portrait of Mrs James Campbell," is that of a woman who made no special mark on her time. Such is the common stuff of the Fates’ web! Of the generation he painted Edinburgh possesses many brilliant examples. In this same National Gallery my own preference would be "Dr Alexander Adam," and there is the magnificent "Lord Braxfield" on the walls of the Parliament House, that portrait over which R. L. S. grew so justly enthusiastic. There is the "Lord President Blair" in the W.S. library, handsome, grave, dignified—surely the very ideal of a judge. "My man, God Almighty spared nae pains when he made your brains," muttered plain-spoken John Clerk on a famous occasion. As Lord Eldin he afterwards sat on the Bench, and his portrait was also painted by Raeburn. The Royal Company of Archers has his "Dr Nathaniel Spens," and the Leith Shipmasters his "Admiral Lord Duncan." Thus the distribution is fairly wide.

I ought to say in one word that many of the mansions in the Lothians possess notable art collections. Newbattle Abbey, the seat of the Marquis of Lothian, and Dalkeith Palace, that of the Duke of Buccleuch, are instances. The first has examples of Vandyke, Holbein, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The portrait of James I. in red stockings, by Jameson, already mentioned, is interesting on other grounds than its mere artistic merit At Dalkeith there is the "Duke of Monmouth" by Kneller, "George IV." by Wilkie, and Lely is represented by the interesting portraits of "Lucy Walters," "Nell Gwynne" and "Mary Scott" the "Flower of Yarrow." And here again are specimens of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Vandyke and Holbein. I will not go so far afield as Dalmeny or Gosford but return to Edinburgh to say a word as to what must always be its most popular and important arts, those of the architect and the sculptor, whose material at any rate is the same. Those who built Old Edinburgh chanced on rather than sought striking architectural effects. The unbroken rampart of solid building on the cliff, the long, continuous line of the great closes, the projection of the wild landscape on the street and the place were in their own way unmatched, but that is past and done with. In Edinburgh, as in other modem cities, effects are consciously sought after. The burgher, from his nature and his training, takes a peculiar interest in them, for he is justly proud that he is a citizen of no mean city. The streets obviously gain much from their position and surroundings, yet they owe something to them that planned. George Street, for instance, is beautiful in itself. Charlotte Square at its western end is noted by R. A. M. Stevenson as "the triumph of the Greek revival in domestic architecture." St Andrew Square, which concludes it on the east, is not less elegant.

The chief monument in Edinburgh is that in Princes Street Gardens to Sir Walter Scott. It is large, original, suitable; it occupies the best site and it is to the most famous citizen Edinburgh ever possessed. Opinions on it almost comically diverse are extant. Ruskin roundly condemned it as "a small, vulgar, Gothic steeple on the ground," and Professor Masson lauds it as "the finest monument raised anywhere on earth to a man of letters." It remains a matter of opinion. When the oracles are not dumb but contradictory you must trust your impressions, or accept as Arbiter Elegantiarum the man in the street, whose view is distinctly favourable. Almost the last in time, assuredly not the least in merit, is the Highland Soldier resting on his rifle. It stands at the corner of the road leading up the Mound to Bank Street. It is of singular grace and power.

The huge mass of University buildings, comprising the Old College, Industrial Museum, the University Union, the M’Ewan Hall, the Medical School and the New Infirmary, are impressive from their very size. Of the individual members of the group the Old College is still the best. These take lead as the chief schools of Edinburgh. It has been claimed for those at the other end of the scale, the more humble edifices raised by the School Board, that they are harmonious, suitable, even dignified. More pleasing to the eye than any of them, or even Fettes College or the Academy, I should place George Heriot’s Hospital and Donaldson’s Hospital at Coltbridge. The simple elegance of the latter is more attractive than wealth of detail and profusion of ornament. Edinburgh is crowded with examples of the classic; the Grecian temples on the Mound, the National Monument on the Calton, and the High School are the most obvious. I have already said that I consider the last the first building in New Edinburgh. Of churches I will not further speak, though Edinburgh is of necessity a city of many churches, and I can only note that there are many graceful public offices and private houses. Edinburgh must, like other places, suffer from the uncultured zeal of the too early restorer and adorner. The givers of statues, even as the gods, cannot recall their gifts. You dare not put a rope round the neck of an offending image, haul it ignominiously down amid the jeers of the populace and end it as road metal. The Old Edinburgh mob did like things but not from love of art. To start a revolution with such aims were to burn a house to roast your own eggs. The citizens are, at any rate, honestly concerned to continue the embellishment and enrichment of their city. What can you do but wish them good taste and God speed?


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