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John Thomson of Duddingston, Pastor and Painter
Chapter VIII


Thomson’s Influence on Scottish Art—Review—Popular Indifference—Dr. John Macculloch on Scenery—Pennant and Johnson—Scott as a Word Painter— Thomson as an Artist—The Edinburgh Artists—First Edinburgh Exhibition —The Royal Institution: its History, Exhibitions, and Lord Cockburn on its Defects—The Scottish Academy.

THE influence of the Rev. John Thomson on the art world of his day was very remarkable. Never professing to be anything but an amateur, he was yet a very potent factor in the origination of the Scottish school of landscapists.

Scotland at the beginning of the century was miserably far behind in the matter of Art. She had no doubt produced a few notable portrait-painters, as Jamesone, Allan Ramsay, Robert Strange, John and Alexander Runciman, Sir William Allan, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Sir John Watson Gordon. In figure painting she could boast of W. H. Lizars, Sir David Wilkie, and David Roberts, but no great artistic thinker had as yet devoted himself to the contemplation of Scottish scenery. Jacob More, Alexander Runciman, Cowper, and the elder Nasmyth, although possessed of no mean talents, were decided mannerists after the Italian, Dutch, or English schools of landscape, drawing their inspiration from the works of others, not directly from Nature. More and Runciman invested their subjects with an attempt at classical elegance. Far too frequently their work was a mere medley of landscape, classic ruins, and stage figures, in ridiculous and perplexing combination. Following slavishly in the footprints of the old masters, they looked at Scottish scenery only through their eyes. Cowper and Nasmyth, catching and blending the spirit of the old English and the modern Dutch schools, studied minute and high finish; and in imparting mere sensuous beauty to their details, lost the truthful delineation of the broader aspects of Scottish scenery. As has been said, ‘they did not hold the mirror faithfully up to Nature, for her laws are but feebly indicated in their works. Their pictures appear indeed to have been painted more to please the eye and fancy than to instruct the reason or to enlighten or elevate the imagination.’ What was the result? Among the general public there was really no interest manifested in landscape whatever. It could not be said to be dead, for it had never been in existence. Nature was simply ignored, or at all events was not recognised as a source whence intellectual pleasure might be derived. The art of perceiving the true beauty of landscape was dormant, for no artist had as yet presented it in any other than a conventional or artificial manner. Even so late as 1824 public taste was barely awakened to the subject. It was in that year that Dr. John Macculloch, in a series of letters addressed to Sir Walter Scott, and published in four volumes, on the ‘Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland,’ attempted to attract public attention to the beauties of Nature as they are to be found in Scotland. Referring to the neglect that had so long prevailed, he says:

‘We have ourselves almost witnessed the rise of a very slender degree of taste on the subject. The varied and beautiful scenery of Scotland had not been dreamt of a century ago. That of England was equally unknown, though accessible to a larger population and to one in which the number of the educated was arithmetically if not proportionably greater; and though the arts were there more diffused, from the presence of collections of pictures, the possession of ancient buildings, a longer existence of ornamented villas, and rural scenery, etc., so little was the scenery of its lakes known, that even the lakes themselves were scarcely noticed in the popular work on geography which goes by the name of Guthrie. These beautiful spots are barely mentioned. . . . You and I,’ addressing Sir Walter, ‘can yet remember when all the knowledge of Scottish scenery was confined to Loch Lomond and the most accessible of the Perth-shire lakes. At the time of Pennant’s and Johnson’s tours, now only fifty years past, scarcely any suspicion of the beauty of our scenery was entertained; nor, excepting Staffa—too remarkable a spot to be easily passed without notice—was a single picturesque object named throughout the country. Johnson could not see them from physical defects, but Pennant talked of pictures, since he described those at Dublin and had an artist in his service; yet he has scarcely mentioned one spot of all that he saw as a man who felt the beauty of scenery. The account which Birt long before gives of the "hideous" Highland mountains and glens is absolutely ludicrous. I know not exactly when Edinburgh was first discovered to be the most romantic city in the world, but that is a discovery of no high antiquity. I myself was one of the first, and I believe the first absolute stranger, who visited Loch Cateran. I had then a Scottish map in which it was not even inserted. You and the Lady of the Lake can tell another tale now.’

Yes; it required the vivid word-painting of Walter Scott to awaken, if not to create, a taste for the beauties of the field, the wood, the lake, and the mountain. Under his inspiration new ideas and conceptions were formed. Where the old tourists only saw confusion and deformity, disorder and chaos, ‘black, ugly hills’ and ‘frightful moss-hags,’ he threw the glamour of his witchery over the scene, and all was changed as if by magic.

It was Scott’s colouring that led thousands of his countrymen to see Nature no longer as something to be shunned and avoided, but a source of delight to the eye and the intellect.

‘Boon nature, scatter’d free and wild,
Each plant or flower, the mountain’s child,
Here eglantine embalm’d the air,
Hawthorn and hazel mingled there;
The primrose pale and violet flower,
Found in each cliff a narrow bower;

Highest of all, where white peaks glanced,
Where glist’ning streamers waved and danced,
The wanderer’s eye could barely view,
The summer heaven’s delicious blue;
So wondrous wild, the whole might seem
The scenery of a fairy dream.’

What Scott with his pen did to rouse public taste to a sense of the beautiful, Thomson with his brush was at the same time assiduously realising on canvas. Working contemporaneously, on different lines, with different materials, they were almost unconsciously working towards the same object.

Nor was it the desire for fame merely that actuated either the one or the other. All such efforts of genius are involuntary.

The development of Thomson’s genius evolved and portrayed intuitively the peculiar characteristics of Scottish landscape, clothing with thought and feeling every object he delineated. The effort was spontaneous, and as irrepressible as Vesuvius. He did not paint for fame, but because he could not refrain from painting. Fame was what he least thought of—indeed, rather shrank from, as bringing his hobby into competition with his clerical profession.

The applause of the great and those we love, of those above and those around us, no sane man will ever despise. To the applause of the ignorant most great men are indifferent; such fame they regard as the idle clatter of idle tongues. True fame is often found where it is not sought, and sought where it is often not to be found. Thomson was not a man inclined to be indifferent to the good opinion of those he loved, but his best efforts were the outcome rather of persevering patient study, and an honest desire to master the secrets of Nature, than of any attempt to rouse the wonder and admiration of friends. He put his soul into his work, and as a modern writer has remarked, ‘there is no other fine art than this—the passing of a man’s soul into the work of his own hands.’

This was undoubtedly the secret of his wonderful success as an artist; and the pleasure which the pursuit of Art afforded him confirms the truth of the couplet—

‘Spontaneous joys, where Nature has its play,
The soul adopts, and owns their first-born sway.’

When Thomson came to Duddingston in 1805 there was then no public representative body to encourage Art; no public gallery of pictures, and few pictures of any kind to be seen in the houses of the generality of Edinburgh citizens. It seemed as if that part of the Second Commandment was as religiously observed in Scotland as in the land of Israel, forbidding the making of a likeness ‘of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath.’

In the houses of the wealthy, family portraits might be found, the work of Lely, Vandyck, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Jamesone, Runciman, Nasmyth, or Raeburn, with classical landscapes from Italy, or rural scenes from Holland, but scarcely ever the outward and visible characteristics of the Scottish landscape. The few Scottish painters of the time with any taste for landscape found the demand for their works so small, that they chiefly relied upon portraiture as a means of existence. This was the case with Alexander Nasmyth and many others, who might have made a good figure in landscape had popular taste given them encouragement. It was, indeed, so far as Art was concerned, ‘the day of small things.’

Gradually, however, public interest was awakened, and Scottish artists, with a growing sense of what was expected of them, and realising that by combination they might still further excite public attention to their craft, resolved upon an exhibition of their work. The first public exhibition of pictures in Edinburgh was held in Corn’s Rooms, sometimes called the ‘Lyceum,’ Nicolson Street, in 1808.

In the following year the Association of Artists held their second exhibition in the art gallery of Henry Raeburn, which that artist had just erected for himself in what is now No. 32 York Place. At this exhibition 205 pictures were shown, but Thomson sent only one specimen from his easel, viz, a ‘Landscape Composition.’ And from the catalogues it would appear that he contributed nothing to the exhibitions held in the three following years. His interest in the movement revived again in 1813, for we find that in that year he sent two pictures.—a ‘View near Tynninghame,’ and the ‘Glen of the Calder Burn, Lanarkshire.’ In 1814 he exhibited three, and in 1815 no less than six, including ‘Derwent Water,’ ‘View of Duddingston House‘—a large work—’View of Duddingston Loch,’ and the ‘Lower Fall of Dalkairney, Ayrshire.’

The number of works thus exhibited in Edinburgh yearly was about two hundred, but so apathetic were the public, and so disheartened were the painters, that the exhibitions could only with difficulty be kept up. In 1815 the number of exhibits had fallen to 176, and in the following year it was even worse, for they only numbered 150. So far native Art could not boast of great success, and the artists, doubtless disheartened and disgusted with the general indifference of the public, relinquished the annual exhibition altogether, and the society, which numbered only fifteen members, including Mr. Thomson, came to an end.

Notwithstanding the non-success of these exhibitions, Thomson’s work as a landscape painter was receiving a considerable amount of attention from those in the upper walks of life, for at this time he was so inundated with orders for pictures that it is said he had difficulty in meeting the demand.

Thus far the Edinburgh exhibitions had doubtless attracted public notice to his work.

After an interval of several years, public interest in Scotland was revived by the establishment in February 1819 of the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts. This fresh effort was not confined to artists; rather it was the enlightened impulse of the rank and talent of Scotland to remove what they considered a national reproach, and to elevate the public taste of the community. It was largely supported by the nobility and landed gentry, many of whom had excellent collections of works of art, of priceless value, the accumulations of several generations. The object of these gentlemen was a most praiseworthy one, viz. that these treasures, which were in a measure inaccessible to the general public, should from time to time be brought together for public exhibition in the Capital.

The original membership was fifty, and in the list of twenty-seven directors we have the name of one Duke—the Duke of Argyle; two Marquises—Tweeddale and Queensberry; the Earls of Haddington, Elgin, Wemyss, Hopetoun, and Fife; a number of Baronets, including Sir William Forbes, Sir John Hay, Sir George Clerk; and of those who no doubt formed the working portion of the board, John Clerk of Eldin, Alexander Oswald of Auchencruive, Alexander Gordon, Adam Fairholm, and Professor Alexander Russell, who acted as secretary.

The first exhibition of the Institution took place in the gallery of Henry Raeburn in York Place, and the small but very fine collection was opened to view on 11th March 1819. It was entirely composed of the works of the old masters, both foreign and British; and in the catalogue are found the names of Rubens, Tintoretto, Poussin, Vandevelde, Vernet, Cuyp, Wouvermans, Hobbema, Ostade, Caravaggio, Titian, Velasquez, Vandyck, Guido Reni, etc. etc. Lord Cockburn says of it that ‘it was the best exhibition of ancient pictures that had ever been brought together in this country, all supplied from the private collections of its members and friends.’

Encouraged by the success of this effort, a second exhibition was held in the spring of 1820, which also attracted much public attention. The Institution, now seen to be supplying a long-felt want, received a large accession to its membership, and in 1821 we find it had increased to 130, among the list occurring the name of Sir Walter Scott; while the Rev. John Thomson was elected an Honorary Member along with Sir David Wilkie, Patrick Nasmyth, and several other artists.

The exhibition this year was chiefly composed of modern pictures, but Thomson was not a contributor.

For a few years the works of the ‘ancient masters,’ and modern pictures, constituted alternately the exhibitions of the Institution, and there is no doubt that they contributed largely to the rapidly growing taste for Art which now manifested itself in Scotland.

These exhibitions were of a migratory character, for the Institution, having no building of its own, was indebted for accommodation to private parties, so that while for the most part they took place in Sir Henry Raeburn’s gallery in York Place, one or two of them were held in ‘Mr. Bruce’s gallery, Waterloo Place,’ Mr. Bruce being a picture-dealer of some repute.

The completion of the elegant Grecian building on the Mound in 1826, for the accommodation of the Royal Institution, gave it a new impulse, and its management now proposed not only to have periodical public exhibitions for the sale of the works of British artists, but to purchase such works for the Institution for permanent exhibition; while ‘in order to excite emulation and industry among the younger artists, they resolved to offer premiums for competition to assist them to visit London or other places affording particular means of improvement.’ It was also proposed to secure the means of affording relief to artists suffering from adverse circumstances, or ‘to the families of any such, when deprived by death of the benefit of their talents and exertions.’ All of which objects were most laudable, and were in some measure realised.

Portraiture formed a large and prominent feature of these early exhibitions, for if one may judge from a jocular remark of Sir Walter Scott, the modern landscapes shown were frequently of so inferior a quality as to earn the epithet of the ‘tea-board style of Art.’ The new impulse of the Wilsons, ‘Grecian’ Williams, and above all Thomson, was a development which, while the conventional in Art was not altogether discarded, was inspired by a deeper insight into Nature’s secrets, for ‘in their works there was felt the breath of a new life.’ But while Thomson shares with them the honour of having given this first impulse to Scottish

landscape art, his personality lifted him high above them and his other contemporaries.

Thomson’s contributions to these exhibitions were neither few nor insignificant, and were certainly not of the ‘tea-board’ style, as the following facts will show.

In 1822 he showed four paintings, among which appears his ‘Aberlady Bay,’ now in the National Gallery; ‘Cambuskenneth,’ now in the collection of the Right Hon. Lord Kingsburgh; and ‘Dunbar Castle.’

In 1824 Thomson showed six works, all of superior excellence. These were ‘Fast Castle,’ and ‘Part of Caerlaverock Castle’ (also the property of Lord Kingsburgh), ‘Coire-nan-Uriskin,’ ‘Prestonpans,’ ‘Fast Castle with the Bass Rock in the distance,’ and ‘A View from the Grounds of Hillside.’

In 1826 he exhibited five paintings, among which was the ‘Dunluce Castle’ which so roused the admiration of Sir Walter

Scott, a magnificent gallery picture, measuring about eight feet in length by about five in depth.

In the following year he appeared in great force, having no less than twelve pictures hung in the exhibition on the Mound. Among these are to be found ‘Inchgarvie,’ now the property of the Earl of Rosebery; ‘Innerwick Castle,’ the property of the Duke of Buccleuch; ‘Kilohurn Castle,’ ‘Loch Katrine,’ ‘Tantallon Castle,’ etc.

Again in 1828 he was a large contributor, this collection having his picture of ‘Turnberry Castle,’ also referred to in the Journal of Sir Walter, which was purchased by the Royal Institution at the moderate price of fifty guineas, and now forms a part of the National Gallery collection.

During the eleven years of the active existence of the Royal Institution’s exhibitions, Thomson loyally supported it, contributing close upon eighty pictures during that period; and when, in the fulness of time, the Royal Scottish Academy was in 1829 fairly launched into the world, and took its place in the direction and promotion of the Scottish School of Art, we find him equally helpful.

We have already referred to his influence over individual artists who have made the Scottish School famous, but his influence and power in the formation both of the Royal Institution and the Academy were no less important.

The permanent ascendency of the Institution in the guidance of Scottish Art was not, perhaps, to be expected. It partook too much of the element of patronage to be long successful. What was wanted was a spirit of emulation, combined with brotherly help in a common cause, among the artists themselves. Lord Cockburn, who was a good deal mixed up with the controversies out of which the Academy had its birth, and was able to judge of its ‘defects and vices,’ tells us in his Memorials of his Time, that ‘the Institution begun under great names had one defect and one vice. The defect was that it was calculated to do little or nothing for Art, except by such exhibitions, which could not possibly be kept up long, for the supply of pictures was soon exhausted. A rooted jealousy of our living artists as a body (not individually) by a few persons who led the Institution was its vice. These persons were fond of Art, no doubt, but fonder of power, and tried indirectly to crush all living Art and its professors, who ventured to flourish except under their sunshine. The result was that in a few years they had not a living artist connected with them. Their tyranny produced the Academy, and then having disgusted the only persons on whose living merit they could depend, the Institution itself sank into obscurity and uselessness.’

Knowing the parties concerned, and all the circumstances of the case as he did, there is doubtless much truth in Lord Cockburn’s opinion, even though it be saturated with more of the ‘special pleader’ than the impartial judge. It lets us in behind the scenes, however, and that is everything in historical study.

The Academy was thus, it appears, an outcome of the Royal Institution, or rather a secession from it, in which the artists sought freedom to manage their own affairs. Being denied a share of the management of the exhibitions, a number of the associates, disgusted with the treatment to which they were subjected, formed themselves in 1826 into an association which they called the Scottish Academy. it had its first exhibition in No. 24 Waterloo Place in 1827, and for two or three years thereafter, in spite of a formidable combination arrayed against it, the exhibitions increased in popularity. The membership consisted of thirteen academicians, nine associates, and two associate engravers, but after a time the associates of the Royal Institution made overtures for admission to its privileges.

‘When the Academy was first formed,’ says Lord Cockburn, ‘it consisted merely of the artists who were particularly displeased with the Institution; the majority, and the best of their brethren, still adhering to that body. After about two more

years’ experience of the management of the Institution, it was found by the adherents—or associates—that there could be no cordial union between them and it, and not even a comfortable endurance of each other. Each as usual blamed the other, and I, who knew the whole facts, think that though there was unreasonableness on both sides, the artists had the least of it. It was plain, however, that they must part.’ But they were in an

awkward position. On the one hand wincing under the consciousness of their subordinate position in connection with the Institution, while they had cut themselves off from the Academy, which was succeeding without their aid and against their will. In these circumstances they made an abortive attempt to found another Scottish Academy rather than join that already formed. Ultimately, however, having in 1829 broken with the Institution, whose intolerable management they could no longer endure, and smarting under the failure of the attempt made to organise a constitution for themselves, they gave way to the expostulation of friends. Overtures were made through Henry Cockburn to the Academy for their admission as members in a body. This application somewhat embarrassed the Academy, then, as we have said, consisting of only fifteen members, coming as it did from twenty-four artists, who might thus virtually swamp the original founders.

At length in July 1829, through the intervention of Mr. Hope, the Solicitor-General for Scotland, and Cockburn, a union of the artists was effected, and the re-formed Academy, with a membership now of forty-two, started afresh on its career. This left the Institution without a single artist connected with it. Thomson, not being a professional artist, does not appear to have been mixed up in any way with the differences and contentions of this period. He would, no doubt, have his sympathies with the artists, but to the last he supported the Institution in their exhibitions. These were continued till 1830, after which the secession of the artists rendered their continuance impossible. He certainly was not idle. His exhibits during the years 1827, 1828, 1829, and 1830, in the Institution’s exhibitions, amounted to no less than thirty-four, while he only showed one picture in the exhibitions of the Academy for these same years. When the Institution at length gave up the unequal competition and the Academy held the field, Thomson as loyally supported it, and from 1831 till 1840 contributed several pictures annually to its exhibitions. Some of those painted during this period are among his largest and most important works.


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