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Significant Scots
David Scott


SCOTT, DAVID.—Of this poet-painter, whose whole life was a feverish struggle with great conceptions, and whose artistic productions showed that, had his life been but continued, he might have embodied these conceptions in paintings that would have created a new school of art—of him it may truly be said, that a generation must yet pass away, and a new world of living men enter into their room, before his talents are fully appreciated, and their place distinctly assigned. David Scott was the youngest of five children, all sons, and was born either on the 10th or 12th of October, 1806; but only a year after his birth he was the sole surviving child of his parents, the rest having died, with only a few days of interval between each. Like other boys of his standing in Edinburgh, David was sent to study Latin and Greek at the High School; but, like the generality of artists, he made no great proficiency in these languages. Is it that nature has implanted such a different spirit of utterance within the artistic heart, as to make words unnecessary? As his father was an engraver, of respectable attainments in his profession, having had, among other pupils, John Burnet, the engraver of some of Wilkie’s best drawings, and John Horsburgh, David had thus, even in his earliest boyhood, such opportunities for pictorial study as formed an excellent training for the profession to which nature had designed him. He also learned the art from his father, and became one of his assistants. But the mere mechanical work of engraving was not enough for such an original spirit: he must draw as well as engrave, create as well as copy; and therefore he frequently drew those designs which he afterwards produced with his graver, as the frontispieces and vignettes of books. Although he abandoned the graving-tool for the pencil, as soon as circumstances permitted the exchange, he did not lose sight of the early art which had formed the chief stepping-stone of his progress; and, accordingly, he etched with his own hand the "Monograms of Man," and the Illustrations of Coleridge’s "Ancient Mariner," and just previous to his death, had purposed to do the same for his designs expressive of the emotions produced by the contemplations of sidereal astronomy. Still, however, his love of painting so completely predominated, that among his early sketches there were two that especially indicated the ardour of his aspirations. The one was inscribed, "Character of David Scott, 1826," in which he was delineated as seated at the engraving table, with his hands clenched in despair. Another, of a similar bearing, dated 1828, represents him with the engraving tools thrown away, and the palette pressed to his heart. But he did not confine himself to aspirations merely; on the contrary, he accompanied them with that laborious diligent practice for which his life was distinguished to the close. Having associated himself with the young lovers of art, with whom Edinburgh even already had begun to abound, he formed with them the Life Academy in 1827, in which, as the name indicates, the living model was the subject of study and delineation. In the following year he attended Dr. Munro’s class of anatomy, and made a short visit to London, for the purpose of taking sketches in the National Gallery and the British Institution. Of the same date, also, was his first exhibited picture, entitled "The Hopes of Early Genius dispelled by Death." As may be supposed, it was a stern, Dante-like allegory, chiefly valuable for the indication it gave of the bent of the young artist’s mind, and the struggle, already commenced, that was certain to lead to high excellence. His next, of a similar unearthly character, was the "Combat of Fingal with the Spirit of Lodi," on which a considerate friend remarked to him, "Shoot a lower aim; you speak a dead language." Following these were his "Adam and Eve singing their Morning Hymn," "The Death of Sappho," "Wallace defending Scotland," and "Monograms of Man;" and subsequently, "Lot," "Nimrod," "Sarpedon carried by Sleep and Death," and "Cain," These, and several other intermediate sketches, were produced between the years 1828 and 1832; and as most of them were sent to the exhibition, the talents of Mr. Scott, as an artist of high promise, were generally felt, although this feeling was mingled with much wonderment, and not a little misgiving as to the ultimate tendency of such fervid idealism. This inability of the public to sympathize in his views, and consequent tendency to disparage them, Scott, as might be expected, very keenly felt; and he thus writes of the subject in his journal: "Various are the causes that render my going abroad necessary. I lose myself in thinking over the journey, and what it may do. Everything I have yet attempted has been unsuccessful; so many disappointments make effort appear vain. What I must do is to cut off all recurrence to former efforts, except in so far as they may coincide with my later formed ideas of art, and to hold grimly on in the conscientious course. A great happiness it is that futurity is yet unseen and unmade; therein yet may be somewhat to answer my desires. Happy are those new hopes and wishes that still descend on us when all we value in ourselves is burned up and scattered!"

David Scott had now resolved to become the pupil of art, as he had formerly been of nature; and for this purpose, to repair to Italy, and study in its galleries the productions of those great masters whose excellence had endured the test of centuries, and come out more brilliant from the ordeal. He would there learn the mighty secret by which they had enthralled the world so completely and so long—that true utterance of painting which every age and nation can understand. He set off upon his quest in August, 1832, and, after a short stay in London, visited Paris and Geneva, where the Louvre and the Alps alternately solicited his study. Milan and Venice, Parma and Bologna, Florence and Sienna, followed in turn, until he finally settled at Rome, once the nursing-mother of heroes, but now of painters and sculptors, by whom her first great family have been embalmed, that the present world might know how they looked when they lived. It seems to have been only by degrees that the true grandeur of these objects fully dawned upon the mind of David Scott; for there was within him not only much that needed to be improved, but much to be unlearned and renounced. His impressions upon all the principal works of art are contained in his diary; and these will, no doubt, be studied as a rich suggestive fund of thought by our future young artists who repair to the great Italian fountainhead. But indefatigable though he was in these explorations, the most striking, though the least ostentatious part of his diary, is to be found in the scattered notices that everywhere occur of his own daily occupations, and from eight to sixteen hours seem with him to have been nothing more than an ordinary diurnal measure. The fruits of this diligence, independently of his critical writings upon works of art, are thus summed up by his biographer:— "During that short residence in Rome, he made a set of eleven sheets of anatomical drawings, forming one of the most perfect artistical surveys of superficial anatomy ever made, with 137 studies from life, in oil or chalk; and in painting he did four small pictures of the ‘Four Periods of the Day;’ a copy of the ‘Delphic Sybil,’ from the Sistine, with a number of studies from the ‘Last Judgment;’ several exercises in fresco; painted ‘Sappho and Anacreon,’ a picture with life-size figures; and two or three smaller, but well-finished pictures; and, last and greatest, the picture of ‘Family Discord,’ or, as it was afterwards called, ‘The Household Gods Destroyed.’ The size of this last was nearly thirteen feet, by ten and a half. This amount of work, if we consider the time lost, in a new scene and among new habits, and add the designs, sketch-books, and other little matters which he accomplished, shows us a Hercules in perseverance and impulse." It is interesting to see Scott’s own account of the effect produced upon him by this pilgrimage and labour; and this we have in his diary, a short time after his return home, under the date of 16th August, 1834:—" The anniversary of my leaving Scotland two years ago—the crowning of my desires—the journey of art—the sacrifice to enthusiasm—the search after greatness, in meeting the great men of the present, and the great labours of the past. Among my old pictures and people, I now feel how different I am from the man who left this but so short a time ago. I have looked too much for what was without individual prototype in nature. The veil withdraws and withdraws, and there is nothing left permanent. But I believe I can now meet difficulties practically. Analyzing one’s own thoughts and actions—studying things in their relations—is often a painful task; but he who has not done so is a child."

Having returned to Scotland inspired with new perceptions, as well as braced with fresh courage, David Scott commenced the business of life in earnest, and his whole course from this period was one of continual artistic action. He must give full proof of high talent as a painter, if he would reap the renown and win the emoluments of such a position; and, to indicate his claims, he must descend into the arena, and let the on-lookers judge what he was worth. In these competitions, we shall content ourselves with summing up his future history.

To the Edinburgh exhibition of 1835 he sent four pictures: these were "Sappho and Anacreon," "The Vintager," a fresco, and "Sketch of the Head of Mary Magdalene."

In that of the following year were exhibited his "Descent from the Cross," a painting which he had prepared as an altar-piece for the new Roman Catholic chapel, in Lothian Street; "Oberon and Puck," and "Macchiavelli and the Beggar." The first of these was made the subject of the annual engraving circulated by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts; the last was the commencement of a series of historic sketches, which Scott continued till near the close of his life.

To the exhibition of 1837 he sent only two pictures, "The Abbot of Misrule," and "Judas betraying Christ." This paucity was chiefly occasioned by the time he devoted to the Illustrations of the "Ancient Mariner," in which he evinced a congenial spirit with that of the author of the wild and wondrous legend. Indeed, Coleridge himself thought it incapable of pictorial illustration, until these productions of David Scott agreeably convinced him of his mistake. "The whole series," he thus wrote to the painter, "is exceedingly impressive, and gives you a good claim to be our Retsch, if that is a compliment. It is curious to see how many conceptions may be formed of the imagery of a work of pure imagination. Yours is not like mine of the ‘Ancient Mariner,’ and yet I appreciate, and am deeply sensible of the merit of yours."

As an artist, Scott, whose commencement with the exhibition of 1835 had been both unpromising and disheartening, was now successfully surmounting the public neglect, as well as its inability to appreciate him, and steadily winning his way to that eminence which would place him among the highest of his degree. Invigorated by this prospect, his four pictures which he sent to the exhibition in 1838, had a sunniness of fancy as well as completeness of touch, that indicated the hopeful feelings under which they were executed. The subjects were, "Orestes seized by the Furies after the Murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, to which he was prompted by his sister, Electra, in revenge of the Assassination of their father, Agamemnon;" "Rachel Weeping for her Children;" "Puck fleeing before the Dawn;" and "Ariel and Caliban." About the same time he also painted, as a companion to the "Orestes," "Achilles addressing the Manes of Patroclus over the Body of Hector." Another, which he painted during this year, and which was the most successful he had hitherto produced, so that it took the stubborn criticism of Edinburgh by storm, was the "Alchymical Adept Lecturing on the Elixir Vito." This picture was purchased by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts for 200. Turning his attention also to the literary department of his profession, he published, in 1839, and the two following years, a series of essays in "Blackwood’s Magazine," of which the subjects were, "The Genius of Raffaele," "Titian, and Venetian Painting," "Leonardo da Vinci and Correggio," and the "Caracci, Caravaggio, and Monachism."

The year 1840 was signalized in Scott’s life by the exhibition of his terrible painting, which he had executed at Rome, under the title of "Agony of Discord, or the Household Gods Destroyed," and over which he exclaimed, when it was finished, "That is the work I must live by!" The figures of this strange myth are scarcely human, or if human, at least pre-adamite, when stature, and strength, and passionate expression may be supposed by a poet or artist to have far transcended the present type of humanity; while over them towers a colossal Lacoon-like form, exhausted in the struggle, and about to sink with crushing downfall upon those members of the rebellious home with whom he has been contending to the last. In the midst of this wild strife, the mother has thrown her infant upon the floor; the household altar is overturned, and the household god broken. It was the impersonation, in a single tremendous scene, of the continual strife and struggle of humanity in its path of progress from age to age; and therefore fraught, in every part, with deep and hidden meaning, which nothing but careful examination could detect, and anxious study comprehend. Of course, it was "caviare to the multitude," who gazed helplessly upon it, and shook their heads: it was such also to not a few of those penny-a-line critics whom our provincial journals extemporize for the nonce, to fill up a column with a "Report of the Exhibition," and whose whole stock consists of a few terms of art, which they sow at random over their paragraphs. But was it not thus at first with "Paradise Lost" and the "Excursion;" or, to come nearer to the comparison, with "Christabelle" and the "Ancient Mariner?" The highest excellence is slowly appreciated, and thus it fared with Scott’s "Discord;" but who would now venture to criticize it in the style that was used in 1840? At the same exhibition were Scott’s "Philoctetes left in the Isle of Lemnos by the Greeks, in their Passage towards Troy," a painting also finished during his stay in Rome; "Cupid sharpening his Arrows," and "The Crucifixion."

In 1841 Scott sent to the exhibition "Queen Elizabeth in the Globe Theatre," "Queen Mary receiving the Warrant for her Execution," "The Death of Jane Shore," "Ave Maria," aiid "A Parthian Archer." In "The Globe Theatre," which was a painting of large dimensions and plentiful detail, there were, besides the audience, draped and arranged in the fashion of the period, the virgin queen herself, listening to the "Merry Wives of Windsor," which had been written at her desire—its still more illustrious author—and Spenser, Fletcher, Sackville, Ben Johnson, and other towering spirits of the age, with whom Shakspeare was wont to wage such glorious conflicts of wit at their meetings in the Mermaid.

In 1842 Scott exhibited "The Duke of Gloucester taken into the Water Gate of Calais," "Silenus praising Wine," and "The Challenge." At the commencement of this year also, being excited to the task by the proposal of painting the new houses of parliament with designs in fresco, he published a pamphlet, entitled "British, French, and German Painting." At the close of this year he likewise exhibited, on his own account, in the Calton Full Rooms, his large picture of "Vasco de Gama, the Discoverer of the New Passage to India, encountering the Spirit of the Storm while attempting to double the Cape of Good Hope," but at that time known as Capo Tormentoso. Magnificent though the original conception is in the "Lusiad" of Camoens, it falls greatly short of its illustration by the painter—and how seldom can this be said of imitation, whether in poetry or painting! The terrible apparition of the "stormy Spirit of the Cape," whose frown itself seems enough to annihilate a navy—the daring hero-navigator, recovering from his astonishment, and preparing to confront the prohibition of this unknown power with defiance, or even with actual battle, if such should be needed—and the strange figures upon the crowded deck, each of which tells its own tale, compose, of themselves, an epic such as mere narrative would find it difficult to equal. But who in Edinburgh cared about De Gama, or had read the "Lusiad," even in a translation? The exhibition, therefore, so far as pecuniary profit went, was a failure; and it was not until historic knowledge, combined with critical taste, had pointed out the striking merits of this production, that public attention atoned for its neglect. It was afterwards secured for the Trinity House of Leith, where it now remains.

To the exhibition of 1843 Scott sent his paintings of "Richard III. receiving the Children of Edward IV. from their Mother;" "The Four Great Masters, being Michael Angelo, Raffaele, Titian, and Coreggio," which were in separate pictures, but forming one series; and the "Belated Peasant," from Milton. These are reckoned to be among the best of his productions. At this period, also, in consequence of the competition for the painting of the new houses of parliament, Scott, whose emulation had been roused by the subject, sent two cartoons as a competitor, the subjects being "Drake witnessing the Destruction of the Ships of the Spanish Armada" and "Wallace defending Scotland." These he painted exclusively in his own style, and with a reference to his own principles of art; but as they had a different ordeal to pass through, they were tried and rejected. When the competition in fresco for the same purpose succeeded, Scott, who was one of the few Scottish artists that understood this style of painting, sent two specimens, executed upon the principles which had occasioned the condemnation of his first attempts, and these also shared in the fate of their predecessors. Returning to a species of competition in which he now had better chances of success, he sent to the exhibition of 1844, "Wallace the Defender of Scotland;" "Sir Roger Kirkpatrick Stabbing the Red Comyn, in the Cloisters of the Greyfriars, Dumfries;" the "Baron in Peace;" and "May," from the Merchant’s Tale, in Chaucer’s "Canterbury Pilgrims."

The contributions of David Scott to the exhibition of 1845 were two pictures, the one having for its subject, "Christian listening to the Instructions of Piety, Charity, and Discretion;" and of the other, "The Dead rising at the Crucifixion." In 1846 were exhibited his "Peter the Hermit preaching the Crusades," "Dante and Beatrice," "Fragment from the Fall of the Giants," "Rhea bewailing the Overthrow of her Titan Sons," and "The Ascension." In 1847 he had only two paintings in the exhibition; these were "The Triumph of Love," and a small fresco which he had formerly exhibited in London. In 1848 he sent to it "Time Surprising Love," "Children Following Fortune," "Queen Mary of Scotland at the place of Execution," "Hope passing over the Sky of Adversity," and "The Baptism of Christ." To the exhibition of 1849 he sent "Delusive Pleasures," "A Sketch of the Fire of London," and "The Domestic Arcadia."

In this catalogue of his annual productions, great though it is, and implying an amount of diligence, perseverance, and intellectual enterprise, such as the artistic studio can seldom equal, we have not taken into account the numerous portraits and sketches with which every interval of leisure seems to have been fully occupied. Alone and unaided, and confronted by a whole world of hostile criticism, Scott had fought the battle step by step, and been obliged to struggle for every inch of ground that brought him nearer to the mark of his ambition. Could such a struggle be either useless or unsuccessful? The result was thus summed up, soon after the grave had closed upon him, by one who could well appreciate his worth, as well as commemorate it for the instruction of posterity:—"In the course of the last fifteen or twenty years, Scott had steadily become one of the most note-worthy of native artists. Without fortune, without office, without professional success commensurate with his undisputed superiority, and living in a state of seclusion, if not alienation from society, he exhibited a wonderful series of pictures from year to year; recognized by all but the most frivolous spectators to be the manifestations of a powerful and exalted soul. The superficial observer was frequently so much startled, as to find no suitable expression for his perplexity, except in the sneer of presumptuous folly; the technical critic was often confounded by the careless pride with which his rules were set at defiance and superseded; the deeper judge of painting, considered as one of the forms of art, might occasionally descry some reason to question the principles of the artist’s procedure; but the thoughtful were always sure of the striking and original utterance of some new insight into the nature of man, or into the resources of art. Everybody capable of forming and pronouncing such a judgment, was aware that only genius of the most personal and lofty order could have even endeavoured to give itself expression in the large majority of those singular pieces of work. Even those who may have been the most inflexibly disposed, upon well-considered aesthetical grounds, to dispute the painter’s whole idea of art, both in its scope and in its materials, were also free to confess that he could be nothing less than a gifted and self-reliant poet at heart. All men felt that they stood before the works of a mind grandly endowed with ‘the faculty divine,’ if they were likewise of opinion that he had not completely achieved ‘the accomplishment of verse.’ Nor can there be any doubt but that the mass of discerning people did invariably assign him a far higher rank in the hierarchy of intellect than all his competitors in the race of fame, even while they honestly refused to his intensely idiosyncratic productions an equal meed of praise and more substantial encouragement."

The following account of David Scott’s artistic and social everyday life, as given by the same pen, is too important to be omitted: "In fact, the large and solemn studio in which he painted and preserved his picture-poems, had gradually become one of the most curious and significant features of Edinburgh and its school of art; and its master-spirit, one of the most individual of Scottish characters belonging to the age in which we live. It was there that men of eminence in the church, in politics and law, in science, in literature, and in life, discovered what manner of man he was, and left him with surprise, seldom unmingled with pain, and always ennobled by admiration. It was there that intellectual strangers, of all the more elevated classes of mental character, found another ‘wise man in a little city,’ not without astonishment that they had scarcely heard of him before. It was there that many a tender-hearted lover of whatsoever is great and good, was at once melted and uplifted by the spectacle of so much cool self-possession, such unquenchable perseverance, such intrepid independence, and such height of contemplation, displayed in circumstances which were evidently the reverse of propitious. It was there that the enamoured students of poetry, in its essence rather than in its manifold embodiment, stood with reverence by his side, and, perhaps as proudly indifferent to particulars as he sometimes was himself, penetrated, by means of imaginative sympathy, to the soul of truth and beauty, that stirred under the surface of all his happier efforts. It was there that congenial poets took his cold hand in theirs, and bade him God-speed, with tears threatening in their eyes. It was there, also, still more than at the household hearth, that his friends descried the heart of unflaming fire which glowed within the distant quietude of his manners. It was there, alas! it may almost literally be said, that he died."

That mournful closing event occurred on the 5th of March, 1849. As yet only at the period when life is strongest, and hope, if not at the brightest, is yet the most firmly established—it was then that he passed away, worn out and weary, and longing to be at rest, he thus added one name more to that long list of the sons of promise who have been snatched from the world, when the world could least spare their presence, and when their loss was to be most regretted. But in the case of David Scott, how, indeed, could it be otherwise with such a restless, fervid, sensitive spirit, inclosed. within such a delicate frame and sickly constitution? But he had held out bravely to the last; and even during his final illness, his love of art predominated in conceptions that needed full health to embody, and sketches that were left unfinished. At the most, he was only in his forty-third year at the period of his decease.


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