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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Eighteenth Century: 9. The Rise of Scottish Art


Scottish painting has little to its credit before the eighteenth century. The Reformation period made havoc of the old art associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and the poverty and civil struggles of the country in the seventeenth were unfavourable to the rise of the new. This new art takes its beginning in the first half of this century with George Jamesone, who was born at Aberdeen towards the end of the sixteenth and became "apprentice" to his uncle, John Anderson, painter at Edinburgh, in 1612. There is ground for believing that he spent some time at Antwerp improving his art under Rubens, though definite proof is lacking. His style at all events reveals the Flemish influence. He certainly paid a visit to Italy in 1633 which, however, seems to have left little or no trace in his later work, which includes a number of portraits of notable persons of the time. Though in his later period between the Italian visit and his death in 1644 he worked too hastily to do full justice to his powers, "the general air of his finer pictures," in the judgment of Mr Caw, "is distinguished, the tone refined, the handling delicate and charming in its clear fluency of touch, and the simplicity of his motive reposeful and ever dignified."

Most of the work of John Michael Wright, who is said to have been a pupil of Jamesone, was done in England during the second half of the seventeenth century. John Scougal, on the other hand, remained at home and produced many portraits in his studio in the Advocates' Close in Edinburgh during his long career, which closed in lft^ They are of unequal merit, but some of them, especially those of Lord Harcarse in the Parliament House, Lord Carrington at Dalmeny, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik and his lady, and the Countess of Lauderdale in Thirlestane Castle, are highly appraised by the critics. His contemporary, David Paton, is remembered for his miniatures in pencil, " of great rarity and remarkable beauty," a number of which are preserved at Hamilton Palace. Among the foreigners who found patrons in Scotland in the second half of the seventeenth century were the Fleming De Wett, and Sir John Medina. The former left a very questionable memorial of his productivity in the one hundred and ten imaginary portraits of Scottish kings from fabulous times to Charles II., which astonish the visitor to the gallery at Holyrood and which he undertook to supply for the sum of 240. A few painted from life, of which several survive at Glamis Castle, convey a more favourable impression of his craftmanship. Medina was equally productive, for, according to an old writer, " he filled the country with portraits " before his death in 1710. According to Vertue he brought with him a large number of ready-made figures minus the heads, and the heads he added from the actual sitters till the supply was exhausted. With some exceptions his works are not rated very highly by the critics. "Sir John's work," judges Mr McKay, "at its best far from robust, often descends to a feeble and vapid imitation of Lely." He had at least a phenomenal success, was the last to receive a Scottish knighthood before the Union, and left a considerable fortune to his son who followed his profession without reflecting any credit, in the artistic sense, on his father. This success evinces not so much a love of art on the part of his patrons as the desire to have, their portraits done in accordance with the aristocratic fashion of the time.

An interest in art for its own sake in the early part of the eighteenth century is evidenced by the founding in 1729 of " the School of St Luke " at Edinburgh for the training of native artists, which unfortunately did not live long. Some years before its foundation William Aikman left Edinburgh for London. He had improved his art in Italy where he spent a number of years before settling in Edinburgh in 1712. For the next dozen years he produced many portraits, including that of his cousin, Clerk of Penicuik, as a baron of Exchequer, and of Allan Rain-say, which arc among the best samples of his art. "Aikman at his best," says Mr McKay, "was a capable craftsman, but in common with the painters of his time, he lacked the strength of character to substitute an outlook of his own for the conventions by which he was surrounded." Allan Ramsay, the son of the poet, received his first training in the St Luke School, which he continued at London and in Italy. For eighteen years after his return in 1738 he was a notable figure among the Edinburgh literati and was one of the founders of the Select Society, of which Hume, Adam Smith, and Robertson were members. In 1756 he removed to London and ultimately became painter to George III. He was a highly cultured man, with literary as well as artistic tastes, and had the rare distinction for a Scot of gaining the appreciation of Dr Johnson. He spoke many languages, moved in the highest social circles, and corresponded with Voltaire and Rousseau. His contemporaries, who were perhaps jealous of his social success, did not rate his work very highly. He produced much and left much to his assistants, and modern critics have a good deal to say of his defects. To Mr McKay he seems "a mediocre artist," though he had in him the makings of a really great one, which he neglected to develop. The charm which he could lend to some of his female portraits, especially those of his wife and Mrs Bruce of Arnot, and the virility of those of the Earl of Hoptoun, the third Duke of Argyll, and MacLeod of MacLeod tend, however, to raise him above mediocrity, and the critics are unanimous in their appreciation of the elegance of design which characterises his chalk sketches and studies.

Glasgow followed the example of Edinburgh in establishing a school of art, the initiation of which in 1753 was due to Robert Foulis, the publisher and printer, and his brother Andrew. For over twenty years Robert gave his time to the venture at the expense of his proper business. The University provided rooms for it. A collection of pictures, prints, and casts was brought together, and teachers of painting, engraving, and copper plate printing were brought from the Continent. But it met with little support and at his death in 1775 it had to be abandoned as a failure. More effective was the foundation of the school of design by the Board of Manufactures at Edinburgh. Of this school Alexander Runciman, who had been trained in the Glasgow Academy and under the Norries, painters and decorators in Edinburgh, and had sojourned for a time in Italy, became master in 1771. He brought from Italy an enthusiasm for historical painting and found a congenial task in depicting for Sir John Clerk scenes from Ossian on the ceiling of the drawing room at Penicuik House and from the life of St Margaret on the cupola of a staircase in the same building. Somewhat theatrical, these decorative scenes, which unfortunately were destroyed by a fire in 1899, were not without a certain imaginative grandeur and impressiveness. His younger brother John, who died before his gifts were fully developed, gave promise of greater mastery in the same dramatic genre in his treatment of Biblical subjects and in his King Lear. Another pupil of the Glasgow Academy, David Allan, Runciman's successor as master of the Edinburgh School, devoted himself after a long sojourn at Rome to the delineation of scenes from Scottish life, in this respect a precursor of David Wilkie. "Technically," judges Mr Caw, "his work shows little real accomplishment . . . yet his designs are interesting as studies of character and as representations of the customs and costumes of a bye-gone age, while their effect on Scottish painting was great." Alexander Naysmyth, who combined the professions of architect and mechanician with that of artist, was another pioneer in the domain of landscape, and is also remembered for his portrait of Burns and of the fair daughter of Lord Monboddo, "the heavenly Miss Burnet" of the poet's enthusiastic acclaim.

These two were the heralds of what was about to reveal itself in Raeburn, Wilkie, and others—an art that was specifically Scottish. From Jamesone onwards Scotland had produced a series of painters, but no school of painting. Their art was conventional rather than individual or national and was devoted almost exclusively to portraiture. For this lack two reasons may be adduced. "There was not," says Mr Caw, "a sufficiently patriotic and national sentiment among those ,\vho could have patronised art, and, there being little opportunity for artistic training at home, artists, even if fashion had not prescribed Italy, had to study abroad, with the result that they returned with the ideas of the school in which they were trained. Almost without exception the artists named in this chapter studied in Italy, a number of them for many years, and as there was no tradition in Scotland, and the artists were too few in numbers to create an atmosphere, they remained bound to what they had been taught. But with increase in numbers and with a quickened feeling of nationality abroad, first one and then another found his way to more personal expression, and the last ten years of the century contained the germs of a distinctive art. Henry Raeburn had emerged into prominence and was producing some of the portraits on which his fame most securely rests, Alexander Naysmyth had abandoned portrait for landscape in 1793 and was instructing one or two of those who were to give it character and style; and David Allan had commenced to paint scenes of Scottish rural life as early as 1783. Thomson of Duddingston was born in 1778, William Allan in 1782, Wilkie in 1785, and Watson Gordon in 1788, and the appointment of John Graham (1754-1817) to the mastership of the Trustees' Academy in 1798 resulted in increased and better opportunities for artistic training at home. Before the century closed, art in Scotland had commenced to assume some national characteristics."

Towards the end of the century the change to a fuller, larger life, which found expression in the manifold activity of the nation, produced an environment more favourable to art. The spirit of enterprise and invention, 'the keener interest in nature, the larger culture and the possession of greater wealth, with the refinement which culture and wealth tend to foster, furnished this more favourable environment. The New Town of Edinburgh and the expansion of Glasgow and other cities were an indication of the new age that had been growing in the second half of the century out of the old. The work of Raeburn is a proof that art had begun to respond to a new inspiration in the domain of portraiture, and that of Wilkie and Thomson of Duddingston was soon to reveal it in genre and landscape.

Henry Raeburn, born in 1756, and an orphan at six, was educated at Heriot's Hospital, and at fifteen became a goldsmith's apprentice. He attracted the notice of David Deuchar, an etcher and seal engraver, who gave him some lessons and introduced him to Martin, the artist, who had been a pupil and assistant of Allan Ramsay. His connection with Martin soon ended in friction, but his marriage in 1778 with one of his clients who was a lady of means enabled him to complete his self training by a sojourn at Rome from 1785 to 1787. His sojourn improved his technique without spoiling the individuality of his genius. On his return he established his studio in George Street —afterwards removed to York Place—and straightway commanded success, which continued unbroken till his death in 1823. The year before his death he was knighted by George IV. at Hopetoun House, and seven years earlier had been elected a member of the Royal Academy. He painted all the notables of his time and produced over 700 portraits. Among the more famous of them are those of Dr Spens in the Royal Archer uniform, MacDonell of Glengarry in full Highland costume, Sir John Sinclair in the striking garb of a Highland chief and a military officer combined, Henry Erskine, Mrs Scott Moncrieff, Mrs George Kinnear, and Mrs James Campbell. Remarkably free from convention, he gave to his portraits the stamp of actuality, putting in practice the advice of Byres never to paint an object without having it before him, and he had the supreme art of reflecting character in colour. "To recall the Raeburns you have seen," says Mr Caw, "is to recall not so much a gallery of pictures as a number of people you have met personally, and this is due, of course, to the consummate art with which the painter expressed his own impressions of actuality. And the effect is heightened by the unconscious air of his sitters, who seem unaware that they are being looked at. His portraits are splendidly convincing—they capture at the first glance; you feel that that must be the man."


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