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Significant Scots
George Jamesone

George JamesoneJAMESONE, GEORGE, the first eminent painter produced by Britain, was born at Aberdeen towards the end of the 16th century. The year 1586 has been given as the precise era of his birth, but this we can disprove by an extract which has been furnished to us from the borough records of his native town, and which shows that the eldest child of his parents (a daughter) was born at such a period of this year, as rendered it impossible that he could have been born within some months of it. It is alone certain that the date of the painter’s birth was posterior to 1586. Of the private life of this distinguished man few particulars are known; and of these few a portion rest on rather doubtful authority. Previously to his appearance, no man had so far succeeded in attracting the national attention of Scotland to productions in painting, as to render an artist a person whose appearance in the country was to be greatly marked: at that period of our history, too, men had other matters to occupy their minds; and it may well be believed, that, in passing through the fiery ordeal of the times, many men who in peace and prosperity might have their minds attracted to the ornamental arts, were absorbed in feelings of a very different order, which hardly allowed them an opportunity of knowing, far less of indulging in the elegant occupation of peace. The father of Jamesone was Andrew Jamesone, burgess of guild of Aberdeen, and his mother was Marjory Anderson, daughter of David Anderson, one of the magistrates of that city. What should have prompted the parents of the young painter to adopt the very unusual measure of sending their son from a quiet fireside in Aberdeen, to study under Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp, must remain a mystery. The father is said to have been an architect, and it is probably that he had knowledge enough of art to remark the rising genius of his child, and was liberal enough to perceive the height to which the best foreign education might rise the possessor of that genius. If a certain Flemish building projecting into one of the narrow streets of Aberdeen, and known by the name of "Jamesone’s house," be the production of the architectural talents of the elder Jamesone, as the period of the style may render not unlikely, he must have been a man of taste and judgment. Under Rubens, Jamesone had for his fellow scholar Sir Anthony Vandyke, and the early intercourse of these two artists had the effect of making the portraits of each be mistaken for those of the other. In 1620, Jamesone returned to Aberdeen, and established himself as a portrait-painter. He there, on the 12th of November, 1624, married Miss Isobel Tosh, * a lady with whom he seems to have enjoyed much matrimonial felicity, and who, if we may judge by her husband’s representation of her in one of his best pictures, ** must have been a person of very considerable attractions; he had by her several children, of whom the sons seem to have all met early deaths, a daughter being the only child he left behind him. ***

A curious evidence of the locality of Jamesone’s residence in Aberdeen is to be found in an epigram on that city, by the painter’s intimate friend Arthur Johnstone, author of the Latin version of the Psalms. It is interesting, as proving that Jamesone possessed what was then seldom to be found in Scotland, a habitation, which added to the mere protection from the inclemency of the seasons, some attempt to acquire the additions of comfort and taste. The epigram proceeds thus -

Hanc quoque Lanaris mons ornat, amoenior illis,
Hinc ferruginels Spada colorat aquis
suburbanum Jamesoni despicsi hortum
Quem domini pictum suspicior esse manu.

In "A Succinet Survey of the famous city of Aberdeen, by Philopoliteius," the passage is thus "done" into what the author is pleased to term "English:"

"The Woolman hill, which all the rest outvies
In pleasantness, this city beautifies;
There is the well of Spa, that healthful font,
Whose yrne-hewed water coloureth the mount;
Not far from thence a garden’s to be seen
Which unto Jamesone did appertain:
Wherein a little pleasant house doth stand,
Painted as I guess with its master’s hand." +

Jamesone appears to have been in Edinburgh during the visit of king Charles the First in the year 1633. To gratify the taste of that prince he was employed by the magistrates to paint portraits, as nearly resembling probable likenesses as he could devise, of some of the real or supposed early kings of Scotland. These productions had the good fortune to give satisfaction, and the unhappy king, who had soon far different matters to occupy his attention, sat for his portrait, and rewarded the artist with a diamond ring from his own finger. It is alleged that the painter was on this occasion indulged with a permission to remain covered in the presence of majesty, a circumstance which is made to account for his having always represented himself (and he was not sparing in portraits of himself,) with his hat on: neither is the permission characteristic of the monarch, nor its adoption by the artist; and the peculiarity may be better attributed to a slavish imitation of his master Rubens, in a practice which had been sanctioned by the choice of Carracci and Guido.

It is probable that the patronage and notice of the monarch were the circumstances which introduced the paintings of Jamesone to the notice of the nobility. He appears, soon after the period we have alluded to, to have commenced a laborious course of portrait-painting, then, as now, the most lucrative branch of the art; and the many portraits of their ancestors, still in possession of families dispersed through various parts of Scotland, attest the extent of his industry. The Campbells of Glenorchy, then an opulent and powerful family, distinguished themselves by their patronage of Jamesone. What countenance he may have obtained from other quarters we do not know, and the almost utter silence regarding so great a man on the part of contemporaries, makes a document which Walpole has rescued from oblivion, relative to his labours for the family of Glenorchy, highly interesting. From a MS. on vellum, containing the genealogy of the house of Glenorchy, begun in 1598, are taken the following extracts, written in 1635, page 52:—" Item, the said Sir Coline Campbell, (eighth laird of Glenorchy,) gave unto George Jamesone, painter in Edinburgh, for king Robert and king David Bruysses, kings of Scotland, and Charles I,, king of Great Brittane, France, and Ireland, and his majesties quein, and for nine more of the queins of Scotland, their portraits, quhilks are set up in the hall of Balloch (now Taymouth), the sum of twa hundreth thrie scor pounds."— "Mair the said Sir Coline gave to the said George Jamesone for the knight of Lochow’s lady, and the first countess of Argylle, and six of the ladys of Glenurquhay, their portraits, and the said Sir Coline his own portrait, quhilks are set up in the chalmer of deas of Balloch, ane hundreth four scoire punds." ++ There is a further memorandum, intimating that in 1635, Jamesone painted the family tree of the house of Glenorchy, eight feet long by five broad. What may have become of the portraits of Robert and David Bruce, and of the nine queens, which must have taxed the inventive talents of the artist, we do not know. Their loss may be, however, of little consequence, as we can easily argue from the general effect of Jamesone’s productions, that his talent consisted in giving life and expression to the features before him, and not in design. The other paintings have, however, been carefully preserved by the family into whose hands they fell. They consist of portraits of Sir Duncan Campbell, the earl of Airth, John earl of Rothes, James marquis of Hamilton, Archibald lord Napier, William earl of Marischal, chancellor Loudoun, lord Binning, the earl of Mar, Sir Robert Campbell, Sir John Campbell, and the genealogical tree mentioned in the memorandum. All these are, we believe, still to be seen in good preservation in Taymouth castle, where in 1769 they were visited by Pennant, who thus describes the genealogical tree: "That singular performance of his, the geneo1ogical picture, is in good preservation. The chief of the Argyle family is placed recumbent at the foot of a tree, with a branch; on the right is a single head of his eldest son, Sir Duncan Campbell, laird of Lochow; but on the various ramifications are the names of his descendants, and along the body of the tree are nine small heads, in oval frames, with the names on the margins, all done with great neatness: the second son was first of the house of Breadalbane, which branched from the other above four hundred years ago. In a corner is inscribed ‘The Geneologie of the House of Glenorquhie quhair of is descendit sundrie nobil and worthie houses. Jameson faciebat, 1635" +++ After a life which must have been spent in great industry, and enjoying independence, and even wealth, Jamesone died at Edinburgh in 1644, and was buried without a monument in the Grey Friars’ church there.

Walpole, who obtained his information from a relation of the painter, says, "By his will, written with his own hand in July, 1641, and breathing a spirit of much piety and benevolence, he provides kindly for his wife and children, and leaves many legacies to his relations and friends, particularly to lord Rothes the king’s picture from head to foot, and Mary with Martha in one piece: to William Murray he gives the medals in his coffer; makes a handsome provision for his natural daughter; and bestows liberally on the poor. That he should be in a condition to do all this, seems extraordinary, his prices having been so moderate; for, enumerating the debts due to him, he charges lady Haddington for a whole length of her husband, and lady Seton, of the same dimensions, frames and all, but three hundred marks: and lord Maxwell for his own picture and his lady’s to their knees, one hundred marks, both sums of Scots money." The average remuneration which Jamesone received for his portraits is calculated at twenty pounds Scots, or one pound thirteen shillings and four pence sterling. People have wondered at the extreme smallness of the sum paid to so great an artist; but, measured by its true standard, the price of necessary provisions, it was in reality pretty considerable, and may easily be supposed to enable an industrious man to amass a comfortable fortune. Walpole continues, "Mr Jamesone (the relation from whom the facts of the account were received), has likewise a memorandum written and signed by this painter, mentioning a MS in his possession, ‘containing two hundred leaves of parchment of excellent write, adorned with diverse historys of our Saviour curiously limned,’ which he values at two hundred pounds sterling, a very large sum at that time! What is become of that curious book is not known." It is probable that the term "sterling" affixed to the sum, is a mistake. It was seldom if ever used in Scotland at the period when Jamesone lived. We are not given to understand that the "limning" was of the painter’s own work, and we are not to presume he was in possession of a volume, superior in value to the produce of many years labour in his profession. The manuscript, though mentioned with an estimation so disproportionate to that of the works of its proprietor, was probably some worthless volume of monkish illuminations, of which it would waste time to trace the ownership. The description might apply to a manuscript "Mirror of the Life of Christ," extant in the Advocates’ Library.

We have already mentioned a considerable number of the portraits by Jamesone in Taymouth castle. An almost equal number is in the possession of the Alva family; and others are dispersed in smaller numbers. Carnegie of Southesk possesses portraits of some of his ancestors, by Jamesone, who was connected with the family. Mr Carnegie, town clerk of Aberdeen, possesses several of his pictures in very good preservation, and among them is the original of the portrait of the artist himself, which has been engraved for this work. Another individual in Aberdeen possesses a highly curious portrait by Jamesone of the artist’s uncle, David Anderson of Finzeauch, merchant-burgess of Aberdeen, an eccentric character, the variety of whose occupation and studies procured him the epithet of "Davie do a’ thing." Some of Jamesone’s portraits hang in the hall of Marischal college in a state of wretched preservation. Sir Paul Menzies, provost of Aberdeen, presents us with a striking cast of countenance boldly executed; but in general these are among the inferior productions of Jamesone. They are on board, the material on which he painted his earlier productions (and which he afterwards changed for fine canvas), and are remarkable for the stiffness of the hands, and the awkward arrangement of the dress; two defects, which, especially in the case of the former, he afterwards overcame. There is in the same room a portrait of Charles I. of some merit, which the exhibitor of the curiosities in the university generally attributes to Vandyke. It is probably the work of Jamesone, but it may be observed, that there is more calm dignity in the attitude, and much less expression, than that artist generally exhibits. Walpole and others mention as extant in the King’s college of Aberdeen, a picture called the "Sibyls," partly executed by Jamesone, and copied from living beauties in Aberdeen: if this curious production still exists in the same situation, we are unaware of its being generally exhibited to strangers. There is a picture in King’s college attributed to Jamesone, which we would fain bestow on some less celebrated hand. It is a view of King’s college as originally erected, the same from which the engraving prefixed to Orem’s account of the cathedral church of Old Aberdeen, is copied. It represents an aspect much the same as that which Slezer has given in his Theatrum Scotiae, and, like the works of that artist, who could exhibit both sides of a building at once, it sets all perspective at defiance, and most unreasonably contorts the human figure. In characterizing the manner of Jamesone, Walpole observes that "his excellence is said to consist in delicacy and softness, with a clear and beautiful colouring; his shades not charged, but helped by varnish, with little appearance of the pencil." This account is by one who has not seen any of the artist’s paintings, and is very unsatisfactory.

It is indeed not without reason, that the portraits of Jamesone have frequently been mistaken for those of Vandyke. Both excelled in painting the human countenance,—in making the flesh and blood project from the surface of the canvas, and animating it with a soul within. That the Scottish artist may have derived advantage from his association with the more eminent foreigner it were absurd to deny; but as they were fellow students, candour will admit, that the advantage may have been at least partly repaid, and that the noble style in which both excelled, may have been formed by the common labour of both. It can scarcely be said that on any occasion Jamesone rises to the high dignity of mental expression represented by Vandyke, nor does he exhibit an equal grace, in the adjustment of a breast plate, or the hanging of a mantle. His pictures generally represent hard and characteristic features, seldom with much physical grace, and representing minds within, which have more of the fierce or austere than of the lofty or elegant; and in such a spirit has he presented before us the almost breathing forms of those turbulent and austere men connected with the dark troubles of the times. The face thus represented seems generally to have commanded the whole mind of the artist. The background presents nothing to attract attention, and the outlines of the hard features generally start from a ground of dingy dark brown, or deep grey. The dress, frequently of a sombre hue, often fades away into the back ground, and the attitude, though frequently easy, is seldom studied to impose. The features alone, with their knotty brows, deep expressive eyes, and the shadow of the nose falling on the lip - a very picturesque arrangement followed by Vandyke - alone demand the attention of the spectator. Yet he could sometimes represent a majestic form and attitude, as the well-known picture of Sir Thomas Hope testifies. We shall notice one more picture by Jamesone, as it is probably one of the latest which came from his brush and exhibits peculiarities of style not to be met with in others. This portrait is in the possession of Mr Skene of Rubislaw, and represents his ancestor Sir George Skene of Fintray, who was born in 1619. The portrait is of a young man past twenty; and it will be remarked, that the subject was only twenty-five years of age when the artist died. The picture is authenticated from the circumstance of a letter being extant from the laird of Skene to Sir George Skene, requesting a copy of his portrait "by Jamesone," and in accordance with a fulfillment of this request, a copy of the portrait we allude to is in the family collection at Skene. Jamesone has here indulged in more fullness and brilliancy of colouring than is his general custom; the young man has a calm aspect; his head is covered with one of the monstrous wigs then just introduced; he is in a painter’s attitude, even to the hand, which is beautifully drawn, and far more graceful than those of Jamesone generally are. On the whole, this portrait has more of the characteristics of Sir Peter Lely, than of Vandyke.

Jamesone has been termed the "Vandyke of Scotland," but he may with equal right claim the title of the Vandyke of Britain. Towards the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign, Hilliard and Oliver had become somewhat distinguished as painters in miniature, and they commanded some respect, more from the inferiority of others, than from their own excellence; but the first inhabitant of Great Britain, the works of whose brush could stand comparison with foreign painters, was Jamesone.

A Latin elegy was addressed to the memory of Jamesone by David Wedderburn; and his friend and fellow townsman Arthur Johnstone, (whose portrait had been painted by Jamesone), has left, in one of his numerous epigrams, a beautiful poetical tribute to his memory. After his death, the art he had done so much to support, languished in Scotland. His daughter, who may have inherited some portion of plastic genius, has left behind fruits of her industry in a huge mass of tapestry, which still dangles from the gallery of the church of St Nicholas in Aberdeen. This lady’s second husband was Gregory, the mathematician. A descendant of the same name as the painter has already been alluded to, as an engraver in the earlier part of the 18th century, and John Alexander, another descendant, who returned from his studies in Italy in 1720, acquired celebrity as an inventor of portraits of queen Mary.

* The marriage is thus entered in the burgh records, "12th November, 1624, George Jamesone, Isobell Tosche."

** This picture represents the painter himself, and his wife and daughter. The grouping is very neat, and the attitudes of the hands as free from stiffness as those of almost any picture of the age. The daughter is a fine round-cheeked spirited-looking girl, apparently about 12 years old. Walpole says this picture was painted in 1623. From the date of Jamesone’s marriage, this must be a mistake. This picture was engraved by Alexander Jamesone, a descendant of the painter, in 1728, and a very neat line engraving of it is to be found in Dallway’s edition of Walpole’s Anecdotes.

*** The following entry in the council records of Aberdeen relates to the birth of one of Jamesone’s children: "1629 yleris – George Jamesone and – Toche, ane sone, baptized be Mr Robert Baron the 27th day of July, callit William: Mr Patrick Done, Robert Alexander, Andrew Meldrum, William Gordone, god-fathers." The next notice of him which we find in the same authority shows, that on the 2d January 1630, he was present at the baptism of a child of "James Toshe," probably a relation of his wife, at which, it may be mentioned, William Forbes, bishop of Edinburgh, officiated. In October of the same year we find him again demanding a similar duty for his own family. "October, 1630 yeires George Jamesone and Isobell Toshe, ane sone, baptized the 27th day, callit Paull; Paull Menzies of Kinmundie, provest, Mr Alexander Jaffray, bailzie, Mr David Wedderburn, Mr Robert Patric, Patrick Jack, Patrick Fergusson, Andrew Strachan, godfathers." This is a curious evidence of Jamesone’s respectability as a citizen. Paul, afterwards Sir Paul Menzies, a man of considerable note in Aberdeenshire, and provost of the city, appears to have been name-father, and Alexander Jaffrey, another of the sponsors, was himself afterwards provost. The extractor of these entries remarks, that the chief magistrate appears to have acted as sponsor only at the baptisms of children of very influential citizens.

+ With further reference to this place of pleasure ground, and an anxiety to collect every scrap of matter which concerns Jamesone, we give the following entry, regarding a petition of date the 15th of January, 1645, given in to the town council of Aberdeen by "Mr John Alexander, advocate of Edinburgh, makand mention that where that piece of ground callit the play-field besyd Wolman-hill (quhilk was set to umquihill George Jamesone, painter, burges of Edinburgh in life-rent, and buildit be him in a garden) is now unprofitable, and that the said John Alexander, sone in law to the said umquhill George Jamesone, is desirous to have the same piece of ground set to him in few heritabile to be houlden of the provost, balizies, and of the burghs of Aberdeen, for payment of a reasonable few dutie yeirlie their-for;" praying the magistrates to set to him in feu tack the foresaid piece of ground: the request is granted by the magistrates, and further official mention is made of the transaction of date the 10th November, 1646, where the "marches" of the garden are set forth in full. This place of ground was the ancient "Play-field" of the burgh, which remained disused, after the Reformation had terminated the mysteries and pageants there performed. Persons connected with Aberdeen will know the spot when they are informed, that it is the piece of flat ground extending from the well of Spa to Jack’s brae, bounded on the east by the Woolman hill, and the burn running at its foot; on the south by the Denburn, and the ridge of ground on which Skene street now stands; on the west by Jack’s brae, and on the north by the declivity occupied by the Gileomsten brewery. The appropriation of the spot in the garden of the painter is still noted by the name of a fountain, called "The Garden Neuk Well." – Council Record of Aberdeen, iiii. P. 37, 98.

++ Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting, i. 24.

+++ Tour, 1769, p. 87.

George Jamesone
The Scottish Vandyck by John Bulloch (1885)

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