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The Scottish School of Painting
Chapter XVII. Sir J. Noel Paton and W. B. Scott

Joseph Noel Paton dissented from the traditions of the Scottish School in more than one direction. Hitherto, these had come from the older masters, through Raeburn and Wilkie, both having added a strongly individual note in the transmission. David Scott is an exception to the more or less of compliance with the lead thus given ; and Paton is a second instance of a painter of mark who owes little to either of the founders of the school. The two have something in common; their delight in the world of fairy, sprite, and goblin, for example, but essentially they were of different temperament, Paton's lightsome and exuberant fancy and flowing line being as different as well could be from the austere and often somewhat archaic treatment of the same subjects by Scott. The younger artist was, no doubt, influenced by his senior, for such subjects as Rachel weeping for her Children, Puch fleeing from the Dawn, and Silenus singing, are reflected in the titles of Paton’s earlier works, and he remained through life a steadfast exponent of Scott’s art ideals, though he approached them in a different spirit and through a different technique. For twenty-five years he was a prolific exhibitor at the Scottish Academy, where his contributions represented every phase of his talent; but after middle life sacred subjects occupied him almost exclusively, and these were seldom seen at the annual exhibitions. Faith and Reason, Mors Janua Vitce, Lux in Tenebris, and others are well known through engravings; but the works with which Paton’s name has been longest and most closely associated are in a lighter vein. The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, painted in 1847, conjointly with a larger picture, Christ bearing the Cross, was awarded a premium at a competition in connection with the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament.* The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania was exhibited in 1850. Both pictures display an extraordinary wealth of fancy, graceful drawing, and resourcefulness of composition, in the diminutive figures which swarm from foxglove bell and creeping convolvulus, or pose in every conceivable attitude on spider’s web, vine leaf, and deadly fungus. The later picture is the finer of the two, its technique better suiting the subject. The other is less fairy-like by reason of its colder tone and more solid impasto. The same elaborate finish is seen, with an added realism, in The Bludie Tryst, 1859, the picture which most closely associates him with the Pre-Raphaelites. In allegory, The Pursuit of Pleasure—a Vision of Human Life, and in history, Dazvn—Luther at Erfurt, represent the artist at his best. In the latter the young monk, haggard with vigil and fasting, reads eagerly the volume which has not yet brought the solution of his unrest. These, with In Memoriam, suggested by the tragic incidents of the Indian Mutiny, were the chief products of the years 1855-62. The history, legend, and ballad poetry of Scotland are represented in incidents from the lives of Wallace and Bruce, 1850; Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie, 1851; and The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, 1862; whilst Dante, Spenser, Goethe, and the Arthurian poems furnish their quota of subjects. After 1870, as has been said, his work was less varied.

Sir Noel Paton’s strength lies in his faculty of composition. Here one can say little of impastoes and scumblings, of transparencies or consistencies of paint. That mastery of the brush so conspicuous in many Scottish painters was not amongst his gifts, though many of his earlier works, and especially the careful studies made in connection with them, show a delicate and tender craft. It is only when one has seen those studies of foreground, of wild rose, poppy, and honeysuckle, that one can rightly understand this; as his mastery of design is truly appreciated only when one knows his work in pen and pencil, his modelled groups, and the drawings for similar groups and statuettes. These, and a frieze-like processional design illustrating “The Refusal of Charon” in Aytoun’s “Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and other poems,” make one regret that Sir Noel had not oftener turned his attention to the sister art. Of his published designs those for the work just mentioned, and for “The Ancient Mariner” are best known.

Paton’s art is interesting from another point of view. Holman Hunt, in his recently issued volumes on Pre-Raphaelitism, has said, “The Literature and Art of an age are ever inspired by a kindred spirit, the latter faithfully following the former.” Though, in a wider sense, the last clause might be contested, as regards certain phases of modem art, Mr. Hunt’s words carry an undoubted truth. The influence of native literature on Scottish painting has more than once been referred to in the foregoing chapters, especially that exerted by Scott during the first half of the century. Towards its middle decades the more impassioned genius of Keats and Shelley and Tennyson made itself felt, and of the Scottish artists touched by this influence Noel Paton was by temperament the most completely in sympathy with it. At eighteen he was painting, like his elders, from Scott’s romances—Annot Lyle singing and 'The Fight between Bothwell and Balfour were his first completed pictures—but from the date of his visit to London in 1843, there is no return to Sir Walter. His brush is thenceforth inspired by the later poets, or he harks back to literature more in sympathy with them than the breezy narrative of the Border minstrel. His relations with the mid-century movement were expressed not in painting and sculpture only. Twice, in “Poems by a Painter,” 1861, and “Spindrift,” 1867, the same trend of thought is felt.

Some years the senior of Paton, and more closely associated with the English Pre-Raphaelites, William Bell Scott is less known in Scotland than in England. His easel pictures are comparatively few, and his reputation as a painter rests mainly on a series of mural paintings at Wallington Hall, the seat of the Trevelyans, illustrating the history of Northumberland, and another from “The King’s Quhair,” at Penkill Castle, Ayrshire. Of his oil paintings, a small canvas, The Eve of the Deluge, is in the Tate Gallery, and The Border Widow at Aberdeen. In the former a company of luxurious scoffers, seated in the shady colonnade of an Assyrian palace, mock at the Ark builders on the plain below, whilst an ominous cloud takes form on the horizon. The treatment shows considerable originality, but neither here nor in the Aberdeen picture is the technique equal to the conception. The latter has all the excessive detail, with something of the impassioned feeling of the school to which it belongs, but in the feebly stippled flesh and wiry hair, as well as in the want of cohesion of the landscape elements, the painter’s hand has failed adequately to interpret his intention. Scott is best known through his association with Rossetti, and through various literary works in prose and verse.

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