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Scottish Painting in The Forbes Collection
Scottish painting in the nineteenth century was dominated by the influence of two individuals, the painter Sir David Wilkie and the novelist Sir Walter Scott. In this it was not unique of course, for the example of these two did much to shape nineteenth-century painting as a whole, and not only in Britain. Scott's account of history in the Waverley Novels is as a rich tapestry certainly, but one that is woven from the innumerable threads of the narratives of ordinary lives, and this was the starting-point for countless Victorian paintings of historical anecdotes, real and imaginary, set in a reconstruction of the everyday world. But however pictorial he was as a writer, Scott could not set a visual example, and in interpreting such dramas through the observation of the natural human exchange of expression and gesture, painters were guided by Wilkie.
In his imaginative recreation of the past in a late picture like Sancho Panza in the Days of His Youth (lot 303), Wilkie himself was also close to Scott, and the two men enjoyed a friendship based on mutual respect. But Wilkie's earlier work generally reflected contemporary life, and in doing so exploited the humour of apt observation. It was this approach that first appealed to his compatriots in Scotland. William Allan, for instance, was closely associated with Wilkie, and here the Recovery of the Stolen Child (lot 75), painted the year Wilkie died, is full of observation of expression and feeling as well as of the details of ordinary life. It is in fact a lovely tribute to Wilkie's own early style of narrative genre. William Kidd was another close follower of Wilkie, and By the Camp Fire (lot 357) is in this same style. In his marvellous handling of light in this picture, however, Kidd is his own master, and in the subject of a foolish youth beguiled by boon companions who are in fact intent on robbing him, Kidd's inspiration lies in Hogarth's Rake's Progress.
Sir George Harvey's The Penny Bank (lot 116) continues this tradition of contemporary narrative genre. Exhibited in 1864, the year in which Harvey became President of the Royal Scottish Academy, this was clearly an important painting for him and a suitably moral subject, if also a slightly puzzling one. In the RSA catalogue, he himself explains his picture by saying it was 'suggested by the Vinegar Close Penny Bank formed in Leith eleven years ago since which time there has been received in pence the sum of £5,400, crumbs gathered from the tables of the poor.' Reviewing the exhibition, the Art Journal takes up this hint and elaborates on the theme and the scene does indeed appear to be such a people's savings bank as Harvey describes and one in which even the children are involved. But this account does not explain the manifest anxiety of the woman who is the chief protagonist, nor the judicious contemplation of some problem apparent in the pose of the man collecting the money. Is she short on some payment, are her savings less than she had calculated, or is this in fact more closely a reprise of the subject of Wilkie's The Rent Day which is plainly Harvey's inspiration than his own account would suggest? Harvey takes the two central figures confronting each other across the table over money and ledgers from Wilkie's picture. There they are the rent collector and a tenant who has been unfairly charged. If here the woman's tense expression does express some financial insecurity or indeed some injustice, the appearance of a 'To Let' sign on the door in the passage outside hinting obliquely at the consequences of default on rent offers little comfort. Whatever her situation may be however, the woman is plainly acting on her own account. The scene is set in Leith, Edinburgh's port, and in the background, waiting her turn, stands a fishwife from nearby Newhaven. The Newhaven fishing community generally, but the women in particular, were celebrated for their probity and self-sufficiency. Twenty years earlier, D.O. Hill had paid homage to them and to their way of life in the first documentary photographs. Hill was longstanding Secretary to the Academy and so perhaps Harvey's picture is also a tacit tribute from the new President to his Secretary.
Perhaps inspired by Harvey and by his choice of a similar financial theme, three years later John Ritchie takes the same group from Wilkie's Rent Day as the central motif of his nicely observed painting of a small drama in the life of a parish church, The Vestry Meeting: Something Wrong with the Accounts (lot 117). Later in the century William Fettes Douglas became one of the most prolific painters of costume drama, but in The Widow's Mite (lot 354) that he exhibited in 1851, he perhaps also takes his cue from Harvey who had made his name with pictures of the truly biblical fortitude of the life of the persecuted heroes of the Scottish Kirk, the covenanters. Fettes Douglas' church picture is set in modern times, but illustrates a contemporary example of similar, if less obviously heroic biblical fortitude. Like the widow in the Bible (St Luke 21, v. 1-4) who put into the collection 'two mites' and so, unlike the rich who gave of 'their superfluity', 'of her want cast in all the living she did have', the widowed mother of a manifestly sick son, in spite of her obvious financial insecurity, puts a coin in the collection plate as she enters the church. The church elders notice her action and their sympathetic concern is apparent. It is, on the face of it, a fine example of a modern moral subject of just the kind that, in England, the Pre-Raphaelites started to explore at this precise moment. However Fettes Douglas was sometimes gently humorous in his observation of human behaviour and it is not entirely clear to the careful observer that there is in fact a coin either in the widow's hand, or in the plate where it would be had she dropped it. Keeping up appearances, she is looking resolutely ahead of her, defying us, or any other observer to know exactly what she has contributed.
It may be too cynical and modern to read even such a delicate hint of irony into a high Victorian work like Fettes Douglas' picture. Nevertheless humour did continue to be part of this tradition of Scottish painting. In the work of the brothers John and Tom Faed, for instance, and in that of Erskine Nicol and indeed of his son, John Watson Nicol, all of whom are represented here, the humorous side of Wilkie's work continued to be an inspiration right down to the end of the nineteenth century. John Faed's splendid painting, Boyhood (lot 7) is an outstanding example of this tradition. The contrast between rustic vigour, represented by the barefoot boy on the right with a wild landscape behind him, and urban effeteness, as seen in the wimpish, bawling boy on the left with a little town behind him is an old theme in Scottish art and poetry. But as the two boys are held apart by the black figure of the dominie, the village schoolmaster, so they are also held together by him, so perhaps these two contrasting aspects of boyhood will eventually be united by the process of education. Tom Faed's Worn Out (lot 15) is rather different and altogether sadder. The man is evidently a single parent who has been left to bring up his child on his own, while also struggling to make a living, after the death of his wife. The sentiment is typical of Tom Faed, but it is redeemed from any hint of mawkishness by the exquisite painting. With immense skill, Faed matches minute observation with a convincing sense of unity of light and atmosphere.
Wilkie visited Spain in 1828 and Sancho Panza in the Days of His Youth (lot 303) is one of the Spanish subjects he painted following this visit. They proved immensely popular, and he pioneered a fashion for Spain and Spanish subjects that endured through the rest of the century and beyond. David Roberts, for instance, followed his friend to Spain and first made his name with Spanish landscapes. He then went on to become the first artist to document the monuments of the Middle East. Though his painting here, a view of the Firth of Forth, (lot 256) is on the face of it more domestic, it is a classical pastiche that turns a familiar Scottish landscape into something quite exotic. John Phillip not only followed Wilkie to Spain, he also followed his choice of subject matter. The monumental picture in the Forbes Collection, The Early Career of Murillo (lot 8), is one of the grand essays in Spanish genre that earned him the sobriquet 'Spanish' Phillip. It is also closely linked both in scale and in composition to his acknowledged masterpiece, La Gloria, painted the previous year, which made a sensation when it was bought for the National Gallery of Scotland in 1897 for 5000 guineas, a huge sum for a modern painting.
William Dyce and David Scott both turned against what they saw as the trivialisation of painting in such subject matter. They took inspiration instead from the piety and primitivism of the German Nazarenes, whose work they encountered in Rome and who took their inspiration in turn from the painters of the early Renaissance. David Scott's initial starting point, however, was the group of monumental paintings by William Etty which D.O. Hill had bought for the new Scottish Academy. Etty's The Combat, for instance, was the direct inspiration for Scott's Family Discord for which there is a study here (lot 310). Etty's high ambitions also stayed with Scott, leading him to study the rhetoric of the old masters as we see here in the sketch for the lost painting of the Descent of the Cross (lot 302) that he painted for the newly emancipated Catholic community in Edinburgh and which is closely modelled on Rubens. Dyce remained closer to the Nazarene ideal of simplicity, though as we see in the lovely contemplative painting of St John Leading Home his Adopted Mother (lot 156) he interpreted it in a very distinctive way, combining the purity of a quattrocento figure style with a vividly seen and very real account of landscape under evening light. Dyce's intention seems to have been to paint a religious picture which could transfer the piety of the Italian primitives into a recognisably modern world. It is appropriate, therefore, that the tonality of the landscape appears to reveal his admiration for his friend D.O. Hill's pioneering work in photography.
Looking at such a picture, it is easy to see how Dyce was predisposed to sympathise with the young Pre-Raphaelites, and indeed he was one of their first champions. Other Scottish painters also took notice of their work. Joseph Noel Paton was an early friend of Millais, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite painting is clearly apparent in his work (lots 235 & 298). James Archer, too, shows his grasp of Pre-Raphaelite minuteness in his painting of Burns and Highland Mary (lot 355). Through his wife, Millais also continued to have a close connection with Scotland, and his work was exhibited regularly at the RSA. It is not surprising that he should have been a formative influence on the generation of Scottish painters who came of age in the 1850s. This is apparent, for example, in the little early painting by William MacTaggart, The Fisher Boy (lot 223).
But this generation, who went on to dominate painting in Scotland and to play a significant role in English painting too, were first of all united as friends and fellow students under the tutelage of Robert Scott Lauder. Sometimes known as the Scott Lauder School, they are represented here by MacTaggart, Orchardson, Pettie, the brothers John and Alexander Burr, Tom Graham and the landscape painter, John MacWhirter. Their teacher, like so many other Scottish painters, found his starting point in Wilkie and regularly painted subjects from Scott. He is represented here by a fine illustration to Scott's novel Quentin Durward (lot 305). It was the rich and painterly later work of Wilkie, reflecting his love of Rubens, that particularly influenced Scott Lauder, and this was the style that he passed on to the pupils who gathered round him in the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh. The results are seen in such atmospheric paintings as Pettie's The Chieftain's Candlesticks (lot 64), which also takes its subject from Scott's novel The Legend of Montrose, or Tom Graham's beautiful, and very modern, Thames-side nocturne, Study for Orpheus and Eurydice (lot 108).
Surprisingly, these gifted painters also turned back for inspiration to Wilkie's earlier works. Alexander Burr's Blindman's Buff (lot 337) is a frank homage to Wilkie's treatment of this subject, and lacks nothing of Wilkie's humour. This also marks his brother's painting The Peepshow (lot 255), though in suggesting that the puppet master may be the wicked witch and the two children the babes in the wood, Burr gives a slightly sinister frisson to his picture. There is even an echo of Wilkie, in the suspicious dog, which recalls the one in Wilkie's Letter of Introduction, dubiously sniffing the young man's unfamiliar country clothes. Orchardson offers a more profound essay on Wilkie in his wonderful Queen of Swords (lot 9). One of the stars of the Collection, it is a profound homage to Wilkie's Penny Wedding. This was the picture in which Wilkie himself pioneered the style of historical genre painting which was to prove so enduring in the nineteenth century. It was the style in which Orchardson was to excel, and in which he first proved himself a master with this exquisite picture. It should be no surprise either that Orchardson takes his subject from Scott's novel The Pirate, representing the scene in which the heroine, Minna Troil, takes part in a thrilling sword dance. Orchardson was still working in this mode in the early twentieth century, but by that time other influences had come into Scottish painting from Holland and France. John Robertson Reid (lot 348) and Robert Gemmell Hutchison (lot 358) both responded to these stimuli, and generally pursued a more direct kind of painting as a result. Nevertheless, we see them here still producing distinguished pictures in the style of narrative genre that had held sway throughout the nineteenth century.