This attractive picture shows a scene at Kellie Castle, Fife, in the mid-1880s, and probably celebrates the tenth anniversary of the building's restoration. The artist's mother reads aloud from a book, while two of his sisters, Louise on the left and Hannah in the foreground, work at embroidery.
The sitters were the wife and daughters of James Lorimer, a distinguished international lawyer and political philosopher who was Professor of Public Law at the University of Edinburgh from 1862. He is probably best known today for his groundbreaking book The Institute of the Law of Nations (1883-4), in which the idea of a European League of Nations is advanced. After selling his family home, Kellyfield, outside Dundee, in 1874, the Professor began to look for a summer residence in Fife, where the he often took holidays. He suffered from asthma, and the bracing air of the East Neuk of Fife suited him. The Lorimers discovered Kellie Castle while staying at the nearby priory at Pittenweem. It was extremely dilapidated, but they arranged with the owner, the Earl of Mar and Kellie, to take it on an improving lease of thirty-eight years, the longest period for which it was possible at that time to let a house in Scotland. The Earl agreed to make the castle wind-proof and water-tight, while the Professor undertook all internal restoration and such improvements as he felt were necessary, paying the modest rent of £25 per annum as an improving tenant.
Louise Lorimer recalled the condition of the castle when the family took it over in 1878. 'It was left to the rooks and owls, who built in its crumbling chimneys and dropped down piles of twigs which reached out into the rooms. Great holes let in the rain and snow through the roof, many of the floors had become unsafe, every pane of glass was broken, and swallows built in the coronets in the ceiling, while the ceilings themselves sagged and in some cases fell into the rooms'. Her sister Hannah added that Kellie 'was in fact saved, as one may say, not a moment too soon. The upper windows were all boarded up and in those at the front of the house not one pane remained unbroken, the smashing of them having long been the favourite pastime alike of the boys of the neighbourhood and the passing tourist...The rooks had also spent many a happy spring on the roof and on the chimneys of the old castle. They had completely filled the latter with sticks, which, gradually slipping down, were replaced by the rooks from above until there were large stacks of sticks extending far out into the rooms'. Neighbours such as Sir Robert Anstruther, Bt, of Balcaskie thought the restoration mad, considering the place to be a ruin fit only for demolition.
Professor Lorimer's income was modest, never exceeding £1,000 per annum, so he did not have the means to carry out a conventional Victorian restoration, extensively rebuilding the castle and ruining its character in the process. Indeed, even if this type of restoration had been possible, it is doubtful if he would have embarked on it, having no pretensions to acquire a grand country seat. The plan was to use Kellie as a holiday home from May till late October, and its limitations and ancient inconveniences were accepted and embraced. Hannah Lorimer's memoirs speak of its 'charm of stately dignity, and the interesting and loveable variety and delightful human irregularity which is found in homes built either for God or man some hundreds of years before our own time'. In retrospect, the restoration of Kellie acquires considerable significance, for it was almost the first derelict building in Scotland to be sympathetically repaired with a view to preserving its original structure and character.
The rescue of the castle, now the property of the National Trust for Scotland, is commemorated over its entrance by a Latin inscription composed by Principal Grant of Edinburgh University. This reads in translation: 'This mansion snatched from rooks and owls is dedicated to honest ease amidst labours'. A Peaceful Art represents the sort of 'honest ease' that the Lorimers were able to enjoy after their first decade of occupation. The picture may well have been inspired by a verse in a poem by T.P. Johnston which is dedicated to Professor Lorimer and celebrates the restoration of Kellie:
The beauty and wit had returned:
Dames, as fair as the place ever knew,
Filled the rooms with the grace of their presence,
And sang, and embroidered, and drew.
The sitters are seen in a room above the chapel in the north-west tower. Behind them is the west-facing window, which gives a better light than the smaller east-facing window in the same room. From the tree seen through the window it is obvious that it is autumn, that is to say towards the end of the family's annual sojourn in their country retreat. The room remains the same to this day, the window, window seats and floor joints all being recognisable. However, none of the furniture is now at Kellie. The contents of the castle were all sold following the death of John Henry Lorimer, who inherited and extended the lease but left his estate away from the family.
It is possible that the armchair in which Hannah is seated was designed by Robert Stodart Lorimer (1864-1929), the artist's younger brother. Scotland's last great architect in the romantic tradition, knighted by Edward VII in 1904, Robert was profoundly influenced by his parents' restoration of Kellie, and his early furniture has the plain, sturdy character of this piece. As a young man he even made some furniture himself, and it is not inconceivable that he executed this particular chair for family use.
The artistic streak in the Lorimer family was not confined to John and Robert. Hew Lorimer, Robert's second son, made his name as a sculptor, and Hannah, seen working on a bedspread in the picture, was not only a good needlewoman but painted in oil and watercolour as well as modelling in terracotta. Her pictures sometimes appear in the salerooms, confused with those of her brother. The eldest of three sisters, she later married Sir Everard In Thurn, who was painted by his brother-in-law with a globe and parrot, as befitted a one time governor of Fiji and Ceylon. Louise, the youngest sister, who again features in the picture, was a knowledgeable local historian. Never marrying, she looked after her mother until Mrs Lorimer's death in 1916. She continued to live at Kellie until 1928, when she moved to a small house, Newton, near Charleton, a few miles west.
There were six children in all, and John Henry himself was the third, being younger than James, the eldest, and Hannah. Born in Edinburgh, where he received his formal education at the Academy and University, he began to study art at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1875. He remained four years, being taught by William McTaggart and George Chalmers, both respected academicians. During the late 1870s and the 1880s he travelled extensively in Europe, studying the Old Masters in Hollland, France, Italy and Spain. In 1886 he spent four months in the fashionable Paris atelier of Carolus-Duran, where Sargent had been a student a decade earlier.
Lorimer began to exhibit at the RSA in 1873. He was elected an associate in 1882 and a full academician in 1900. From 1878 he also showed regularly at the Royal Academy in London, although he was never a member, and he had considerable success in Paris, which he continued to visit. His work was often seen at the Salon, where he was awarded a number of medals. Two of his pictures were bought for the Luxembourg, and he was made a corresponding member of the Institute in 1903. Only a bureaucratic muddle prevented him receiving the cross of the Legion of Honour.
Lorimer's range as an artist was wide, embracing portraits, genre scenes, landscape and flower studies. He sometimes attempted a more ambitious subject, the outstanding example being The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk (National Gallery of Scotland), exhibited at the RA in 1891. His portrait commissions caused him to travel widely, and in the 1890s he settled in London, where he had a fashionable portrait practice and enjoyed the social life. His deepest feelings, however, were focused north of the border. He always kept a studio in Edinburgh, where he returned to live in 1901, soon after being elected RSA, and although he never married, his family remained central to his life. They sat to him for numerous portraits, and many of his pictures take their subjects from their life together at Kellie. The castle itself was an abiding source of inspiration, as were its gardens and the surrounding countryside. In his later years, after taking over the tenancy, he devoted much time to restoring another old and derelict building, The Gyles at Pittenweem, and it was there that he died suddenly at the age of eighty.
As an artist, Lorimer was subject to a number of influences. There is at least one early picture which suggests he looked at the Pre-Raphaelites while he was a student, and the impact of Whistler is apparent in certain later works. He was also well aware of the rise of the Impressionists, and it is no accident that his work was praised by R.A.M. Stevenson (brother of Robert Louis), who was one of the leading apologists for the French masters and their Scottish followers. Essentially, however, he belongs to the tradition established by Robert Scott Lauder (1803-1869) during his directorship of the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh. Lorimer's two teachers at the RSA, McTaggart and Chalmers, had been among the brilliant group of students that Lauder had taught and inspired, while his friend W.Q. Orchardson was another. The work of these artists is characterised by a strong sense of light and tone, achieved by means of thinly painted, transparent shadows and solid highlights; and it was this stylistic approach that Lorimer maintained, even if he modified it under the influence of Impressionism. He was fascinated by the representation of light, often deliberately choosing contre-jour effects or combining natural with artificial sources.
A Peaceful Art is typical of Lorimer's work, not only in terms of its subject matter, a genre scene drawn from the life of his famlily at Kellie, but its technique and powerful sense of light. Indeed, there is a hint here that Lorimer's interest in illumination owed much to the subtle but penetrating light of the East Neuk of Fife, which is surrounded by the sea on three sides. In conception and design the picture may also derive something from Velazquez' painting Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) in the Prado, which Lorimer had seen in 1877. The theme of women at work, the architectural niche, and the spinning-wheels in the foreground are all anticipated in this masterpiece. Carolus-Duran had urged his pupils to study Velazquez, and R.A.M. Stevenson, who admired Lorimer's 'wonderful and quite original perception of the tones of light'. published a study of the Spanish master in 1895.
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888, when Lorimer was thirty-two, and was noted, briefly but always approvingly, by a number of critics. It has remained in the artist's family ever since, only once again being seen in public. In 1983, nearly a century after its first appearance, it was included in the exhibition held at St Andrews to celebrate the Lorimers' many artistic achievements.