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Scottish Painters

Art came to Scotland late. It was after 1600 before the first native painters emerged. Before that pictures and painters had found their way to Scotland mainly from the Low Countries. By the middle of the seventeenth century the influence of Rome was making itself felt. Allan Ramsay (1713-84), although trained in Rome, maintained his position as Painter to George III with portraits which were clearly French in character, thereby demonstrating the peculiar sympathy with French Art which Scottish painting has frequently shown. Dutch Art was finding its way into Scotland, to be reflected in landscape painting as well as in figure subjects based on rural life, and this influence was to have its highest expression fifty years later in the work of Sir David Wilkie (1783-1841). The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of Henry Raeburn (1736-1823), a self-taught painter who adopted the most direct methods of expression, making a complete break with the earlier technique of preliminary drawings and underpaintings. Raeburn was thus, in his day, completely modern. He set a high standard in portraiture which was continued by his followers and still has its echoes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the historical subject—which has been claimed as ‘Art’s noblest part’—and the panoramic landscape gradually gave way to pictures of a more intimate type based on closer observance of nature, and so prepared the way for one of the major turning points in Scottish Art.

In 1832 Robert Scott Lauder (1803-69) was appointed Master of the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh. Lauder had spent several years in Rome but before leaving Scotland he had been closely in touch with the artists of an earlier generation, and so was intimately aware of the Scottish tradition. He was a man of wide culture but his most outstanding quality was his ability to develop and encourage the individual gifts of his pupils. If one single feature of his teaching may be selected as having perhaps the most far-reaching results, it was his insistence upon the careful analysis of tonal relations and the sense of ambient air. This led to a greater unity of effect than had hitherto been observed. We are concerned here with the work of one of his pupils only—William McTaggart.

McTaggart (1834-1910), the son of a crofter or small farmer in Kintyre, was born on the Western seaboard and had the sound of the wind in his ears and the surge of the Atlantic in his childhood memories . Utterly remote from any art influence he showed rare gifts at an early age and when he was sixteen his parents were persuaded to allow him to go to Edinburgh, where he came under the influence of Scott Lauder. His early work was precise and detailed but already informed by a sense of light and air. With ripening experience his methods broadened, and by the 1870’s his colour had become subdivided, and traditional painting techniques had surrendered to a new freedom of expression born of the rush and dash of painting constantly direct from nature. With an eye of exceptional sensitivity to tone and colour values McTaggart’s development as an Impressionist was contemporary with but wholly independent of Impressionism in France. He remains the greatest interpreter of the movement of light and air over the sea and land.

Sir J. Lawton Wingate (1846-1924) had gifts similar to those of McTaggart but he worked on a smaller scale and with a different sentiment. He was more concerned with the pensive moods of nature, at sunset or in the wistful light of afterglow. Painting direct from nature, his small canvases show an exceptional awareness of atmospheric conditions. In these he captures the veiled sunlight—so prevalent in Scotland when the wind has a touch of East in it—while the trees and the soil from which they grow are unmistakably the Scottish Lowlands.

What exactly should we expect of Scottish Art? Scottish landscape has a rich and varied local colour at all seasons of the year, and that landscape is seen under the modification of constantly changing atmospheric conditions. These circumstances have produced in the Scot a peculiar sensitivity to the ‘quality’ of colour—not the flashing reds, blues and yellows of brighter lands but these colours modified or qualified by a unifying atmosphere. Also, there is shape. In Scotland the primeval rocks lie near the surface and the earth’s backbone is everywhere evident. That underlying sense of structure finds another form of expression in the shipyards of the Clyde. And pattern? In the tweeds and tartans and, further back, in the Celtic ornament of carvings and illuminations, the Scot has shown his sense of design. So, as might be expected, while the light, colour and air of Impressionism had a very definite appeal, there are other qualities which the Scot would intuitively seek.

Another group of painters arose in the 1880’s, demanding pictures of greater decorative value. The main influences were the Plein-air movement, Velasquez, Whistler, and the Japanese Print. Linder the leadership of W. Y. Macgregor (18^-1923) a group of artists, who became known as the Glasgow School, produced pictures which reflected in varying degrees these influences as qualifying a fundamentally and basic Scottish attitude which insisted that paint should be rich and full in ‘body’, the surface varied in texture, the technique direct and masculine, the colour resonant and applied with a brush regarded as a painting tool. These artists achieved works of a more fully integrated national character than any group of painters before or since. The artists represented in this exhibition are Macgregor, Guthrie, Walton, Roche, Homeland a younger man, D. Y. Cameron.

Macgregor never enjoyed robust health. With an almost Calvinis-tic faith in the virtue of aesthetic truth, he regarded the materials of his craft as devils to be subdued. For him the world was full of angularities, cubes, prisms and cylindrical tree trunks ‘-—in colour —Damn it!’ But he believed he could do it—if he had a bigger brush! I have seen Oskar Kokoschka stand before Macgregor’s Vegetable Stall and say, ‘To think that that picture was painted before I was born—and I never knew!’

They changed with the years. The leadership devolved upon Guthrie (1859-1930), who became President of the Royal Scottish Academy and a portrait painter of rare insight and sympathy. Walton (1860-1922), also a portrait painter, found his happiest expression in landscape. Roche (1861-1921) could paint the bloom on a cheek, the soft beauty of lips, the moisture on the surface of an eye, but in mid-career he suffered a shock which paralysed his right side. He taught himself to paint with his left hand and—lacking some of the bravura which the right hand held—painted even better pictures with his left. Hornel’s (1864-1933) pictures of children and flowers emphasised the elements of pattern, texture and colour. Sir D. Y. Cameron (1865-1945), more famous as an etcher, found a new inspiration in the Highlands. In an austere and almost geological approach to a range of mountains, or in the romantic resonance of autumn’s colour in a glen, or the pale intricate drawing of spring in a cultivated strath, he rediscovered Scotland.

A great change came with the 1914-18 war. The first rumblings of the Post-Impressionist storm were heard about 1910. Charles Mackie (1862-1920) had known some of the leaders of the movement in Paris but his own painting practice had concentrated mainly on problems of colour and double lighting or the contrast of two sources of illumination—one warm—one cold. J. D. Fergusson (1874- ) was working in Paris and fully alive to contemporary thought. Robert Brough (1872-1905) belonged to the same generation but his tragic death in a railway accident cut short a career of infinite promise. S. J. Peploe (1871-1935), whose earlier work, like that of Brough, had been based on tonal qualities in a fluid, enamellike medium, visited Paris in 1910 where he came into touch with the new movement. He decided to abandon his earlier methods, which he probably felt he had carried as far as they would go, and to concentrate on colour. Peploe was a man of intellectual integrity and high artistic sensibility, a combination which allowed him to develop a very personal and satisfying art. Debarred from military service, he devoted the war years to working out his theories and acquiring a new technique suited to his purpose. Immediately after the war two other painters became prominent, F. C. B. Cadell (1884-1937) and Leslie Hunter (1879-1931). These artists, although very different in character, were constantly grouped together through their common interest in colour. Peploe, intellectually highly aware of what he was doing, was perhaps almost too definitely controlled by his head; Cadell, robustly vivacious, was best when most spontaneous; Hunter, emotional and less balanced, dashed at his work with the most infectious enthusiasm. Known as the Scottish Colourists, these three artists, through the new freedom they had gained, exercised a great influence on the younger painters.

The Art Schools of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen had wakened to a new life and groups of students began to emerge. D. M. Sutherland, Adam Bruce Thomson, Donald Moodie in Edinburgh; Sivell, Cowie, McGlashan and Lamont in Glasgow; Mac-lauchlan Milne in Dundee. As frequently happens these younger artists arrived in groups or waves thrown together by circumstances, stimulating each other, but while a single year might produce a group of about the same age and completing their training at the same time, these painters were not by any means cut all to the same pattern. No teacher or artist in Scotland has produced a group of followers. The sturdy independence of the Scot has asserted itself in the most diverse and individualistic ways so that it is difficult to find a common denominator for the painters in contemporary Scottish Art. We can, however, suggest that the old standards still apply and that in workman-like craftsmanship, a sense of pattern, and an aliveness to fine quality in colour, the national characteristics are still evident.


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