Art in North East Scotland
by: Atherton, David
When considering the culture of the North East of Scotland, one isn’t immediately drawn to the arena of the visual arts. Musicians, yes – such as Scott Skinner, Mary Garden and Evelyn Glennie – have enjoyed international acclaim over the years and Aberdeen has produced a remarkable and laudable number of architects – James Fenton Wyness, Archibald Simpson and James Gibbs, to name but three. The list of visual artists seems to disappear when the roll-call features numerous from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and yet, when all is considered, there is a rich and diverse history in the North East. This history pans back to the carvers of the Pictish stones, which the North East has the greatest remaining concentration in Britain, and travels to the present day wherein the region still retains a healthy profusion of practitioners.
Early remaining examples of artworks in Aberdeen include two of the finest painted ceilings in Scotland – the nave of St. Machar cathedral commissioned by Gavin Dunbar in the early part of the 16th century and the painted gallery in Provost Skenes House made a century later. Provost Skenes House, itself one of the oldest buildings in the City and ‘an outstanding example of domestic architecture of the Scottish burghs in the 17th century’, (Hugh Rowson), contains a fascinating collection of paintings and other artefacts including portraits by Aberdonians George Jamesone and William Dyce.
George Jamesone was born in Aberdeen in 1589/90 and by 1625 was considered by contemporaries to be Scotland’s leading indigenous painter. In 1633 he was placed in charge of the decorations for Charles I’s entry in to Edinburgh and he himself painted the 109 previous kings of Scotland for a triumphal arch.
This commission set him up as the important Scottish limner and guaranteed him a prosperous living as an artist. Aberdeen Art Gallery has at least 5 of his paintings including a self-portrait that resembles a section of the larger one held by the National Galleries of Scotland.
Dying in 1644, George was succeeded by 2 of his daughters, Mary and Marjory – Marjory herself becoming an ‘artist’ and producing a remarkable set of tapestries that today can still be seen in St.Nicholas Kirk.
In 1700, another artist began his life in Aberdeen, the well-travelled William Mosman. Patronised by William Duff, Lord Braco, Mosman was in Rome during the 1730’s where he was trained by such masters as Imperiali – a teacher, curiously enough, of Allan Ramsay too.
Mosman’s Jacobite connections, including the connoisseur, Captain John Urquhart, and his ability to copy works of well-established Italian artists, granted him a reasonable living, a living that appears to have continued when he returned to Edinburgh in the 1740’s.
Sorely disappointed when the dispute between Braco and the architect William Adam removed any possibility of him painting the decorations for Duff House, Mosman ended his career in Aberdeen running a drawing academy. By now employing an old-fashioned technique, his style must have seemed quaintly parochial.
Arguably the most famous artist to emerge from Aberdeen, William Dyce was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Marischal College. Before taking up post as the Superintendent of the Design Schools in London in 1837 he had studied in Edinburgh, London and Rome. It was during one of his visits to Italy that Dyce encountered Overbeck, the famous German Nazarene, whose ideas were to be the inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Understanding the media of oil and watercolour, fresco and stained glass, Dyce was a prolific worker who in addition to a wealth of religious works and accomplished portraits was also a superb landscape artist. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1835. Dyce is remembered as a leader of the High Church Movement and also as a chorister and composer.
Aberdeen Art Gallery has over forty works of art by Dyce including the impressive ‘Lamentation of the Dead Christ’, the mould-breaking ‘Ferryman’ and extraordinary ‘Pegwell Bay’. Pegwell Bay, a watercolour of breathtaking skill, is the precursor to the large moody oil of the same title in the Tate Gallery, London.
A contemporary of Dyce’s and also ‘Grand Touring’ at about the same time was Aberdeen artist James Giles. Though not as well known as Dyce or the other great North Eastern artist, John Phillip, Giles produced a large body of work of a quality that impressed not only the landed gentry of Aberdeenshire but also Queen Victoria.
That Giles decided to follow the trail of the Grand Tour in 1824/25 may have had something to do with the influence that the work of Byron was having on the artistic fraternity. It is perhaps no surprise that his portrait sitters often posed with a Byronesque air and that Gight Castle, Byron’s birthplace, features as one of the many architectural sites that he recorded, (these also included, amongst others, Balmoral, Fyvie Castle and Haddo).
John Phillip is another artist from Aberdeen who achieved considerable fame during the Victorian era. From his roots in the farming North East and his experiences garnered from travelling in Spain, two quite distinct styles emerged. Aberdeen Art Gallery has two stunning early paintings – The Scotch Fair and Baptism in Scotland. Both add up to much more than the sum of their parts and both present a fascinating insight into the rural life of Aberdeenshire.
Una Maja Bonita and La Bomba are portraits executed in the later style; they offer a much more intimate, emotional and colourful approach to the subject matter and indicate the type of transformation that British artists were able to enjoy upon exposure to the southern European scene.
The Victorian period was a golden age for Aberdeenshire artists; the positive mood engendered by the dynamic triumvirate of Alexander Macdonald, (granite merchant), John Forbes White, (flour merchant) and Sir George Reid, (artist) gave Aberdeen a status of international repute.
Whilst both White and Macdonald were prodigious collectors of art, White had the added distinction of being, like George Washington Wilson, a pioneer photographer. After playing a key role setting up the Art Gallery, Macdonald left his personal art collection to the City. This collection, of considerable importance, forms the core of the gallery’s 19th century oil paintings.
To the Aberdeen ‘stable’ were attracted many important Scottish artists, including a number from the North East. Sir George Reid himself – in 1891 to become the President of the Royal Scottish Academy – was the son of the Aberdeen Copper Company manager who, after serving as an apprentice lithographer with Keith and Gibb, was supported in his artistic aspirations by White. Aberdeen has over 150 of his works executed in oil or pen and ink.
George Paul Chalmers from Montrose and Hugh Cameron the Edinburgh artist, were important associates of these Aberdonians and worked closely with them. The 1870 portrait of Joseph Israels (Aberdeen Art Gallery), for example, was painted by Reid, Chalmers, Cameron and Israels. Further, it was painted At Seaton Cottage, the home of John Forbes White, after Israels had finished a painting of the owner’s mother.
One of the most enduring of North East artists was Joseph Farquharson who, although born in Edinburgh in 1846, is more associated with his estate at Finzean. The large oil ‘Afterglow’ remains amongst the most popular pieces in the collection and his painting of romantic, melodramatic landscapes, frequently in winter scenes, evoke the regional ambience perfectly.
Another artist well represented in the Gallery is James Cassie who was born in Inverurie in 1819. Living and working in Aberdeen for most of his life, he was best known as a painter of seascapes and local subjects. His paintings are often described as ‘quiet’, depicting sunsets and misty dawns.
In spite of his belligerence, which seemed to alienate him from the society of fellow artists and public alike, Inverurie produced a second significant artist in the 19th century, James Pittendrigh MacGillivray. Best known as a sculptor but also practising in photography, printmaking, painting and poetry (Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in 1925: ‘any cultivated Scot who fails to appreciate MacGillivray’s (poetry) can only do so because of over-Anglicisation’), MacGillivray lived from 1856-1938.
12 years after his birth the family moved to Edinburgh and MacGillivray spent most of his life between that city and Glasgow. However it is interesting to note that of his supporters, the greatest was probably Sir George Reid who, for instance, recommended him for the Scottish Gladstone memorial which he began in 1904. Aberdeen Art Gallery has 14 bronzes by the artist, including two of Sir George Reid.
Buried in the cemetery at St.Machars Cathedral in 1905 was the precociously gifted young artist Robert Brough who had died at the early age of 33 as a result of a train accident. Although born at Invergordon, Brough was raised by his uncle in Aberdeen and appears to have become acquainted with MacDonald and Reid because of the proximity of his uncle’s farm to Kepplestone and Viewfield, their respective homes.
A number of Brough’s paintings are retained in Aberdeen including the ebullient ‘Mrs. Nichol of Roscobie, nr Banchory’, 1897 and ‘Miss Dolly Crombie’, 1896. From this it is clear that had he survived, his fame might well have equalled that of his contemporaries, the Scottish Colourists.
The 20th century saw a plethora of artists working in the North East, one of the earliest and most successful was Foveran born James McBey. Largely self-taught, McBey made his name as a (First World) war artist in the Middle East, where his superb suites of etchings covering British and colonial forces earned him a just reputation. Though much of his productive life was spent in Morocco and America, he still found time to make paintings and prints in the North East and thanks to his wife, Marguerite and his patron, H. H. Kynett, much of this may be seen in the Aberdeen Art Gallery.
Artists making work in the Second World War included Monquhitter-born James Cowie and Ian Fleming, later to be Head of Fine Art at Grays School of Art. Cowie’s extraordinary range of work spanned portraiture, still-life, surrealism and landscape, each piece having an intense stillness that appears to capture a world of experience in a paint-frozen second. The subject of his ‘Scottish Policeman’ – a War Artists Advisory Committee commission from 1941 – resembles a thoughtful or reflective Ian Fleming, who would himself have been a Glasgow reserve policeman at the time. Fleming, an ardent pacifist, had avoided military service by opting to join the no less onerous or dangerous security forces, however his views of the blitz in Glasgow soon convinced him that he wanted to ‘do his bit’ to shorten the war. His contribution to the British Army as they fought through northern Europe resulted in a fine output of watercolours that added to his already impressive portfolio of etchings and paintings.
As a lecturer at Grays School of Art, Fleming met Renfrewshire-born art student, William Burns – later a teacher at the Northern College of Education in Aberdeen. Since they both cultivated an interest in Scottish fishing villages they often went away and worked together, Burns’s more abstract style complementing the naturalistic work of Fleming. In 1964 Fleming painted his ‘Gourdon, Dusk’ a charged, atmospheric oil that effectively calls to mind the course pragmatism and unfashioned beauty of the North East.
Catterline drew Sussex born Joan Eardley away from Glasgow and gave the North East some of its most potent and memorable images. The paintings of her adopted home are a rage of gesture and chromatic that even after 50 years still have the power to stun and absorb the viewer.
The opening of Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen in1974 gave an additional impetus to the visual arts in the North East. Set up by artists Ian Fleming, Malcolm McCoig, Arthur Watson, Stewart Cordiner, Lennox Dunbar, Bill Baxter and Beth Fisher, it has been a focus point for cutting-edge developments ever since. In 1979 Fred Bushe launched the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden, a facility that complemented the print workshop marvellously, allowing for solo or joint projects of high quality and prestige and giving practitioners in the region affordable and professional facilities for the first time.
Into the latter period the 20th century, painting continued apace with such luminaries as Joyce Cairns, Alexander Fraser, Gordon Bryce, Colin Thoms and Frances Walker working in the Grays School of Art and Ian McKenzie-Smith who, after directing Aberdeen Art Gallery became the City Arts Officer in the 1989 and President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1998. Alberto Morrocco, a popular Aberdeen artist and former student of Grays, distinguished himself as Head of Painting at Duncan of Jordonstone.
By the 1990’s painters in the City could also ply their trade through the auspices of the WASP studio’s system, which again brought the cost of hiring a workspace into the realms of possibility.