Art reviews: Scottish Portraits 1700-1950 | Barry McGlashan | Enduring Eye
At the beginning of his career Sir Joshua Reynolds declared that he was never going to be just a mere face painter: portraiture unadorned would not be good enough for him. As he was about many things, Reynolds was wrong, misleading English art for several generations in the process. Indeed William Blake who was right about as many things as Reynolds was wrong scribbled angrily in his copy of Reynolds’s Discourses, his addresses as President of the Royal Academy: “This man was hired to depress art!” Dismissing mere face painters, Reynolds probably had his older rival Allan Ramsay in his sights. Some of Ramsay’s finest portraits are of faces and almost nothing else, just an oval with the sitter’s head and shoulders against a spacious but indistinct background. But then Ramsay as a close friend of David Hume and himself a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment understood something that evidently escaped Reynolds entirely: the idea of the individual and thus of the face, the visible incarnation of individuality, is not ‘merely’ anything. On the contrary it is central to modern western civilisation and in particular to that key moment in its history, the flowering of the Enlightenment. Empiricism, democracy and the modern ideal of social order all depend on respect for the individual and finding ways to mediate the competing needs of the numberless individuals who make up society. These were the key themes of the Enlightenment.