Exhibition review: Scottish Artists 1750-1900, Edinburgh

The Defence of Saragossa by David Wilkie. Picture: Toby Williams

The Defence of Saragossa by David Wilkie. Picture: Toby Williams

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Queen’s Gallery exhibition doesn’t fully avoid Balmorality but some fine paintings enhance the Scottish narrative, writes Duncan Macmillan

Scottish Artists 1750-1900 - The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh

John Smith of Pittenweem's clock. Picture: Toby Williams

John Smith of Pittenweem's clock. Picture: Toby Williams

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The Queen’s Gallery can’t take full-lengths. Odd, when kings and queens tend to go in for them. In the new exhibition of Scottish paintings in the Royal Collection, however, they have managed to hang two by Allan Ramsay, George III and Queen Charlotte, on either side of the stairs. They really couldn’t miss them out. The first of many Scots to enjoy extensive royal patronage, Ramsay probably provided more full-lengths than any other painter of any other monarchs. Here, the king’s is the state portrait and became his standard image.

The Queen’s is very different, however. Sitting with her little sons, Frederick and George, with drapes and columns behind her, she has all the grandeur a full-length can command, but the colour is soft. The Queen looks gentle and pensive, rather than regal, although her eldest son, the future George IV, strikes a comically childish, regal pose. She has her younger son on her lap and at her elbow, along with her sewing, is a book on education. This lovely picture is about the majesty of motherhood, not queenliness.

There are three other beautiful portraits by Ramsay. Especially charming is the young Prince William, later William IV, aged just two or and three banging a drum. The still-life behind him of cups and a jug is exquisite too, a reminder that Ramsay was always an empiricist, an observer of fact and this of course includes light, one of the most striking features of his painting.

Prince Charlie entering the Ballroom at Holyrood House by John Pettie. Picture: Toby Williams

Prince Charlie entering the Ballroom at Holyrood House by John Pettie. Picture: Toby Williams

David Wilkie followed Ramsay both in his empiricism and in the enjoyment of extensive royal patronage. This began with a commission from Prince George as Prince Regent for Blind Man’s Buff. Painted in 1812 and immensely popular at the time, it is still a star. With almost 30 animated figures playing a lively game in a big shadowy room, the chairs piled up at the side, it is a tour de force in the handling of light and the vivid representation of expression, both in the faces and in whole body movements.

Wilkie’s second commission for the Prince was the Penny Wedding. One of the great icons of Scottish painting, it is wonderful social picture. There is dancing, drinking and feasting as the groom leads his bride onto the floor to the music of Neil and Nathaniel Gow. Here Wilkie is absolute master of human interaction, but also of space, light and shadow. He has also to set his picture in the recent past, however, and in this he followed Walter Scott whose first novel, Waverley, was subtitled ‘Tis Sixty Years Since. Thus Wilkie represents, not a classless society certainly, but at least a harmonious one in a gentler time before rural Scotland was disrupted by the agricultural revolution. The picture’s partner, Distraining for Rent, is in the National Gallery, and contrasts modern alienation with this vision of lost harmony. For Scott, all is for the best in the best of all possible Tory worlds, but Wilkie’s vision is much more clear-sighted and more modern. It would be good to see these two great pictures hung together one day.

Wilkie’s biggest official commission was to paint George IV Receiving the Keys of Holyrood, the dramatic high point of his visit to Scotland in 1824. A big, theatrical composition, it is half-ruined by the demon pigment, bitumen. Used to create transparent shadows, it never completely dries and eventually turns into a sticky brown mess. The picture is nevertheless a historical document.

Alexander Nasmyth’s painting of the Lawnmarket is even more so, however. Nasmyth, friend of Burns as indeed of Wilkie, was no Royalist. This is one of several big pictures of Edinburgh that he painted in which he pointedly celebrates the ordinary people, not the grandees. Here the contrast is implicit, but nevertheless pointed as in the foreground an ancient building is demolished to make way for the king’s grand procession.

Wilkie suffered a nervous breakdown and to recover travelled to Italy and Spain. His Spanish pictures renewed his phenomenal popularity and the king bought four of them. Set in the Peninsula War, still a recent memory, they are patriotic, but Wilkie’s subjects are not Wellington’s victories, but the Spanish resistance who gave us the word guerilla. The Maid of Saragossa, a woman manning a gun in the siege of the city, is heroic, but others like the Spanish Posada, or Guerilla’s Council, show life away from the battles. In these pictures, however, he abandoned the minute style of his early work and inspired by Velasquez and Rubens painted more broadly than before. His work loses something in consequence, but when he is informal, however, he is as brilliant as ever.

He continued as royal painter into the reign of the young Victoria and the sketch of her made only days after her accession is quite ravishing. Mostly in her portraits, we never feel we see her as a person, but ­Wilkie gives us a glimpse of someone very real, capturing a touching, vulnerable eagerness, but also a certain strength. It is a remarkable image.

Wilkie’s influence was huge, but not always benign. The incipient sentimentality in his Spanish pictures came out in the work of John Phillip who followed him to Spain and who was much admired by Victoria. Though his handling of light and still-life can be delicate, his sultry Spanish beauties peeping out with big black eyes from behind their fans are sentimental stereotypes and sentimentality was to prove as bad for Victorian taste as bitumen was for paintings.

Balmorality was one of its most pernicious manifestations and I am afraid there is a certain amount of that here. Nevertheless, even while painting stags and purple heather, painters like Waller Paton, James Giles and William Leighton Leitch don’t succumb completely. William Dyce was one artist who did stand out against the rot. A great favourite of Prince Albert he is represented by a lovely Madonna and Child and matching painting of St Joseph. Looking back to early Italian art, these pictures have a chaste beauty that was to inspire the Pre-Raphaelites.

There is much else in this very welcome show. One notable absentee, however, is Raeburn. He was made King’s limner in Scotland, but he died before he could contribute to the royal collection. He is represented, however, by his pupil, the miniaturist Andrew Robertson. He learnt his lessons well and it is astonishing how he manages to evoke the scale and grandeur of Raeburn in the tiny compass of a miniature like that of Princess Sophia. Finally too there is a marvellous automaton clock made by John Smith of Pittenweem which even tells you the state of the tide in Fife.

Until 7 February, 2016

• Edinburgh Art Festival, until 30 August, edinburghartfestival.com

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