In bringing Dutch and Flemish art to Scotland, the 3rd Marquis of Bute was reflecting the exchange of art and ideas between Protestant nations that ushered in a new age of empiricism based on experience of the world around us
WE THINK of the British Isles as perpendicular to continental Europe and it makes us feel remote. But actually our shared island is really more parallel. By ship, as we always travelled in the past, our neighbours are just across the sea, and we had intimate links with them all.
After the Reformation, however, we were closest to our fellow Protestants in Holland. It was the powerhouse of modernity, and anybody in Scotland who wanted to get on went to study there. Scottish law, medicine, theology, even gardening benefited hugely from this knowledge transfer and it played a critical part in the Enlightenment.
Art was part of it, too. Ramsay and Raeburn are linked back to Rembrandt and Vermeer. For them, light is the agent of truth; their painting was empirical. It echoed the art of their Dutch predecessors, just as it paralleled the ideas of their contemporaries and friends Scotland. Allan Ramsay’s friendship with David Hume is the most significant, but by no means the only such link across the disciplines.
Dutch paintings hung in Scottish houses. John Clerk of Penicuik even listed a Rembrandt among the diverse stock he bought in the Netherlands in the late 1640s. Dutch artists came here and Scottish artists went to Holland. Given this history, it was natural that the first great collector of Dutch painting in the UK should have been a Scottish aristocrat: John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Around 1730, Bute followed Scottish tradition to study at the Dutch universities of Leiden and Groningen. There he developed a passionate interest in botany, but his experience of Dutch culture also laid the foundations for a taste for Dutch and Flemish art that he exercised on a grand scale following his marriage to a rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu.
Close to George III, Bute became the first Scottish prime minister of the Union parliament. Although his tenure was even shorter than that of the most recent Scot to hold that office, they were about equal in their unpopularity. Bruised by this, perhaps, Bute turned to collecting. Loyal to his fellow Scots, he employed Robert Adam to build Luton Hoo, first home for his collection, and also Allan Ramsay who painted some of his finest portraits for his patron.
These now hang at Mount Stuart, the huge Gothic house designed by Robert Rowand Anderson for the 3rd Marquis of Bute in the late 19th century, and the eventual home for the third earl’s collections.
A selection of 19 of the finest Dutch and Flemish paintings has been loaned to the National Galleries of Scotland for the exhibition Masterpieces from Mount Stuart. They give a vivid sense of the richness of what is still held at Mount Stuart even though two key Dutch pictures have been sold. One of them hangs nearby, however, Pieter Saenredam’s masterpiece of the interior of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem. (The other picture is a superb Cuyp now in the The National Gallery in London.)
Saenredam’s picture is hung above one of those bits of second-hand furniture that still clutter the NGS. It shouldn’t be. It was designed to be seen close-to, not high up the wall. It is not constructed on conventional linear perspective, but on a kind of spherical perspective much closer to how we actually see. If you stand close to the picture, its dimensions become the space, apparent distortions make sense and the interior springs to life. Such empirical observation was central to Dutch painting. It bears witness to the conviction that experience is the only source of truth, which Hume was to codify a few decades later. That is also the text for looking at the other Dutch paintings hanging here now.
In the Groot Markt and Church of St Bavo in Haarlem, Gerrit Berckheyde, for instance, painted the same church as Saenredam, but from the outside. His picture has a marvellous clarity and reveals a sense of order that is not just pictorial, but social. The marketplace is immaculately clean, reflecting this sense of order as a tangible thing. It is not unnaturally clean, however. Life isn’t like that. If you look in the shadow, either the horse standing there or one of two dogs has dumped on the neatly swept cobbles.
An even more luminous order prevails in Pieter de Hooch’s The Disputed Reckoning. De Hooch’s command of light and space is here equal to that of Vermeer, who in 1658, the year this picture was painted, had barely begun his career. You look across a tiled room towards a window partly screened by a curtained alcove. Two men and a woman are visible in the light from the window. In the foreground a man and woman dispute the reckoning. A proper social order can contain such ripples, however. It could not be a frame for human nature otherwise. The picture is like a visual epitome for the social thought of those great empiricists, David Hume and Adam Smith.
There is a similar passage of beautifully observed light among the figures in A Guardroom Interior by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout. The painter was one of Rembrandt’s pupils and you can see how much he learnt from the master, but there is something else going on here too. The Dutch painters discovered the joys of people-watching, of the poetry of the everyday and of the landscapes and townscapes that were their environment.
It was a profoundly modern vision. All the apparatus that art once seemed to need has been dropped for the simple appreciation of life itself. Allan Ramsay, the poet, father of the painter and inspiration to Burns, was surely echoing this new aesthetic when he wrote of the old Scots poets that “their images are native and their landskips domestick: copied from the fields and meadows we every day behold.” And what could illustrate that thought better than two beautiful paintings here by Cuyp of ruminating cattle beneath the architecture of clouds in summer skies? Frozen River Landscape by Aert van der Neer is a superb account of a day in deep midwinter. People are skating, a horsedrawn sledge rumbles past, but the real beauty of the picture is in the distance where the sun, peeping from behind dark snow clouds, gilds the roofs of a distant town.
Ruisdael in Winter View of the Hekelveld, Amsterdam records a similar effect as the sun’s hidden light touches the façades of a row of houses even while snow blows across the frozen canals. The greatness of the Dutch painters was to see that such a things are beautiful in themselves and need no gloss.
Human behaviour is likewise endlessly fascinating and often comic. Jan Steen observes this comedy with lively humour in Cavalier Playing a Lute to a Lady. So does David Teniers in The Card Players.
In Scotland it was Wilkie who achieved the synthesis of all this. He combined the inspiration of Dutch painting and of Teniers – whose card players inspired him directly – with Burns, Raeburn, Ramsay and the whole tradition of Scottish empiricism.
Teniers’s picture, like most of the others here, is in beautiful condition and a good many were barely a century old when Bute bought them. They hadn’t had time to get spoiled and little has been done to them since. In the right conditions, relative neglect can be the best thing for pictures. You can see this most clearly in the brilliant detail of Willem van Haecht’s Art Cabinet…, a painting of a marvellous but imaginary collector’s gallery filled with well-known pictures all reproduced in intricate, miniature copies.
In the background, hooligans with donkey’s heads are breaking up statues, the religious iconoclasts who had so recently wrought such destruction and in Scotland more than anywhere. Perhaps there is a message in this star among Bute’s lovely pictures. By his collecting he was beginning to put the record straight.
Masterpieces from Mount Stuart: The Bute Collection
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
• Until 2 December. nationalgalleries.org
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