New Scotland Street Chapter 27: Scottish art and goose pimples

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They arrived early enough at Lyon & Turnbull’s to be able to spend ten minutes or so inspecting each of the paintings in which Matthew was interested. There were four of these altogether, and they were all displayed in the main body of the auction hall, the lesser pictures being relegated to the upper gallery.

A few people were still up there, trawling through the rural scenes, the portraits of Highland cattle, the School-of-Park floral pictures of formal roses, and the ubiquitous sub-MacTaggart studies of children playing on a windswept beach. “Such a common theme in Scottish art,” Matthew commented drily to Pat. “Children paddling on an East Lothian beach, looking so cold. In fact, that’s one way of determining the authenticity of any Scottish figurative painting: do the people look cold? If they do, then the painting’s authentic.”

Pat laughed. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” said Matthew. He had only just invented the theory, but it seemed to him it was immediately and obviously true. If you considered Italian figurative painting, it was full of unclothed models, often lazing about in sylvan settings, oblivious to their state of undress. This was for climatic reasons: you could do that sort of thing in Italy – and in much of France and Spain as well. In Northern European painting this was less common, although it did occur. He had seen a charming little painting by one of the Breughels, an unclothed judgment of Paris painted on copper, in which flesh was on display with little sign of goose pimples or frostbite, but that, of course, was the artistic imagination at work. A painter’s experience of a Dutch summer might easily enable such a scene at least to be envisaged, but to a Scottish painter that leap of the imagination simply would not be possible, so deep-rooted would be the feeling that the requirements of naturalism entailed plenty of heavy wool clothing.

Matthew warmed to the theme. “Look at Raeburn,” he said.

“Yes, what about him?”

“Look at the sitters. They are, pretty much without exception, warmly wrapped up. In fact, in some of them – particularly those portraits of people in Highland dress – they have vast swathes of plaid draped about them. That picture of The Macnab, for instance, or the portrait of MacGregor of MacGregor – just look at them. The Macnab looks really freezing – his jaw is set in such a determined way because he is absolutely frozen stiff. And lots of his other paintings are the same – everybody looks a bit chilly.”

“Did he heat his studio?” asked Pat.

“He must have,” said Matthew. “Most rooms had fires in those days, but the fire wouldn’t make all that much difference unless you were huddled around it. I’d be prepared to bet that the vast majority of people who sat for portraits by Raeburn were feeling cold at the time. And that shows – that’s half the charm. The people look alive because they’re cold.”

Pat looked thoughtful. “You know, Matthew, I think you may have something there. I’d never thought about it, but you may be right.”

Matthew smiled. “Perhaps a little article in one of the art reviews? The influence of ambient temperature on Scottish painting. We could write it together.”

“We could,” said Pat. She wondered who would be the first-named author – a major issue in academic publishing. His name would be first, she imagined, because that was the way it worked. The senior people put their names before those of their co-authors … because they were the senior people. It did not matter who did the work, it was the senior person who went first. Mind you, this had been Matthew’s idea, and he would deserve to be the first-named author, but it was galling nonetheless to think that one would never be named first in an article.

Pat’s train of thought was interrupted. Matthew had stopped speculating on temperature and was pointing out to her one of the paintings he intended to bid for.

“Adam Bruce Thomson,” he said. “See. Isn’t it lovely?”

It was. The picture was one of a woman engaged in a kitchen task. A small pile of vegetables lay on a table while she chopped something, a handful of kale perhaps, with a large-bladed kitchen knife. It was a scene of quiet domesticity, not dissimilar to a seventeenth century Dutch painting in which somebody goes about their daily business in an interior.

“He was the closest we got to the Nashes or to Bawden,” said Matthew. “Or Ravilious. The English had all those in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. And I love their work so much. But we had Adam Bruce Thomson.”

“I love it,” said Pat. “It’s so sad. She looks so … so resigned.”

Matthew nodded. “That’s what makes it true.” And as he spoke, and looked at the quiet painting of the woman in her kitchen, another theory occurred to him: expressions of resignation in Scottish art. Did people look resigned in Scottish painting? Perhaps they did, because there was so much that people had to be resigned about in Scottish history. There was the weather (see theory above) and then there was the sheer burden of a life pinched by poverty and struggle. Life was hard in Scotland in the past, and it was not surprising were this fact not to be represented in Scottish art.

He was distracted by Pat. “And what else? What else shall we go for?”

“That one over there,” answered Matthew. “You see that picture of a man with a dog at his feet?”

Pat moved closer to the painting to get a better view. She leaned forward and examined it more closely. “Who is it by?” she asked.

“Well, that’s the thing,” said Matthew. “There’s no attribution. They just say Scottish School. That’s it. Nothing more.”

Pat stepped back. “It’s rather good,” she said.

“Oh yes,” agreed Matthew. “It’s a fine painting – beautifully done. Look at the man’s hands. Look how natural they look.”

“And it’s so calm,” said Pat. “Have you any idea?”

Matthew looked about him, as if to detect the presence of eavesdroppers. “I think it might be a Raeburn.”

Pat frowned. “But surely somebody would have picked that up?”

“Not necessarily,” said Matthew.

“And what about the experts? They look at the sale catalogues. They wouldn’t let anything slip through.”

Matthew shook his head. “You’re wrong there, Pat. Plenty of pictures slip through the net. Sometimes massively valuable, obvious paintings. What about that da Vinci that somebody bought at an auction not all that many years ago for ten thousand dollars or something? Now it’s over a hundred million, or whatever.”

“But …”

“But it happens, Pat. It happens.”

Pat leaned forward again and peered at the painting. “It certainly has a Raeburny feel to it. That relaxed, fluid sweep …”

“It does,” said Matthew.

“So, what’s the estimate?”

“Four hundred pounds,” said Matthew.

Pat drew in her breath. She had noticed something that pointed to authenticity: the man looked cold.