Art reviews: Richard Waitt | New Scottish Colourists | Joyce Gunn Cairns & Cécile Simonis

Richard Waitt's portraits of 18th century clan life offer a fascinating glimpse of Highland culture, while Iona inspires differing responses from artists at Summerhall

Alexander Grant Mor, Champion of the Laird of Grant, painted by Richard Waitt
Alexander Grant Mor, Champion of the Laird of Grant, painted by Richard Waitt

I, Richard Waitt, Picture Drawer ****

Grantown Museum, Grantown-on-Spey

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Ionart – New Scottish Colourists on Iona ****

Summerhall, Edinburgh

Joyce Gunn Cairns & Cécile Simonis ****

The Sutton Gallery, Edinburgh

Richard Waitt was not the greatest Scottish portrait painter ever, but he was, all the same, a figure of great interest. He became in effect painter to the Grants of Castle Grant and the other branches of the family that founded Grantown-on-Spey. Now the town’s museum has put together a small but significant show of his work, accompanied by a very useful catalogue.

Working for the Grants, Waitt’s career crossed one of the great fault-lines of Scottish history – Lowland and Highland, Sassenach and Gael. Born in 1684 in Edinburgh, he died in 1733 in Inverness. By then his business was in the north. His career began with the Union. His earliest dated work is a heraldic painting from 1708, but the Union quickly bled Scotland of its political class, the people most likely to think themselves worth painting. The Highlands had their own politics, however, and there the great lairds stayed put. With lands stretching north to Elgin and the Scots speaking Moray seaboard and west to Inverness and beyond, the Grants ruled over a petty kingdom. Such men and their wives could offer the patronage which had vanished in the south.

Waitt belonged to the circle of the Edinburgh trades, but socially he was also on a cusp. He married well (on 24 April 1707, exactly one week before the Act of Union was signed, on 1 May.) His father-in-law, an Episcopalian clergyman, rose to be Primus of the church. In a remarkable self-portrait Waitt is seated on an ornate high-backed chair, wearing a fine velvet coat. On his easel is a picture of the muse of Painting. She is a comely nude, perched on a curtained bed and holding a mirror. Though she is not looking into it, it reflects her face. In a pun on the mirror and so on his own art as a mirror of reality, her naked leg is reflected in the polished floor tiles. A few years earlier Roderick Chalmers had painted himself with the Edinburgh Trades in similar fashion. The other trades are in working clothes, but he, the painter, is, like Waitt, wearing a fine velvet coat. It is a gentleman’s attire. The painters were moving up. Once a craft, theirs was now to be a profession.

Waitt was connected through his wife with the Episcopalian establishment and this may have put him on the Jacobite side in 1715, for he disappears from the record as though lying low, but his relationship with the Grants begun in 1713 resumed in 1724. In 1726, the catalogue notes, he painted no less than 20 Grant portraits. Eventually he painted more than 60 and filled whole galleries in their various houses. Through Waitt, the Grants had discovered a unique way of expressing the all-important idea of Highland kinship.

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Perhaps because of this level of production, Waitt’s work is uneven, however. Dated 1715, his portrait of Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, dressed in elaborate tartan costume, carrying a bow and wearing the bonnet of the Royal Company of Archers, is very fine indeed. Having recently become an advocate, he is standing in Parliament Square and so like Waitt himself, he proudly links Highland and Lowland.

His picture has the same quality of firmness and directness that is seen in Waitt’s brilliant Still Life with a Leg of Lamb. Dated 1725, his portrait of Alexander Grant at the age of about 13 – oddly already identified as Captain as he became in later life – is also accomplished and his scarlet coat painted with real vigour. The portrait of Alexander’s sister, Grace, though in a conventional pose, is also a convincingly individual but the portrait of their younger brother, James, is very odd indeed. (He too, though only six, is identified as General James Grant, as he was to become.) It is as though Waitt had begun to paint an adult and changed his mind, for the boy has an adult’s arms and upper body, but a child’s head and legs, although even they seem out of proportion with each other.

Waitt’s very first commission from the Grants, however, also included full-length portraits of William Cummine, (apparently hereditary) piper to the Laird of Grant, and Alexander Grant Mor, the Laird’s champion. Both pictures, dated 1714, are in the exhibition. They are unique documents of Highland life. These, together with his portrait of the so-called Henwife, which is in the exhibition, and of the Cromartie Fool, which is not, are his most memorable works.

The two full-lengths are classics of tartan imagery and as an iconic Highland image Alexander Mor’s portrait had a considerable afterlife in various versions, mostly as Rob Roy. While tartan was generally a matter of taste, these two are wearing the same tartan as though it were a livery. William Cummine is playing his pipes outside Castle Grant, but Alexander Mor is raising his curved sword as though in the battle that rages behind him. The carefully described details of dress and equipment of both pictures have been a reference book for historians. Nevertheless, these tartan full-lengths do have a precedent in Michael Wright’s great portrait of Lord Mungo Murray, but the Henwife of Castle Grant has no precedent. Taking snuff from a horn, she is wearing a woman’s everyday highland dress and the circular brooch fastening her chemise, though plain, is the lineal descendant of the great, penannular brooches of Celtic art. Her name is lost to us now, but she would certainly not originally have been anonymous or a generalised image of an old woman. She is a real person, painted straight and without a hint of sentimentality. These people Waitt painted may be the laird’s retainers, but in the Highland fashion, had the painter diminished them by condescension, he would be too. All share the same dignity.

There is a Gaelic theme at Summerhall, too. Ionart is an exhibition to raise money for DiabetesUK. A group of artists were invited by Sir Maxwell MacLeod, son of Lord MacLeod of Fuinary, founder of the Iona Community, to spend a week on the island. The results are varied but striking. Amongst them, Kate Downie brings to Iona’s blue sea and white sands the vertical format and airy spaciousness of Chinese painting. Deirdre Nicholls, better known as sculptor, has made wonderfully delicate watercolour drawings and then translated them into bold paintings. Bill McArthur looks out from the island to the sea and with brush and palette knife captures its restless energy. Leone Gibbs, also better known as a sculptor, paints with similar vigour, but with a rich, expressionist palette. Her pictures also include people, perhaps the artists gathered there. Hugh Buchanan, after first drawing the cathedral beautifully from a distance, evidently escaped from the wind to paint an exquisite picture of its interior. Laura de la Mare draws some of the grittier details of the Iona landscape in eloquent pen and ink, while Brenda Martin captures rocks, tattered fences and the iridescent sea in pen and watercolour.

There is no link, except contemporaneity, but in the Sutton Gallery Joyce Gunn Cairns is paired with Cécile Simonis. The latter creates imagined dramas. Often set beneath a night sky, they are usually monochromatic. The mystery is in the unspoken drama, but with Joyce Gunn Cairns it is more that of life itself. Her tentative but searching drawing mimics the way we seek to understand each other and the world around us. She has now translated this approach with increasing success from drawing to painting using a scratched and rubbed surface that works by inference and suggestion. The result in Woman with Cat and Tree, for instance, or Reclining Nude with Cat is really impressive. She has also painted several still lifes, with equally striking results.

*Richard Waitt until 31 October; Ionart and Joyce Gunn Cairns & Cécile Simonis until 28 October