The latest exhibition on display at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace is a wonderful selection of works by Scottish artists from the Royal Collection Trust entitled, Scottish Artists 1750-1900; From Caledonia to the Continent. Having opened to the public on March 18, it is a collection of some of the finest Scottish works presented to British monarchs since the time of George III.
The exhibition features works by celebrated Scottish artists such as Allan Ramsay, Sir David Wilkie and Alexander Nasymth and reflects on the story of Royal patronage and how this created a distinctive school and popularity for Scottish art amongst the Royals over two centuries.
My relationship with these paintings began in the dark and stuffy rooms of National Trust castles found dotted around the landscape of Aberdeenshire where I grew up. Images of rolling hills, roaming deer and haughty looking people in eighteenth century costume peered down from the walls, all seemingly carbon copies of each other, when all I wanted to do was spend my pocket money in the gift shop on some ridiculous item which I would no doubt later lose when playing amongst the branches of the hydrangeas found in the castle grounds.
I was then reintroduced to these paintings during my university years, and discovered a detailed narrative, which brought to life that which I had disregarded in childhood as dusty old pictures in creepy old rooms.
In our lecture halls, in the historic towers of Aberdeen’s King’s College, I was taught about the Scottish Enlightenment; the eighteenth century movement that saw a rise in shared ideas on the arts, science, literature and philosophy.
I loved the traditional everyday themes painted by Sir David Wilkie, which showed immense detail and humour, and I admired the artists such as David Roberts and William Dyce, who had braved nineteenth century travel which, let’s face it, would not have been that comfortable, in order to bring back to Scotland detailed images of far-off places like Egypt and influenced by their studies of the Italian Renaissance.
My first job in Edinburgh found me living in the city immortalised by landscape and portrait painter Alexander Nasmyth, although my wages meant I could not afford to live in the New Town, which featured the grid-like streets and Neoclassical architecture of the Enlightenment (my flat was a bit more The Penny Wedding by Wilkie).
However my friends and I did frequent the National Gallery of Scotland, which sits on the Mound, the artificial hill built to connect the New Town to the Old Town. And here again we enjoyed the paintings of these artists who opened up a new dialogue for Scottish Art.
So here I am now at The Queen’s Gallery in London, my home town for the past four years, and I am about to come face-to-face with a collection of artists and paintings, which feel so familiar to me that when viewing them it is like experiencing a mutual understanding.
The entrance to the exhibition features the works of Allan Ramsay and Sir David Wilkie.
Look down to the wall at the far end of the room and you will see Ramsay’s large scale masterpieces; one featuring George III, 1760, and the second Queen Charlotte and her two eldest sons, 1764.
Both of these paintings, which were commissioned by George III, saw Allan Ramsay become the first Scot to achieve the position of Principal Painter in Ordinary to His Majesty, and would set him as a leader among his contemporaries in portraiture.
Ramsay’s paintings are exquisite in their attention to detail when it comes to textiles;
George III’s coronation robes and breeches are painted in a vibrant yellow and gold that can be associated with nothing else but royalty.
This painting would go on to become one of the most replicated paintings of a King, and numerous engravings were sent out to a variety of European cities, thus increasing Ramsay’s reputation as a leading artist of his time.
Elevated detailing can also be seen in the painting of Queen Charlotte and her sons, allowing Ramsay to illustrate the Queen spending time with her children, and the tenderness of the royal family.
Queen Charlotte rests against a piano, on which is placed a sewing basket overflowing with linen and a copy of John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, a highly regarded book of its time.
The eldest son, who would later become George IV, is seen clutching a bow.
All of these items; the piano, the sewing basket, the book, and the bow, are executed in beautiful detail by Ramsay, and the viewer cannot help but admire and enjoy.
Other paintings by Ramsay featured in this first room reflect the same attention to detail and admirable skill in precision that made him a firm favourite with the King and a leader in portraiture during the Age of Enlightenment.
Ramsay’s paintings have been mounted above three very elegant pieces of furniture from the Edinburgh firm Young, Trotter and Hamilton.
At the centre, a simple yet elegant writing desk, ordered for the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1796 for the residence of Charles-Philippe, comte d’Artois, the future Charles X of France during his time in exile.
A pair of mahogany and sycamore pier tables stand either side of the writing desk, again from the commission for Holyroodhouse to fill the interiors for the visiting future King.
The simple elegance of these three pieces would have also been seen in the fashionable new town houses of Edinburgh’s New Town.
This is where Young, Trotter and Hamilton supplied the stylish new middle class inhabitants.
Yet it would be the Holyroodhouse commission that would set the reputation of Young, Trotter and Hamilton as the best furniture makers in Edinburgh, and henceforth continue to receive Royal commissions down through the years from successive monarchs.
Moving on through the exhibition, a number of paintings by Sir David Wilkie, one of the most celebrated Scottish artists during the 19th century Regency period, are displayed.
Wilkie was born in Fife, the son of a Parish Minister, and as a very talented 14 year old he studied at the Trustee’s Academy in Edinburgh (now Edinburgh College of Art) and then on to the Royal Academy, London in 1805, where four years later he was elected an Associate.
Wilkie’s career high would see him made Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King in 1830, and two paintings commissioned by George IV before this Royal appointment show the burgeoning connection between Wilkie and the King.
Blind Man’s Buff, 1812-13 and The Penny Wedding, 1818 are superb examples of the style that made Wilkie famous. They show what some might describe as romanticised scenes of traditional peasant life.
The Penny Wedding, my personal favourite, depicts the type of wedding common in Scotland at the time, where the guests all gave a penny to pay for the expenses of the wedding and anything left over would go to the newly married couple.
The painting shows the wedding party, all bairns, lassies, loons, auld folks and twa dugs eating, drinking, chatting and starting up the fast and furious jigs accompanied by the recognisable famous fiddler Niel Gow.
While viewing The Penny Wedding, the Gallery’s audio guide plays Scotland’s Bard and Wilkie’s contemporary Robert Burns’ tale of Tam O’Shanter
“As Tammie glow’rd, amaz’d, and curious, The mirth and fun grew fast and furious; The piper loud and louder blew; The dancers quick and quicker flew”
A perfect accompaniment to the picture, bringing it further to life and to the fantastic Tam O’Shanter chair that has been placed below it.
The Tam O’Shanter chair, gothic in style, was made by John Underwood of Ayr, from parts of the roof of Alloway Auld Kirk which features in Burns’ famous poem and, indeed, has the poem inscribed in the brass inlays.
The chair was presented to George IV in 1822 during his visit to Scotland.
This momentous occasion, as George IV was the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland since Charles II, is captured in Wilkie’s painting The Entrance of George IV to Holyroodhouse, 1823-30; here we see strong influences from the work of Rubens.
Outside influences can also be seen in the section of the exhibition entitled ‘Wilkie Abroad’, which shows some of his boldest works, created during his extended visits to France and Spain, including The Defence of Saragossa, 1828.
Here we see influences from French, Italian and Spanish artists such as Titian, Rubens, Velazquez and Delacroix. Ever the avid fan, these paintings were purchased by George IV.
Queen Victoria however was not quite as keen, and despite Wilkie remaining appointed Painter in Ordinary, she would later say she disliked a number of the portraits he painted of her.
Some of these portraits can be seen in the second main gallery.
The First Council of Queen Victoria, 1838, the very first painting of Victoria as monarch, was particularly disliked by the Queen, despite Wilkie depicting Victoria as both beautiful in her angelic white dress and strong in composure as she addresses her stern looking council.
This second gallery also features some of Queen Victoria’s favourite pieces by the artist John Philips in the section ‘Scottish Artists Abroad’.
Philips’ colourful and vibrant paintings feature Spanish women and street scenes and, touchingly, these paintings were purchased by both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and exchanged between themselves during Christmas and birthdays.
These paintings reflect both Victoria and Albert’s romantic sensibilities and love of art and the exotic.
Alongside Philips are paintings by David Roberts and William Dyce, who both travelled extensively, bringing back to Britain techniques learnt through studies of the Italian Renaissance and exquisitely executed paintings of foreign lands.
For many Scottish artists however, inspiration need only be found at home.
Having viewed ‘Scottish Artists Abroad’, we are brought back to Caledonia.
Paintings by James Giles of the Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire, the estate which Queen Victoria would later purchase, having seen only the castle in Giles’ painting and perhaps having read a little too much Sir Walter Scott, show the beautiful colours and light which can be seen at Royal Deeside.
In the centre of these landscape paintings by Giles is Alexander Nasmyth’s depiction of Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, one of the popular areas on the Royal Mile leading from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood.
Nasmyth mixed a classical landscape style with naturalism and strong detailing. One could easily become lost for hours in the details of Nasmyth’s images of nineteenth century Edinburgh, with their highly observed architecture and countless groups from different parts of society going about their daily business.
There is a sharp contrast to this nineteenth century city chaos seen in Nasmyth’s painting to Giles paintings where nature is all consuming.
The most enchanting object in the second gallery is the beautiful automaton and musical clock by John Smith, another small village Fife man.
With three painted faces, each credited to Alexander Nasmyth, the fourth side shows the incredible interior and mechanisms of the clock, which create a variety of tunes that can be heard at different times during your visit to the gallery.
If you are lucky enough to be around at the right time, you will get to see a parade of the Royal household pass through a neoclassical style façade on the automaton and then back into the clock.
There is little doubt this amazing piece of art and mechanics will be a highlight for many visitors.
This collection of art has been described by the curator of the exhibition as, “the best collection of Scottish art outside of Scotland.”
This definitely holds true, and it is a fantastic journey through the talent, tradition, influence and beauty of the works of these eminent Scottish artists through 150 years of Royal patronage.
Deborah Clarke, Senior Curator of The Royal Collection Trust, Scottish Artists co-curator, has stated that, “These are all artists who were born in Scotland, they have Scotland in their blood,” and if you are Scottish this just makes your chest swell with pride.
For those who do not have Celtic blood running thick through your veins, which really means in my case some rather unruly red hair and sun-rejecting skin, the works in this exhibition cannot help but be admired.
In particular the technique of Allan Ramsay and the traditional soulful paintings and sketches by David Wilkie.
The exhibition finishes with a small selection of paintings by the Glasgow Boys, a group of artists collaborating in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, who looked to impressionism and impressionist subjects, and thus leaving the visitor with an appetite to go forth and explore twentieth century and contemporary Scottish art.
If you are in London, do make time to see this beautiful and enchanting exhibition which has been wonderfully curated.
For me as a proud Scot, it was definitely a case of, ‘Caledonia, I’m coming home!’
Lynsey Scott, Special Features, London, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Scottish Artists 1750-1900; From Caledonia to the Continent
The Queens Gallery,
March 18 – October 9, 2016
Visitor information and tickets for the Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace: www.royalcollection.org.uk T. +44 (0)30 3123 7301