24. View of the City of Edinburgh – Alexander Nasmyth

Alexander_Nasmyth_-_View_of_the_City_of_Edinburgh_-_Google_Art_Project

When we think of landscape painting, the thought is often of the conservative, politically regressive, looking to escape the realities of modern life for an idealised past world of happy peasants free from the corruptions of today. Yet Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) was a man of the Enlightenment, a political radical, a great believer in science and technology, a reformer, even a utopian; his son was a talented engineer who invented the steam hammer. He is generally reckoned the first great Scottish landscape painter, but he was also the first great Scottish painter of the city and of urban development.

View of the City of Edinburgh (c. 1822) functions as a mainstream landscape painting. Viewing the city from the west, it contains the three chief elements of Scottish landscape: hill or mountain, water, and castle or ruin. It lies in the pictureque idiom of 19th century British landscape painting, with the low vantage point, tree, and scenic little temple on the left. Like many landscape works of the time, it harks back to Rousseau’s ideas about the natural state of humanity in nature. But it also has another source. This is an image of Edinburgh in the distance, but it draws on the 19th century rediscovery of Athens and Greek culture. It proclaims that Edinburgh is the Athens of the north, a place of culture, of philosophy, and maybe even democracy.

Classical Roman architecture and art had been popular since the Renaissance, and was an important influence on Scottish architecture from the 16th century, with the neo-classicism of the 18th perhaps its highpoint. But in the early 19th century, the changing political situation in the Ottoman empire and Greek independence made it possible for western artists and architectural historians to visit Athens. An image became rapidly established of Athens as a city on a hill surrounded by fields; for instance Richard Temple’s 1810 picture. This is the obvious model for Nasmyth’s painting here, and means that this is only superficially a depiction of a place but fundamentally a depiction of an idea.


Alexander Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh on 9 September 1758. He trained in his city of birth as a decorative painter, and under the Edinburgh-born history painter Alexander Runciman. Then he went to London, still a teenager, where he worked for Allan Ramsay in London 1774–8, initially himself working as a portraitist. Certainly we can see the influence of Ramsay, who was perhaps the greatest portrait painter of the Scottish Enlightenment, even though Nasmyth art went in a different direction. It wasn’t a totally new idea: he had Dutch and English models, as well as drawing on Ramsay’s ideas about light and perception, about capturing the reality of a person in a room and the light surrounding him (Ramsay prefiguring the explosion of photography in Scotland in the 1840s).

But portrait painting was where the money was, with the prospect of commissions with wealthy sitters, and he set up in Edinburgh as a portraitist in 1778. Throughout his life he mainly worked in Edinburgh despite the changing focus of his art, but he did travel. He visited Italy 1782–4, funded by inventor Patrick Miller (1731–1815) who designed ships including a warship called Experiment of Leith and multi-hulled pleasure boats; this work later led to William Symington’s Charlotte Dundas (1803), the first practical steamship.

In 1822 he published set of 16 views of locations of Walter Scott novels: this perhaps helped stir people’s desire for landscapes as their imagination was drawn from Scott’s enormously popular historical and adventure stories into the countryside that they inhabited. Nasmyth was also a stage designer, adviser on landscape and architecture, and a teacher. He was at the midst of Scottish culture in the first half of the 19th century. He taught painting, including to writer and polymath Mary Somerville, and drawing to John Sakeouse. He taught art to David Wilkie, David Roberts (known for his Egyptian scenes), the English marine painter Clarkson Stanfield and landscapist John Thomson of Duddingston, and to John Ruskin’s father John James Ruskin.

He died at his home 47 York Place, Edinburgh, on 10 April 1840, and is buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. But as well as creating in large measure the traditions of Scottish landscape painting, he produced another generation of great Scots. His children included landscape painter Patrick Nasmith (1787-1831); James Nasmyth (1808-1890) developed steam carriages and invented the steam hammer (1839) and other machine tools. Nasmyth himself played an important role in the development of the steam ship, experimenting with steam propulsion and being closely involved in Patrick Miller’s work. Nasmyth’s art shows Scotland opening up via new technology to a new public, a leisured middle class, who would not coincidentally also buy his paintings.


We can get an idea of his view of the world by looking at his depictions of architect Robert Adam’s Culzean Castle. Nasmyth takes liberties with the reality of the castle’s location. He exaggerates its precarious position on the cliff, which in real life is nowhere near that high (even if Adam or his patron had work done chiselling the rockface to increase its steepness). Certainly this wildness is part of Nasmyth’s aesthetic; you can see also his picture of Tantallon Castle.

But there is something more general: the idea of movement. Adam wrote: “Movement is meant to express, the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form, in the different parts of the building, so as to add greatly to the picturesque of the composition. For the rising and falling, advancing and receding, with the convexity and concavity, and other forms of the great parts, have the same effect in architecture, that hill and dale, fore-ground and distance, swelling and sinking have in landscape: that is, they serve to produce an agreeable and diversified contour, that groups and contrasts like a picture and creates a variety of light and shade, which gives great spirit, beauty and effect to the composition.”

This is central to much 19th century landscape, the idea of a moment caught in motion, the fleeting, the picturesque, an impressionistic quality which was distinctively Scottish and empiricist. In architecture it was applied by Adam using complex arrangements of 3 dimensional shapes that shifted in their outlines as you moved around. In Nasmyth there is often the sense of something glimpsed while travelling, of walkers stopping in the woods to admire an agreeable perspective before moving on. Juxtaposition between foreground and background is used for poetic purposes, for pictorial interest. Even the classic view of Athens he draws on is based on the idea of weary travellers coming over a hill and glimpsing at last their destination before them.

Sometimes though what we see in Nasmyth is not a journey through space but through time. In his paintings of Edinburgh we see the city come into being, an idealised modern city of learning and culture, but also a practical place of labour. A fine example of his skill at capturing both atmosphere and architecture is Princes Street with the Commencement of the Building of the Royal Institution, 1825. Edinburgh from the Calton Hill (1820) is a more conventionally picturesque view of the city, though its unusually rugged rocks give the sense of a city being quarried out of the ground and brought into being, but its detailed and expansive depiction of the city’s buildings also evokes the new popular entertainment of the panorama.

All this makes Nasmyth perhaps the first great painter of the city, as well as first great Scottish landscape painter. Relationship between nature and man. While many artists of the 19th century – including John Ruskin, whose father he taught – would attack the development of modern science and industry, Nasmyth stood at its heart. Thus he must be counted one of the few artists who not only shows the coming into being of a new world, but who helped create this new world.

Alexander Nasmyth, View of the City of Edinburgh, c. 1822, Oil on canvas, 142 x 210 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

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23. Hudibras and Ralph Visiting the Astrologer – William Fettes Douglas

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Edinburgh has a long history of alchemy and magic. Perhaps the city’s most famous magician was John Napier (1550-1617), nicknamed Marvellous Merchiston, often observed by the locals walking around town in a long black cloak carrying his pet spider, and widely believed a master of witchcraft and alchemy. He is known today as a man of science, creator of logarithms and the decimal point, designer of a submarine and a piece of artillery capable of destroying all cattle in a one-mile radius (which he declined to build, in the interests of peace). But he was rumoured to have been descended from wizards; he had knowledge of alchemical lore and studied the Book of Revelation to predict the end of the world. He was at least a master of conjuring: catching thieving staff with a truth-telling rooster and drugging pigeons who preyed on his garden.

Napier lived in a time of religious fervour just after the Reformation; the Victorian artist William Fettes Douglas (1822-1891) worked in more settled times, when industrial Britain was gripped by a mania for the mystical and supernatural. He turned his passion for antiques and old books, his talents for historical research, and his great skill at painting scenes from the past real and imagined, to make himself one of the greatest painters of the occult.


William Fettes Douglas was almost entirely self-taught, destined for a career in banking not in art. His father James Douglas was an accountant at Commercial Bank, although in his spare time he painted watercolours and his paintings of Scottish castles were published in the Scots Magazine in the early nineteenth century. His mother Martha Brook was a grandniece of Sir William Fettes, founder of the Edinburgh school.

Fettes Douglas was born in Edinburgh on 29 March 1822 and educated at Southern Academy and the High School. He began work alongside his father in 1836, but he practiced drawing in his spare time. He sent his first work to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1845, and in 1847 with his father’s support he gave up banking to pursue a career in art. But first he matriculated at Edinburgh University where he studied botany and anatomy, being very keen on the latter (important education for many artists).

He received very little artistic tuition: 3 or 4 months at Trustees Academy and a little study (described as “desultory” in his obituary in the Scotsman) at the Royal Academy Schools, where he took life drawing classes alongside the landscape painter Alexander Fraser. But in 1848 he was involved in the forming of the Smashers’ Club, a drawing society, with the artists Thomas Faed, John Faed, James Archer, John Ballantyne, and William Crawford: Douglas’s 1866 portrait of Thomas Faed is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

He rapidly established himself as an artist, becoming an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1851 and a full member in 1854; he exhibited numerous works there from the mid 1840s. He travelled to Italy a number of times, first in 1857 as a holiday, then for more serious study in the 1860s. He founded the City of Edinburgh Volunteer Artillery, the 1st (Artists’) Company in 1859. He refused to be captain, with Joseph Noel Paton getting the position. He spent more time in London in the 1860s, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and reconvening the Smashers. In 1869 he succeeded David Octavius Hill as secretary of the RSA, and was Curator at the Scottish National Gallery from 1877 to 1882; then he became president of the RSA until his death. Following a few years of ill health, he died at Newburgh, Fife in 1891. He is buried in St Cyrus Churchyard, Forfarshire, near where his wife was from.

He proved himself a master of genre and literary scenes, but as a keen antiquarian and collector he particularly excelled at the depiction of antiques and old books. Bibliomania (1852) shows a bookseller striking a deal with a book-loving customer surrounded by books. The Alchemist (1855) is a fantastically busy scene, full of elaborate fabrics, strange objects, and lots of books. However he was capable of subtler effects as in the ascetic space of The Spell (1864). He also painted portraits such as of the antiquary and art collector David Laing in 1862; Laing’s collection formed the basis of the Scottish National Gallery. Later in life as his administrative work took more of his time, Douglas painted less often in oil, but took up watercolour landscapes.

He was a man greatly in love with the past, shown by his keen collecting and his choice of subjects. He also proved a conservative in his beliefs, causing controversy in 1885 with a speech accusing women artists of lacking application and filling time before matrimony. Yet he was otherwise reckoned a good speaker “original, rich and racy, and of a stimulating character”. Indeed despite his interest in books, he seldom wrote, aside from work on a new catalogue in his time at the National Gallery. Perhaps this reflected a shyness from his lack of formal education; or maybe he had better things to do.


Hudibras and Ralph Visiting the Astrologer (1856) is one of the most striking examples of his interest in mystical subject matter. It draws on an explicitly literary source: Samuel Butler’s mock-epic Hudibras. Written 1674-1678, Butler’s poem retells the adventures of Sir Hudibras from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, but in a mock-heroic and comic style intended as an attack on the Puritans in the aftermath of the English Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. In Butler’s poem, Hudibras spends his time pursuing a widow, the eldest of three sisters, known as a miserable, fun-hating woman, and symbolic of the Puritans; the youngest sister in contrast was a fun-loving hedonist, a Cavalier.

Douglas’s painting shows an episode where Hudibras and his assistant Ralph call on the astrologer Sidrophel to ask the likely success of his quest. Sidrophel is a Rosicrucian mystic, member of a staunchly anti-Catholic sect, and astrology was closely associated with the Puritans, whom Butler hated. So Sidrophel is an object of criticism and ridicule, the mystic catering to a superstitious crowd:

When butter does refuse to come,
And love proves cross and humoursome:
To him with questions, and with urine,
They for discov’ry flock, or curing.

In the painting, Sidrophel’s assistant Whachum informs his master of the arrival of Hudibras and Ralph. Hudibras and Sidrophel argue about whether astrology is satanic. Hudibras threatens to have the mystic arrested, and when Ralph disappears to get the guards, Sidrophel attacks the stout knight, only to find himself at the end of Hudibras’s boot: “As quick as light’ning in the breech, / Just in the place where honour’s lodg’d.” Sidrophel turns things around, feigning death to have Hudibras accused of murder, and the knight flees, no wiser than before.


For Douglas, the great painter of antiquities, astrologers and alchemists are ideal subjects for showing off his love of the antique and curious. Not just a personal interest, it was a Victorian fascination, a subject for artists like John William Waterhouse. Occultism in general was a subject of great interest at the time, part of the general passion for medievalism that began as a reaction against industrial modern society.

The dramatic scene appeals to Douglas’s other great talent, for faces: not so much their likenesses as their expressions. A work like The Conspirators contrasts the conspirators themselves deep in planning, against the men bursting in to arrest them. Like his great influence David Wilkie, he is able to present dramatic scenes in which we can instantly tell what each character is thinking and doing.

The most striking element of the painting is the tapestry on its right. Douglas excels at these depictions, such as in The Alchemist, able to realistically render the folds of the cloth and the texture of the weave while still capturing the image depicted in the fabric. But this tapestry is a rare example of reflexivity in Douglas’s art. Hanging in the doorway, it seems to offer a view outside: the blue sky, the trees, and standing in the middle a brave heroic knight in armour. There is quite the contrast between this ideal image and the reality, the fat comical Hudibras in his silly hat, in a featureless treeless landscape beneath a grey sky.

Repeatedly in his best works, Douglas paints tapestries, books, vases, statues, boxes, furniture, architecture, but never paintings. When learning to paint it is reputed that he never spent any time in galleries copying other artists’ work. He seems to care more for books – for words – than pictures. And yet he was such a keen gallery administrator, and a lover of art. His images of tapestry though are the closest he gets to reproducing the work of other artists.

William Fettes Douglas’s art is doubly dated: firstly, to the Victorian passions to which it appeals, and secondly to the ancient mystical traditions to which it harks. Indeed, triply dated, if you include Butler’s seventeenth-century use of medieval legends. It is not obvious that Douglas was making any satirical point. Butler’s contempt for astrology as a Puritan perversion becomes a fascination for the curious customs and beliefs of the past, and the wonderful books and tools of the trade that they used.

On one level, it’s a mark of the decline of history painting: Poussin used historical research to best present the message of Christ; Douglas uses it to construct paintings appealing to the contemporary interest in mysticism. So too did Joseph Noel Paton paint not great historical events but fairies.

But equally, Douglas’s art captures a sincere interest in the past, and a deep love of art and books. What we see in his works is the same passion that led him to be head of the Royal Scottish Academy. If he turned from the real world to the imagined past, his is also an art that turns from the ugly, ridiculous visitors at the door, to the beautiful, heroic knight hanging on a tapestry. He chose beauty not reality, but that too is a part of art.

William Fettes Douglas, Hudibras and Ralph Visiting the Astrologer, 1856
Oil on canvas, 65 x 106 cm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

22. Rev Peter Jones – David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

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Hill and Adamson were great pioneers of photography in Scotland – not the first to take photographs, but the first to turn it into both business and art. Although photography required long exposures, good light, and immobile subjects, Their subjects ranged from images of Edinburgh great and good to ethnographic inquiries of people both near and far. This photograph, of the Canadian missionary, preacher, and community leader Peter Jones (known in the Ojibwe language as Kahkewaquonaby), was taken in 1845 and is possibly the first photograph ever taken of a North American Indian. Despite being snapped in the east end of Edinburgh.

David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) was a well-known artist before turning to photography. The eighth child of a Perth bookseller and stationer (hence the unusual middle name), he studied art at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh from the age of 16. He quickly pursued a career as an artist, publishing a series of lithographs of Perth scenery when just 18. He was involved in the founding of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (later the Royal Scottish Academy), becoming a member of the new organisation in 1829. He became secretary of the Academy in 1832, a role which he held for 37 years. He had another artistic success with a book of paintings, The Land of Burns, published 1840.

Through the 1840s, he worked on a planned epic painting of the Disruption of 1843, one of the most important events in the history of the Church of Scotland. Many members of the Church of Scotland quit over issues including the right of congregations to appoint their own ministers and walked out of the general assembly to form their own Free Church. To capture accurately the large number of people involved, Hill decided to take photographic portraits of the participants to increase the verisimilitude of his painting. This led to his involvement with the new art.

Robert Adamson (1821-1848) was the younger brother of photographic pioneer John Adamson (1809–1870) who took the first calotype in Scotland in 1842 (here is John’s 1843 photo of Robert). John Adamson was part of the circle in St Andrews of physicist David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and a pioneer of optical mineralogy. Born in St Andrews on 26 April 1821, Robert was an amateur scientist and inventor from an early age; but due to chronic ill-health he proved too weak for an apprenticeship as an engineer, and in 1843 decided to move to Edinburgh and set up in business as a photographer in Rock House on Calton Hill. After a few highly successful years, Adamson, who had been sickly since childhood, died aged 26 on 14 January 1848.

The ability to practice photography was restricted by both technical knowledge and patent rights, with the calotype patent held by William Henry Fox Talbot in England. However, thanks to Adamson’s connections and the different legal system north of the border, the duo were able to work freely in Scotland. Of the two men, Adamson was the scientist, who knew the photographic process. Hill was the artistic man, but also the people person, known for his conviviality and many friendships, and skill working with sitters.

In 1840s their work met with mixed reception, but as well as individual portraits, they announced several ambitions series of work, both portraits and documentary. These included their famous series of Newhaven fisher-folk in their brightly-patterned clothes. These images was part of a study of this traditional and close-knit community, which turned the methods of anthropology away from exotic tribes to the people of Edinburgh. It was in something of the same approach that they photographed the Ojibwan preacher Peter Jones, visiting from what is now Canada.


Reverend Peter Jones or Khakewaquonaby was a member of the Ojibwe (or Chippewa) nation, born January 1, 1802 in Burlington Heights near Hamilton, Ontario, to an Ojibwe mother and white father. His native name Khakewaquonaby means “waving feathers”, and he was raised in Ojibwe culture by his mother Tuhbenahneequay until the age of 14, then by his father Augustus Jones, a farmer, surveyor, and prominent local citizen. Peter Jones converted to Methodism aged 21, and was soon recognised as a preacher, missionary and translator capable of bringing the Christian message to the natives. He acted as an advocate for his people, few of whom spoke English, while believing that they should change from their traditional way of life to adopt European-style farming. From the 1820s, he was involved in the building of a settlement by the Credit River near present-day Mississauga.

He made three visits to the United Kingdom to raise money for his people and the church, the first in 1831. On these visits he would dress in tribal attire and be billed under his Ojibwe name, exciting considerable curiosity. On his third tour in 1845, he came to Edinburgh. The Scotsman newspaper on 6 August reported a speech by Jones at a breakfast in Gibbs Royal Hotel, Princes Street:

We have common day schools, and they have not succeeded so well as we could have wished, owing to the way in which the children are brought up by their parents. The children are idle during their school years, and they won’t work when they grow up. Now, we wish to establish manual labour schools, where the boys shall be taught farming and other useful trades, such as blacksmiths and shoemakers, and the girls to sew, knit, and spin. My countrymen are all ready to give up their children to the schools. I have been labouring among them for more than twenty years as a missionary, and I can assure you there is no difficulty in converting them to your holy religion.

Jones spoke while dressed in his native costume and followed the appeal with a display of “several war clubs, hatchets, tobacco pipes, and articles of dress”.

Hill and Adamson took several photographs of Jones on August 4, 1845, some in European clothing, others in native dress. Dressing up was traditional in portraits, whether oriental dress, ancient Roman, armour, as saints or peasants, or any other costume: for instance the explorer Edward William Lane was photographed by the Scots in “Indian Dress” (from India). The images of Jones taken that day are reputedly the earliest photographs of native Americans, despite coming not from the USA but Scotland (in 1838, Samuel Morse, pioneer of telegraphy, had learnt the daguerrotype process from Daguerre in Paris and returned to New York to set up in business as the first photographer in the Americas, but although he trained other photographers he wasn’t a commercial success.)

Jones’s health declined through the 1840s and he was advised by his doctor to cease travelling and take things easy, advice he initially ignored. In 1851 he settled near Brantford, a short distance from the Credit settlement, and growing weaker turned increasingly to domestic activities; his son Charles went to college in New York state and then studied law. Taking ill in December 1855, he died on 29 June 1856.


Hill and Adamson’s photographs were calotypes: a process invented by Fox Talbot in 1840. To make an image, a paper negative is brushed with silver nitrate and treated with potassium iodide to form silver iodide. Before use, it is then treated with gallo-nitrate of silver (silver nitrate and gallic acid), which accelerates the image-taking. After, it is developed with more gallo-nitrate of silver and fixed with hypo. The method was obsolete by end of 1850s, replaced by techniques on glass or metal; invented in 1851, the collodion process allowed images to be captured in seconds rather than minutes. In contrast to methods on metal or glass, the calotype produces a coarse image modulated by the grain of the paper, which can appear ugly but in skilled hands allows for the artistic effects of Hill and Adamson.

After Adamson’s untimely death in 1848, Hill returned to painting and to art administration, as secretary of RSA and helping found the National Gallery of Scotland. He did briefly return to photography in the 1860s, with much less interesting results without Adamson. In 1866 Hill finally finished the painting of the Disruption which had first involved him in photography, and it was purchased for £1,200 by the Free Church. His health failing, he gave up his work at the RSA in 1869, and died on 17 May 1870. He is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Despite Hill and Adamson’s role in the development of photography from scientific curiosity to art, they have never been accorded full recognition by the city of Edinburgh. In 1851 Hill gave the Scottish Academy 500 photographs, establishing a national collection. Since then, there have been various long-held but never realised plans for a national museum of photography, but although there was a 2002 show for Hill’s bicentenary, and a temporary exhibition of early photographs at the Royal Museum in 2015, there is little recognition of the city’s place in art photography and no permanent display of their extraordinary work which captures not only the beauties of light, but the complex attitudes of Victorian Scotland.


The photograph can be compared with other images of far-flung travellers, such as Alexander Nasmyth’s depiction of the Greenlander John Sakeouse. Born in Disco Bay (or Disko Bay if you’re not into loud music) in 1797, he arrived in Leith in 1816 where he dazzled locals with his kayaking and harpoon skills. He studied drawing with Alexander Nasmyth, who painted this. He sailed with John Ross on his 1818 arctic exhibition when Ross nearly discovered the Northwest Passage but gave up. Sakeouse returned to Leith where he died of typhoid in 1819.

In both cases portraiture has its primary function as representation and record, but it always performed other functions: showing the power of the wealthy commissioner, either in self-celebration or by capturing a subject he in some way or other owned. In Jones’s case there were doubtless anthropological pretensions, as with their work in Newhaven. In the early nineteenth century, paintings of exotic lands were very popular: from Scot William Allan (1782-1850) painting in the Caucasus and Turkey, to Ingres’s images of the middle east.

Both Jones and Sakeouse were able to prosper for a time as curios, acting out tribal customs and showing off traditional dress. An ability to move between native and European cultures allowed them to make livings as intermediaries, wearing their ethnicities as an object of curiosity and source of income, while using skills picked up in white communities to negotiate with those in power. They travelled exceptional distances and knew fame and crowds, but also worked to lock their people and homelands more closely into the empires of Europe and white America. Hence, they were neither of one culture nor the other, despite the costumes which they wore in Europe even as they ceased to be part of native life at home – becoming as this historic photograph shows not clothes but fancy dress.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Peter Jones, 1845
Salted paper print from a Calotype negative, 21 x 15 cm.
J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, USA. (Image source: Wikipedia.)

21. Self Portrait – Doris Zinkeisen

The career of Doris Zinkeisen (1898–1991) ranged from designing one of the most controversial and sexy dresses of the 1930s to working as an official war artist in the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. She also worked as a society portrait painter and produced some striking paintings including this 1929 Self Portrait.

She was born on 31 July 1898 at Kilcreggan, a Victorian seaside resort on the Firth of Clyde; her family moved to England in 1909. She studied at Harrow School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools in London. Her younger sister Anna (1901-1976) was also an artist, and moved from high society decorative painting to work at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London, drawing war injuries.

Doris mixed painting with a career as a costume designer for theatre and film, several for the young actress Anna Neagle. Her see-through dress from The Little Damozel (1933), shown below, attracted scandal and criticism for what it revealed. Neagle played a nightclub singer forced into a marriage of convenience with a sailor; the pair unsurprisingly fall in love. In the 1920s Zinkeisen dated and was reportedly engaged to the film director James Whale, known for horror films such as Frankenstein as well as for his homosexuality (he was played on film by Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters [1998]). She also painted a 1925 portrait of the English actress Elsa Lanchester who later played the title role in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

neagle-damozel

With her sister, she painted murals for the Verandah Grill of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, which was launched in 1936 at Clydebank, not far from her birthplace. This 1936 photo shows her at work. She also produced a range of commercial art, including posters for London Transport in 1939.

During the war she helped by working as a nurse. She was an official war artist for the Red Cross after VE Day in occupied Germany; this included three days in Bergen-Belsen where she sketched the concentration camp survivors (ex-prisoners were often housed in the camps for many months, if there was nowhere else for them to go, and many were seriously ill or dying). Her most famous work from this period was Human Laundry (1945) showing emaciated ex-prisoners being washed by nurses on a line of tables at Belsen. The title is gruesome but apt.

After the war she went back to theatre and costume design, though she continued to paint portraits. She lived an exceptionally long life, and died 3 January 1991.


Although she married naval officer Edward Grahame Johnstone in 1927, she continued to work and earn a good income through a mixture of portraiture, commercial art, and design. The life of a woman artist in the early 20th century often meant a free mix of high and low culture, craft and fine arts, hard news and lifestyle. Lee Miller, the American photographer who worked with Man Ray in 1920s Paris, was a war photographer in Germany in 1945 and after the war took conventional photos for Vogue magazine. Sonia Delaunay, the Odessa-born pioneering abstract artist, ran her own fashion house as another outlet for her experiments with colour and form. This coincided a growing interest in decorative and traditionally female art forms by male artists such as Picasso (pottery) and Jean Arp (tapestry).

In self-portraiture, as can be seen by the many self-portraits in this collection, a key question is what image the artist seeks to project. One style promotes the artist’s status as artist, a master of the paintbrush and canvas; George Jamesone’s 1642 self-portrait is an obvious example. The other style shows the artist as sitter, as a beautiful person, as gorgeous as their wealthy customers, able to move in the highest society, and to portray themselves as part of high society. This latter style has also existed as long as artists have sought work painting the wealthy and successful: for instance Durer’s 1497 Self Portrait at 26.

This self-portrait clearly puts Zinkeisen in the latter category. She was at home with the rich and glamorous, from her work on ocean liners and the British film industry of the 1930s. The subject of a woman in oriental dress was common in the early twentieth century and Japonaiserie had been in vogue in design and art since the late Victorian era. The first impression is of glamour and sensuality. She shows herself with fashionable short hair, red lips and cheek, the ivory skin colour of her skin emphasised by the white sheet behind her.

This sheet isn’t a backdrop: its folds are imposing, like carved marble, or like the frozen waves of her hair; Zinkeisen uses the folds in the sheet to form concentric circles and direct the viewer’s gaze at her face. There is a sexuality, a seductiveness here, in the red on her face, her bare shoulder and hand held at breast. Her face is frozen in classic stillness, but is countered by the promise of motion elsewhere. The picture threatens revelation. The way she barely holds the kimono around her shoulder, the just-visible curve of her right breast, and the way her left hand reaches to pull the sheet back.

This is a picture of a beautiful woman, glamorous and fashionable. But it is also a picture of a woman who can manipulate her own image. She is no helpless starlet, but in control of her sexuality and of the costumes and scenery with which she surrounds herself. It is a performance worthy of any of the actors she clothed, and of the great artist she was.

Doris Zinkeisen, Self-portrait, 1929. Oil on canvas, 107 x 87 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image source: Wikipedia.

20. Catholic Apostolic Church – Phoebe Anna Traquair

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If you think of richly painted churches, their walls covered in religious murals, you probably think of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. You don’t expect to find a building, its four walls decorated with scenes of heavenly bliss and the life of Christ, in Scotland, in Edinburgh’s New Town, opposite the Cask and Barrel pub, down from the gay district and up the hill from Tesco’s. Most Scottish religious art was destroyed in the Reformation. But the former Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre, in Edinburgh was painted at the end of the nineteenth century by an Irish artist, a woman, who began her career in art as a scientific illustrator, drawing her husband’s specimens of fossil fish.

Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) was born Phoebe Anna Moss in Kilternan, south of Dublin. She came from a secure middle-class background: her father was a physician. She studied art with the Royal Dublin Society in the 1860s, which mainly involved drawing from life and plaster casts. Her husband Dr Ramsay Heatley Traquair (1840-1912) was a Scot but Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, and they met because he was looking for an illustrator; they married in Dublin in 1873.

They moved to Scotland in 1874 when was appointed keeper of Natural History at the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh (now the Royal Museum in Chambers Street). Settling at 8 Dean Park Crescent in Comely Bank, she began a conventional domestic life including three children, but she continued to illustrate her husband’s work and to paint watercolour and embroider – acceptable crafts for a middle-class lady. Edinburgh artistic culture in general was limited to polite portraits and landscapes, although there was a strong interest in antiquarianism. However, she became involved in more progressive literary and artistic circles, chiefly through art critic John Miller Gray who later became the first curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Gray was a former clerk who educated himself in art and was influenced by the writer and critic Walter Pater, who celebrated Renaissance and Romantic art and the importance of sensation and feeling.

Traquair developed her artistic career with book illustrations for Gray and his circle including poet Garth Wilkinson. She wrote to John Ruskin and in return for the loan of his books, she sent him some original works, including a illustrated manuscript of her own text The Dream, and they discussed Whitman. She worked more widely doing book covers, and in 1885 was commissioned by philanthropic body the Edinburgh Social Union to paint mural decorations for a chapel at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. Other commissions followed, including murals for the Episcopalian St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh painted from 1889 to 1901. These murals established her style, which included a combination of Florentine-influenced religious figures and faces of contemporary friends and influences: St Mary’s includes David Livingston, William Blake, Cardinal Newman, Tennyson and Holman Hunt, as well as ordinary choirboys and parishioners. She began to paint in oils on canvas, and produced significant embroidery including the four-panelled The Progress of A Soul (1893-1901).

Her earlier murals led to her commission at the instigation of the Social Union to decorate the Catholic Apostolic Church in East London Street, Edinburgh. In the late 1890s and 1900s she broadened her artistic range further, making jewellery and painting furniture, as well as illustrating books including Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Dante’s La Vita Nuova. She painted a self-portrait in oils in 1911. There was another mural commission for Manners Chapel, All Saints Church, Thorney Hill, Hampshire in 1920-22, when she was almost 70 years old.


The Catholic Apostolic Church in East London Street was designed by Robert Rowand Anderson (also architect of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and a former employee of that maestro of the Gothic revival, George Gilbert Scott) and built in 1873-76. Beginning painting in spring 1893, she finished at the end of 1901: her murals cover large parts of all four walls of the large church. As well as paint, she used gilded plaster for halos, brass instruments, border decoration, and other details.

The largest scene is the west wall with the Second Coming, while the the great chancel arch shows an apocalyptic scene, the worship of heaven by the perfected church. The other walls illustrate biblical themes, including the creation of trees, beasts and humans; and events of Holy Week including the Last Supper, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and Passion.

As an organisation the Catholic Apostolic Church (whose members were known as Irvingites) was founded in the early 1830s, following outbreaks of speaking in tongues in the west of Scotland and London. It anticipated the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. It was led by Apostles who were considered carriers of the word of God; only they could appoint other high-ranking church officials. The last Apostle died in 1901 and since Apostles could only be appointed by other Apostles, no more were appointed.

The church became vacant in 1958, and the building deteriorated badly. Following a campaign in the 1990s it was saved, and restoration work on the church and murals carried out from 2000-2005. The building is now used as a wedding venue as well as housing voluntary organisations and occasionally opening to the public.


The worship of the Catholic Apostolic Church involved priests in brightly-coloured vestments, incense, and much music (very different to presbyterian Scottish traditions). Traquair responds to this with incredibly sensuous art full of rich colours. She also emphasises noise and music through the many musical instruments of the angels.

The painting shows her influences, such as Fra Angelico in the angels, e.g. his Annunciation where the angel has richly-coloured wings and a halo similar to Traquair’s. But although her murals appear very traditional in form (harking back to Italian Renaissance art), her art does not dwell on the pain and suffering of much Christian art. Instead the focus is on beauty and the redemption offered in paradise, God’s covenant with humankind indicated by huge rainbows. This appears to be simple, uplifting work, rendered through a huge amount of detail and a love of ornamentation and decoration. Flowers and foliage abound, as do flowing dresses, brightly-coloured angel wings, and geometric borders.

But although Traquair’s work often appears simple, much of it draws on complex literary sources which can help to understand the ideas behind her work. Her ideas are most fully developed in her embroidery Progress of the Soul, which draws from Walter Pater, William Morris, and others. Its four panels are based on Pater’s story of Denys l’Auxerrois in Imaginary Portraits, a version of the Greek story of Dionysus, a beautiful young male torn apart by his people and resurrected, Christlike. In this work, Traquair links Denys to music and the harmony of nature. He is finally rescued by an angel with a kiss (in a way that now seems highly homoerotic). The resurrection of Denys reflects her theme of the dead rising, reuniting with their loved ones, a search for union or wholeness.

This ideas of progress through earthly beauty to spiritual achievement was one side of a contemporary debate: on one side those who believed that beauty could fulfill a higher purpose, opposing those who saw beauty as an end in itself. In the latter camp were Pater and his disciples in the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century: A C Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde. Pater’s only novel was Marius the Epicurean, which compared the pleasure-seeking Greek philosophy with Christianity. Traquair’s close friend John Miller Gray wrote a generally favourable review of the book, but he was not altogether in agreement with Pater. Gray suggested epicureanism was only a stage and “if we would preserve our spiritual health we must press onwards, and breathe the more bracing atmosphere of sterner upland places”.

In rejecting religion, for Pater a chapel was nothing but a beautifully painted box. It would not get you to heaven; you would remain within its four painted walls. But even without this sensualist philosophy, decoration was a big theme at the time: Traquair’s work coincided with a new interest in interior design that ran through the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, and finds an echo in some modern installation art (such as Steven Campbell’s Of Form and Fiction.) Ruskin and Morris thought that attention to beautiful places and to craftsmanlike production could produce a better class of person; Traquair herself painted furniture including cabinets and a piano.

Her religious works are all temples to art: to painting and music and sensual enjoyment, with all their images of musicians and poets and their rich vivid colours. The myths of Dionysius and Cupid and Psyche seemed to offer a way for sensuous love to lead to spiritual goals, uniting secular passion and the divine. Yet the paradox is that the more beautiful is the worldly, the less inclined we are to seek anything else. Although Traquair seems to be a great religious artist, it is nearer the truth to say she was a great sensualist.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, interior of Catholic Apostolic Church, East London Street, Edinburgh, 1893-1901, paint and gilt on plaster. (Photographs by the author).

19. Self-Portrait – George Jamesone

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George Jamesone (c.1590-1644) was the first important artist from Scotland. Scotland’s first portrait painter. Not the first person to pick up a paintbrush and draw somebody’s face. But the first we have some evidence of, the first to make a career of it, the first artist’s life. True, his Victorian biographer John Bulloch calls it a “somewhat conjectural life” and, referring ruefully to the seeming propensity of any documentary evidence of his life to be lost, burnt, or otherwise disappeared, he says “there would seem to be something of a fatality about the actual records of Jamesone”, but we know enough to see he was at the top of his profession.

This self-portrait of 1642 was one of his last works. For much of his life he had been highly successful, painting kings, noblemen, powerful merchants, poets, and the great and good. He grew rich, purchased fine properties, was patronised by noblemen, and chosen as the official artist for important events such as Charles I taking the Scottish throne.

Yet he also saw tragedy and fell foul of Scotland’s religious wars: this is not the portrait of a man at the peak of his career, but a man near the end of his life, looking back on triumph and pain, and considering whether his artistic legacy would last him when the sands ran out, when his face was turned into a skull.


The first great Scottish artist did not come from the capital Edinburgh or central Scotland. Rather, he was born in Aberdeen in the north east. Aberdeen was an ancient city, with a cathedral and Scotland’s third-oldest university founded in 1495, and a history going back long before then: Jamesone seems to have enjoyed its pageantry as a boy, such as the celebrations for king James VI’s visits and the annual riding of the marches.

Aberdeen was also an important port. It exported Scottish goods such as salmon, pickled pork, and textiles of wool and linen, and it imported luxury goods such as silks, and (according to Bulloch’s picturesque list) “clocks, watches, jewellery, silver plate, articles of vertu [objets d’art], arms, arras, books, medicines, stoneware”. The city had strong links with the continent, particularly the Low Countries, and it was common for merchants to travel from Aberdeen to Flanders to strike deals and inspect merchandise. (Hugo van der Goes’s altarpiece in Edinburgh is another, earlier example of the links between Scottish merchants and Flanders.)

Although it is unlikely his parents foresaw a career in art for him, he grew up with drawing and design: his father Andrew Jamesone was an architect and master mason; his grandfather was in a similar line of work, possibly involved in building the 1527 Bridge of Dee. George Jamesone’s mother Marjory Anderson was the daughter of a merchant and magistrate; Marjory’s brother David was harbour engineer, known for moving a large stone blocking the harbour entrance by tying barrels to it and floating it away at high tide.

Jamesone was born into high society. His father was also a Burgess of Guild, a role which is now largely honorary (Alex Ferguson is one) but previously gave considerable power over the council which administered of the burgh. These social contacts proved important to Jamesone when he began his career as a painter.

But before then was a lengthy education. Until the age of 10, he was taught at home; his childhood house is not known but, but may have been north of Schoolhill, near St Nicholas’s Church. Then he entered the Grammar School, which was founded in 13th century and was one of the leading schools in the north of Scotland, certainly the best place for the son of a good Aberdeen family. He may have then attended Marischal College, one of the two colleges that formed Aberdeen’s ancient university, but no records survive.

What happened next is conjectural. In past years, it was considered important for an artist to have the best teachers, the best links to the past, and connections with esteemed European art were crucial – in Jamesone’s day, all the best painters were Flemish or Netherlandish. So, rumour has it, Jamesone studied under Rubens and knew well Anthony van Dyck. Today, when it is more important to show the native origins of Scottish art and Scotland’s creative self-sufficiency, we believe that Jamesone had a less glamorous apprenticeship: in Edinburgh to John Anderson, painting decorative wall paintings.

Regardless, we know Jamesone was back in Aberdeen around 1620, where he set up a studio in his house on Schoolhill (which was demolished in the 1880s). He pursued a career in portrait painting, because that was where the money was. An increasing middle class wanted paintings of themselves; religious subjects were out of style following the Reformation; and religious scruples spoke against the more erotic mythological themes. We can see a development through the 1620s. Aberdeen was flourishing culturally, with printer Edward Raban and bookseller and publisher David Melville adding to the cultural life around the university and church.

In 1631 he painted Sir Archibald Acheson, Secretary of State (a powerful role that involved dealing with the King’s correspondence) and newly baronet of Nova Scotia, in an opulent full-length portrait. The painting shows Jamesone’s characteristic skill at naturalistically capturing a face, as well as his abilities with finely-detailed fabric and the objects of Acheson’s status: seals, papers, an inkwell, and his medal.

Then in 1633 came his greatest glory. He was chosen to provide painted decorations for the pageant marking the new king Charles I’s entry into Edinburgh: by then the Scottish monarch was resident in London, but any trip up north was a great state occasion, especially with a new monarch. For the occasion Jamesone provided portraits of all the Scottish monarchs from the historically-dubious Fergus I, although it is unlikely he did all the paintings personally. He met the king, who was something of a selfie whore with at least 100 portraits painted; Charles inevitably ended up sitting for Jamesone.

At the same time in Edinburgh he met Colin Campbell: a connoisseur, skilled linguist, well-travelled in Europe, and a pioneering patron of the arts in Scotland, as well as head of one branch of the Clan Campbell. Campbell provided commissions, and also helped him in his next venture, a tour of Europe later in 1633. Initially he went to London, then Italy: at the time Claude and Poussin were in Rome. On his return, he worked in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen during the 1630s, providing several works for Campbell including a striking family tree.

His work was greatly in demand and he took on as an apprentice John Michael Wright (1617-94), who was later a favourite of Charles II. In England, most of the great painters were from overseas, including Anthony van Dyke, Cornelius Johnson (Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen), and Peter Lely (Pieter van der Faes). Jamesone was not the equal of van Dyke; in comparison to the great Dutch painter, Jamesone’s paintings are formulaic and stiff. Jamesone used the same pose in most of his work, and they are in the limited style of the time with bare backgrounds and dark clothes. But he is very much in the Netherlandish manner, and his work can equal Johnson or Lely.

Everything went well until 1639. Charles I was a Protestant, but many in Scotland felt he was insufficiently Protestant, with his fondness for bishops. These Covenanters rebelled against the King in a rehearsal of the English Civil War a few years later. Aberdeen was not rebellious, and the people were happy with episcopalianism, but the city was attacked by a Covenanter army and saw years of trouble. Jamesone found himself imprisoned in Edinburgh for his sympathies, although he does not seem to have had strong feelings on the issue, and was released.

So in this portrait we find Jamesone in 1642. He has been in jail, caught up in the Scottish wars of religion. The last of his sons died in 1641, spelling the end of his family line: his brother had died in 1631, leaving his library and mathematical instruments to Marischal College. This is not the first of Jamesone’s self-portraits: an earlier one from 1633 shows him as a society gentleman; the earlier image resembles the portraits he would do for his clients, and artists would often use self-portraits as a form of advertising. Even compared to his picture of the poet Arthur Johnson holding a flower, the 1633 image is conventional.

But in 1642, two years before his death, we find him considering his status as an artist. Next to him on the table are images of time and death: the hourglass and the skull. In contrast, art promises immortality. He stares out intently across the centuries and beckons the viewer in, pointing them to the pictures on the wall. And yet this is not Jamesone’s art behind him: he did not paint landscapes although they were popular in Netherlandish circles, and still less did he produce mythological scenes like the Chastisement of Cupid. Some of the portraits could be his work, but much of it clearly is not.

Thus the painting is less an advertisement for Jamesone’s art than a defence of art in general. Maybe these were projects he would have liked to pursue, things he could have drawn if the fashion of the time was not for portraits of the great and good. Did he feel he had wasted his life, now his family line was at an end, Scotland in chaos, and the monarchy he celebrated under threat? Or did he insist on the place of his portraits alongside the other great images of art?

Jamesone took ill and died in Edinburgh in 1644, as Scotland was again hurtling towards civil war; he was buried in Greyfriar’s churchyard, where the Covenanters had started their revolt. But for all the anxiety over posterity shown in this self-portrait, his fame has proved lasting. Horace Walpole, the English art historian, wrote about him in the 18th century, and John Bulloch produced an 1885 book-length biography. Today the Scottish National Portrait Gallery devotes a room to his work.

Many of the stories told about him were fanciful, and we still have little evidence about his life. Yet he stands as a founder of Scottish art. And not just Scottish: at a time when Britain was importing painters from the continent, the northernmost city in Scotland provided one of Britain’s greatest home-grown talents. And yet he was only in his mid 50s when he died; he could have been still greater.

George Jamesone, Self-portrait, c. 1642.
Oil on canvas, 72 x 87 cm.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Picture source: Wikimedia.

18. The Trinity Altarpiece – Hugo van der Goes

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You may suspect that Hugo van der Goes (?-1482) is not entirely Scottish. That is true; he was one of the masters of early Flemish art and never set foot in Scotland. This altarpiece was commissioned in the 1470s for Trinity Collegiate Church in Edinburgh but made in the Low Countries. Yet it is claimed as one of the masterpieces of Scottish Renaissance art, which tells us much about Scotland and its relationship to Europe.

It originally comprised a central panel, now lost, with two double-sided outer panels, folding out to show or cover the main image inside. Outside, its patron, Sir Edward Bonkil, kneels before a vision of the holy Trinity – God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – while an angel plays the organ. The insides of the folding panels show St Andrew presenting James III and his son, later James IV, and St Canute presenting Queen Margaret of Denmark. James III was the first great Renaissance Scottish king, and his son (after a brief early act of treason that led to his father’s death) went on to be the greatest Scottish patron of the arts, and particularly of Scottish Renaissance literature, before losing to the English at Flodden.


The Northern Renaissance in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands is not as well-known as that of Italy. But painters such as van Eyke, van der Weyden, and Memling are every bit the equal of Italian artists, and Hugo van der Goes was in the first rank, known for works such as the Portinari altarpiece in the Uffizi, Florence, and his later Death of the Virgin in Bruges, which shows his skill for introducing psychological realism to religious subjects.

His early life is very uncertain; his date of birth is variously given between about 1420 and 1440, possibly in Ghent although this is supposition. Records indicate he became a master painter in Ghent in 1467; he became dean of the guild in 1474. At the time, Flanders was flourishing through trade across the North Sea and with mainland Europe, which included strong trading links with Scotland: despite the prominent lamb of God in van Eyck’s masterpiece, much of Europe’s wool came from Scotland. The Trinity altarpiece was commissioned in the 1470s around same time as van der Goes’s best-known work, the Portinari altarpiece.

The artist had a short but successful career, mainly painting religious subjects. Even in the Renaissance, descriptions often over-emphasise the troubled genius of great artists, but contemporary sources show his long history of mental illness, albeit largely due to the account of a monkish rival. He was reportedly was driven to despair by his failure to equal van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and in 1481 he seems to have suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. His last few years were spent as a lay resident in Rood-Klooster, an Augustinian priory near Brussels, where he died in 1482.


Trinity Collegiate Church, Edinburgh, was founded around 1460 by Queen Mary of Gueldres, wife of James II and later regent to their son James III, in memorial to her late husband. A collegiate church is one staffed by a group of ministers or priests, living together but not by monastic rules. Not completed until the mid 16th century, it served as the burial place of Mary until 1848.

The altarpiece shows Sir Edward Bonkil (or Boncle), the first Provost of Trinity Collegiate Church, who probably paid for it; he had also donated an organ to the church, which is depicted or alluded to alongside Bonkil’s portrait. The image of Sir Edward is one of the earliest portraits of a Scotsman, particularly unusual for not being a member of royalty. Its commissioning becomes more explicable by suggestions that he was related to Alexander Bonkil, a Scottish-born merchant who lived in Flanders and became an envoy for its Burgundian rulers. Sir Edward probably travelled to Flanders to be painted by the master, although there is no surviving record of this.

As you will see, a number of tenuous threads of evidence are offered to prove a Scottish connection with van der Goes; clearly it is important to Scottish art history to prove that this altarpiece was more than just a generic work sold Europe-wide, but rather created by a man with knowledge of and affection for Scotland. So we know that in Bruges, van der Goes knew Alexander Bening, apparently a Scottish painter, whom Goes proposed for membership of the painters guild and who married a Catherine van der Goes, probably his sister or niece; Bening may have illuminated the Book of Hours of Maximilian I. Other Benings or Binnings worked as painters in Scotland in the 16th century, so it may have been a substantial dynasty.

At the time, Scottish art was amateurish in comparison to the Flemish studio system, and for any major work buyers would look abroad: hence the masterpieces of 15th century “Scottish art” in Duncan Macmillan’s Scottish Art 1460-2000 include, alongside this altarpiece, illustrated Books of Hours from Flanders, and the mace of St Salvator’s College, St Andrews, which was produced by a Parisian goldsmith.

This early history is largely based on supposition and there is no firm evidence linking it to van der Goes. One of the reasons for the comparative lack of acclaim for North European art may be its poor record-keeping. It was largely made in Flanders, certainly by Goes’s workshop, possibly by van der Goes himself. It was however completed in Edinburgh, possibly by one of Goes’s assistants and maybe local craftsmen; it was in Edinburgh that the faces of James and Margaret were added in a much cruder style.

Even its function is contested: it is sometimes claimed to be an organ cover for the instrument provided by Bonkil, but the identification as an altarpiece is far more likely, notwithstanding the missing central panel. King James III and Queen Margaret of Denmark would be unlikely to kneel to an organ, but only to Jesus.


Van der Goes is known both for his deep religious commitment, and for his realism, shown in the naturalistic detail of the Portinari altarpiece and the Death of the Virgin where rather than showing the disciples as characteristic types with conventional attributes, he depicts their individualised faces gathered at Mary’s deathbed and reacting to her passing. The Trinity altarpiece combines a brilliantly real depiction of its patron Bonkil with a wonderfully unreal vision of the holy Trinity. Bonkil is captured in a realistic three dimensional way, his face carefully shaded, and the folds of fabric and furs thrown over his arm expertly depicted. In contrast, his holy vision is highly stylised: the perspective is impossible, with Jesus’s body held at an unnatural angle, and the globe at the bottom would roll off the sloping floor and into the abyss below.

This vision of the Trinity is according to Duncan Macmillan not typical of Flemish art in its absence of realism or everyday details, and probably was dictated by Bonkil. It shows an immediate, unmediated access to religious truth. The organ is similarly depicted in an unusual, old-fashioned way, in gold rather than paint. This differs from the contemporaneous nativity scene of the Portinari altarpiece, which is full of Flemish detail and naturalistic figures, born from a desire to represent Biblical truth through everyday situations. The Trinity Altarpiece is a much more ideal or intellectual vision.


The work’s subsequent history is sad but not untypical. From the 1540s there was a wave of iconoclasm in Scotland: the destruction of holy images and church decorations spurred on by Protestant belief. The Protestant reformists opposed the power of the Catholic church, motivated partly by new intellectual ideas from Europe, partly by anger at the Catholic church’s wealth and power, and partly from the support of the newly Protestant England which was afraid of an invasion by the Catholic French through Scotland.

The Protestants justified their actions by the Ten Commandments, specifically the vague rule (first or second depending on your denomination) which bans any “graven image” and making any likeness of anything in Heaven, on earth or in the sea. The result was the widespread destruction of religious art in Scotland in the decades of violence around the Reformation of the 1550s, and another wave accompanying the religious wars of the 1630s and 1640s.

Even though the directness of Bonkil’s vision, unmediated by any priest or saint, is closer to Protestant doctrine than much Renaissance art, the altarpiece was still deemed unacceptable. The central panel, which would probably have shown Jesus and Mary, was destroyed. It seems what spared the rest of the Trinity altarpiece was the depiction of the king and queen on two panels: it was acceptable to destroy images of God, but defacing royalty was another matter, something no monarch would allow.

Iconoclasm was not a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, with similar violence occurring in the Netherlands and Germany – another reason why Flemish art is now less well known than that of Italy, which survived intact under unbroken Catholic rule. In recent years many artists have called for the total destruction of the art of the past, most famously the Futurists and Dadaists in the early 20th century. But this most radical act of art criticism was carried out to establish a very different form of utopia, one founded not on aesthetics but direct contact with God.

The final indignity suffered by the altarpiece and its church was not due to religion, but commerce and development: in 1848 Trinity Church was demolished to make room for Edinburgh’s new Waverley Railway Station, its decorations removed, and Mary of Gueldres reburied at Holyrood. Shortly before its destruction, it was photographed by the pioneering Edinburgh photographers Hill and Adamson. There were plans to rebuild the church elsewhere but these were only partly realised.

The altarpiece is now owned by the Queen but loaned to National Gallery of Scotland. Its journey from Belgium to Scotland and its near destruction at the hands of the religious extremism that ran through much of Northern Europe both add to its story as the first great work of Scottish painting. Of course, in one way it is not particularly Scottish, yet it shows not only the Scottish royal family with their symbols but also an enterprising Scottish patron whose internationalism has remained a theme of Scottish art throughout the centuries.

It might have gone to Italy like the Portinari altarpiece, but its great differences from that work do probably reflect a Scottish sensibility or at least show its patron Sir Edward Bonkil’s personal ideas on religion and art. It carries in its missing panel a sign of all that is lost, but its remaining panels show the ambition and openness of Renaissance Scotland. It is these reasons, and this history, as much as its extraordinary skill, that mark it as great Scottish art.

Hugo van der Goes, The Trinity Altarpiece, c. 1478-79.
Oil on panel, each panel 202 x 100 cm.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Image source.