Rain on Princes Street (1913) captures the atmosphere of a busy shopping street in Edinburgh, and the faces glimpsed in the crowd. It also shows an artist’s glimpse of modernism, before he cast the youthful experimentation behind him to become one of Scotland’s most distinguished portraitists and arts administrators.
Born in Kirkwall, Orkney, his father a merchant, Stanley Cursiter (1887–1976) studied at Kirkwall Burgh School where he was friends with the writer Edwin Muir (poet, novelist, and translator of Kafka). After school Cursiter moved to Edinburgh, where he worked for printers McLagan & Cumming, and attended Edinburgh College of Art. In 1913 he was greatly impressed by Futurism, organising the only Scottish exhibition of the controversial artistic school that worshipped the new and hated the old. In the words of its chief theorist F T Marinetti “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness”, destroying museums to create an art founded on “courage, audacity and revolt.”
In World War I, Cursiter was injured at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and invalided out of active service. After the war he worked as a designer, before taking up a series of roles with Scottish galleries and other public bodies: Secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy, first Secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, Keeper of the National Galleries of Scotland, and Director of the National Galleries from 1930 until 1948, when he moved back to Stromness in Orkney. From 1948 he was King’s (and later the Queen’s) Painter and Limner for Scotland (the monarch’s official painter) until his death in 1976.
Rain on Princes Street (1913) was painted while Cursiter was in his mid 20s, heavily under the influence of art from the Continent and London: cubism, Futurism, Vorticism. It shows us Edinburgh’s leading shopping street, where the lights are bright but the weather is cold and grey and wet. The geometric shapes of umbrellas dominate the painting. It is not a realistic painting even in comparison to that more famous brolly-centric scene in modern art, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-85), still less Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877). Fragments of faces – dark eyes and bold lips – are overlaid on the umbrellas but these are not realistic depictions of people, any more than they are realistic depictions of umbrellas. It is all just segments and the glimpse of a face, details flashing past in the crowd.
Above, white electric lights almost explode in the sky. Below, the pavement shimmers with lights reflected in the wet road surface. As a vision of the modern city, this is the equal of anything coming out of Paris or Berlin. Was Cursiter as he hurried to do is shopping at Jenner’s or Maule’s department stores, stopped short by a beautiful woman’s face glimpsed in the crowd, only for her to vanish in a tangle of brollies and never to see her again?
Shopping was becoming a matter of fragments in a crowd. No longer would people shop exclusively in their neighbourhoods; shopping in the big department stores was a personal experience in which one inspected goods and made a private decision, rather than negotiating with a tradesman who lived locally and whom one knew well. Instead of repeated social interaction, shopping was a series of casual encounters, of looking at both objects and people with the impersonal eye of the prospective purchaser. The rain only adds to the fragmentation, to the desire to keep moving, to the personal space of the umbrella. It is far from the cosy, communal scenes of craftsmen and cottages that dominated early 19th century genre painting. In the rainy shopping street, every person carries their own roof.
1913 saw a flourishing of similar techniques in other of Cursiter’s works, such as The Regatta. The subject of yachts in harbour is hardly unusual (and as artists moved increasingly to places like St Ives it would become even more common). But Cursiter’s approach is modern and semi-abstract. The triangular shape of sails dominate this work; the people at the front are reduced to simple patches of colour, repeating in a line – a pattern of red and white stripes is all that is needed to evoke a sailor’s striped shirt. Again he communicates excitement and bustle, lots of boats in close proximity shifting about on the water, and all the seafarers and society people there to see them.
But Cursiter’s glimpse of modernist art was soon forgotten; Duncan Macmillan’s history of Scottish art called it “a brief flirtation with futurism”. In his Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti declared “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world.” So was it more than a coincidence that the start of World War One was the end of Cursiter’s futurist phase?
That is not to say his later work was bad. The landscapes are striking, but more unusual is his 1925 self-portrait Chez Nous, depicting him with his wife Phyllis Eda Hourston and his model Poppy Low. It shows a similar interest in the texture of a wet Edinburgh street, and ably conjures up a much quieter evening atmosphere. While it may function as a calling card for his skills as a painter – in much the same way as the self-portraits of Durer or Rembrandt – it is still a thoughtful and enigmatic work showing great skill at the representation of different textures with oil paint.
Later his work was much more old-fashioned still. As the Queen’s official painter in Scotland, he painted Her Majesty The Queen receiving the Honours of Scotland in 1953. He produced scenes of Orkney his whole life and as both Limner for Scotland and a proud Orcadian in 1960 he limned HM Queen Elizabeth II outside St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. He also designed St Rognvald Chapel in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall in 1965, which is decorated with carvings of Rognvald (or Ronald) Kale Kolsson, 12th century Earl of Orkney and Shetland and the founder of St Magnus’.
His honours included membership of Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland. In 1927 he became an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, and a full member in 1937. He had received a military OBE in 1919, for developing a new technique of mapmaking, but was given a CBE in 1948 for his services to the arts. He is buried in Finstown west of Kirkwall.
Orkney is an ancient and beautiful place, surrounded by treacherous seas and home to extraordinary stone age buildings and megaliths. It’s a long way from there to his brief role bringing the European avant-garde to Scotland, and back again. Yet he seemed to find in the savage, ever-changing waters of Orkney something of the same restless energy as the modern city full of electric lights and hurrying shoppers.
Stanley Cursiter, Rain on Princes Street, 1913.
Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm.
McManus Art Gallery & Museum, Dundee.