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.