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