ART AND CULTURE IN
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY SCOTLAND

A study of the emergence of a particular kind of
Scottish cultural consciousness in the years
after the Union of 1707.
Preface
Introduction
Setting the Scene
The Artists
Index

 

THE PRACTISING ARTISTS
Painters and poets in eighteenth-century Edinburgh.

William Aikman, as a portraitist, is known primarily as a prime painter of men rather than women, whom he generally painted long-necked and oval-faced. His men are "seen with a clear eye, well understood and recorded with a firm hand."[5] Duncan MacMillan, in talking about the portrait "Lord President Sir Hew Dalrymple" of 1722, said that it has "a kind of restrained clarity and directness that are a reminder of the importance of the Dutch tradition in Scotland." Aikman's first master, however, was Flemish-Spaniard called John de Medina. After the Scottish painter George Jamesone died in 1644, there had been no real successor in terms of skill until the arrival in Scotland of Medina in the late seventeenth century. He came to a prosperous practice in portraiture, and more importantly, he took in Aikman as a pupil. Aikman, who was to become the first major Scottish painter of the eighteenth century, was from Angus where his family had a small estate. He was destined for law, but decided on painting and so went in with the later Sir John de Medina. After three years with the older man, Aikman sold some land that he owned and, on the proceeds, went to Rome, Constantinople and Syrian, returning to Scotland in 1712. During the next ten years he built up technique and a practice in Edinburgh. It has been said that rather than following closely Aikman was "reacting against the baroque"[6] in Medina's style.

A portrait painted at the same time as "Lord President Sir Hew Dalrymple", was of John, Duke of Argyll, which now hangs in Holyroodhouse. In 1723 Argyll persuaded the artist to travel to London, where he set up a studio in Leicester Fields. It was then that Aikman became part of the London Society, and met the literary characters of the time. It is through William Aikman that we see the start of the affinity between painters, poets, writers and philosophers that is inseparable in an account of eighteenth century Scots culture, and through him that we introduce one of the key figures in that association, his good friend, the poet Allan Ramsay.

Allan Ramsay was sent to Edinburgh from Lanarkshire in 1700 to become an apprentice wig-maker. Soon he gave up wig-making for bookselling and his famous shop became a centre and meeting-place for men of literature, as well as possibly the first circulating library in the British Isles. Ramsay formed the Easy Club, for young men interested in literature, which, because of the political climate of Edinburgh in the years after the Union of 1707, was nationalist and even Jacobite in sympathies. It was in this club that Ramsay was first encouraged to write his poetry in Scots. His work was to become seminal and influenced Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns, and an influence can be traced from Ramsay's Scots poems to the twentieth century and the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. It has been said of Ramsay that his "activities as poet and editor link the late mediaeval with the modern phases of literary Scots".[7] One of Ramsay's most famous publications was the 1725 "The Gentle Shepherd", later to be illustrated by both David Allan and David Wilkie.

Allan Ramsay's political nationalist feelings were shared by many Scots, as the Treaty of Union had cast a shadow of gloom in the Edinburgh of the early decades of the eighteenth century. Although the Union was to have beneficial results, these effects were not to be seen for over half a century. After 1707 foreign trade declined, and Westminster imposed salt duty and linen tax, not good for Scottish commerce, and the desertion of representative peers and members of Parliament to London caused internal trade to suffer also. Many great families, who had brought prosperity to Edinburgh, joined the exodus to London. In "The Gentle Shepherd", Ramsay wrote of Roger, one of the shepherds, complaining to one of his employers:

"Is not our master and yoursell to stay
Amang us here? Or, are ye gawn away
To London court, or ither far-aff parts,
To leave your ain poor us with broken hearts?"
With English statesmen boasting that they had "bought the Scots", and continual frustration at seemingly restrictive legislation, it is understandable that there was a certain amount of Anglophobia in Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, as can be seen in the 1745 uprising. The fear of Scottish identity dying out would have been heightened by such acts as the closing of Allan Ramsay's theatre in Carrubber's Place, Edinburgh. The theatre opened in 1736, but because of a licensing act of 24 June 1737 which forbade the performance of plays for gain outside London, the venture was short-lived. Also, Ramsay had to fight for two years against the Presbytery's efforts to close the theatre, but he lost money on it and gave up.

Many poets, painters, antiquaries and generally members of the semi-intellectual society believed that the way to hold on to a national consciousness was to hold on to the people's culture, the folk traditions of the nation. The attitude to popular music is indicative of attitudes towards the national culture of the eighteenth century. In the early decades, Allan Ramsay and another contemporary poet, James Watson, published their collections of verse with "oddments of folk-song and folk-song intimations", and this would, as Alexander Keith says, assume a certain "circumscribing of the nation's acquaintance with the nation's minstrelsy".

Later in the century, quite a few "interested persons" like David Herd, the noted antiquarian, collected Scottish song and published their collections. Professor Bertrand Harris Bronson, author of "Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads", has said that ".... It is a fact that what we today know as British balladry at its best is a mass of texts taken down by interested persons from living Scottish tradition in the latter half of the eighteenth century, or learned then and transmitted to print or manuscript early in the following century."[8] The folk-song tradition comes into Ramsay's "Gentle Shepherd", in which he includes music for his songs, although in most cases, Ramsay's songs are inferior to the original folk-songs from which they stem. In effect, they are, as William Montgomerie says, "bad imitations which have failed to become good art songs", and Ramsay's words to the music seem heavy-footed and clumsy beside the simple excellence of the folk-song. An example which Montgomerie gives is a folk-song which begins:

"Hey trafuddle, trafuddle
And hey trafuddle trafyk;
I cud kiss a young lassie
Doon at the back o' the dyke."
and becomes in "The Gentle Shepherd":
"Duty, and part of reason,
Plead strong on the parent's side
Which love no superior calls treason;
The strongest must be obeyed."
However, credit must be given to Ramsay for continuing the work begun by James Watson in his "Choice Collection", and for making his fellow-countrymen aware of a Scottish tradition by publishing "The Ever Green" in 1724. It was in the preface of this book that he spoke in defiance of "affected delicacies and studied refinements", and spoke the first words of warning that the traditional culture of Scotland was in danger of being swamped by a European culture. He urged people not to be ashamed of the lack of court grace and sophistication of their forefathers and their folk-heritage, but rather to celebrate the indigenous traditions as being their own. He wrote about early Scots poets and balladeers, that "...when these good old bards wrote, we had not yet made use of imported trimmings upon our cloaths, nor of foreign embroidery in our writings. Their poetry is the product of their own country, not pilfered and spoiled in the transportation from abroad: their images are native, and their landskips domestick, copied from those fields and meadows we every day behold."[9] Ramsay, like Fergusson later, was protesting directly against modern Italian and French affectations, and made a significant contribution to preserving a Scottish tradition against an incoming tide of a European one.

RamsayRamsay's eldest son Allan Ramsay, named after himself, was to become in many people's eyes, the greatest portrait painter of the eighteenth century. The young Ramsay's early training was due to his father's encouragement, as the poet was interested all his life in the visual arts, and it is likely that he had some ability in drawing as well. A friend of Ramsay's was Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, a great patron of the arts, and who gave important commissions to many Scottish painters, including Alexander Runciman's Ossianic series at his home in Penicuik.

It was not merely as father of the famous portraitist, and as a friend of painters and patrons of the arts that Allan Ramsay's role in eighteenth century painting is important. In 1729 Ramsay helped to found a school of drawing and painting, The Academy of St. Luke, that saint being the patron saint of painting, and it was in that year that Allan Ramsay junior made his first known attempt at portraiture, his father as model.

The literary surroundings in which the painter Ramsay was brought up had a great influence on him, and he published essays throughout his career. It is possible, however, that Ramsay studied decorating and house-painting under James Norie, a friend of his father, before studying at the Academy of St. Luke. In 1734 Ramsay was in London, and studied for a few months at the studio of Hans Hysing, the Swedish portrait painter, and at the Academy in St. Martin's Lane, run by Hogarth. His London period is, however, of little importance compared to his experience in Italy.

Ramsay made his Grand Tour with Alexander Cunyngham, a friend of the Ramsays, in 1736, and stayed in Rome until 1738. There he studied under Francesco Imperiale and Solimena in Naples. Both artists represented the end of classical Baroque of the seventeenth century, and Imperiale was admired and collected by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, who probably suggested to Ramsay that he should study under him. The subject matter of his teachers' paintings would not have influenced him, both being religious and history painters, but the style, technique and colour that he could learn from had a marked influence on his early portraiture.

Ramsay started to draw immediately he arrived in Rome, at the French academy under Vlenghels, and his drawings of the nude at this time show him as a "diligent and observant student, rapidly gaining anatomical knowledge"[10] which was to be essential in his subsequent career. Ramsay studied the Old Masters and copied works by his teachers. There are more Ramsay drawings existing than from any other eighteenth century Scottish portraitist, and their quality proves his strength as a draughtsman, and as "the best British portrait draughtsman of the century".[11]

During the seventeen forties and fifties, Ramsay can be seen "equally successful in a style of polished elegance on the one hand and of extreme simplicity on the other".[12] Johnathan Richardson, in an essay on "The Theory of Painting" had written that, as in the Italian school of painting, "the business of painting is not only to represent nature, and to make the best choice of it, but to raise and improve it from what is commonly or rarely seen, to what never was, or will be in fact, though we might easily conceive it might be". Ramsay, I believe, would not have agreed with Richardson's "rules" for painting, and in his essays he observes the dangers of following the proposition. In his "Dialogue on Taste", Ramsay writes about poetry, and rejects the "absurd metaphysics" of Spenser and the Jacobeans, which "instead of representations of truth and the real existence of things", treated of the exploits of impossible beings in an impossible world. His attitude to the place of simplistic realism in painting may be inferred from these remarks on poetry. Ramsay's portraits are celebrated for their resemblance to nature, and their unstudied simplicity suggests an attitude similar to one held by seventeenth century Dutch painters, the "protestant" philosophy of individual dignity overriding wealth and status. Ramsay's portraits were by no means Dutch portraits, however; this philosophy had become installed in Scottish life, and had by Ramsay's time become personal to Scotland, so that the directness and humanity of his painting show Ramsay as the first Scottish master of direct informal portrait.

After his return from Rome, Ramsay resided chiefly in London, where his reputation as a portrait painter became considerable. He was introduced to George III, whose portrait he painted both in whole length and in profile, and he painted several of the most distinguished of his countrymen. He was appointed principal painter to the king in March 1767, but he had to retire from painting in 1775, having shattered his arm in an accident. Ramsay died in Dover in August 1784, returning to Britain from Rome.

As has been seen, Ramsay possessed considerable literary taste, and was the founder of the "Select Society" of Edinburgh in 1754, of which all the eminently learned men of that capital were members. David Hume, the celebrated historian and philosopher, Dr. Adam Smith, distinguished writer on morals and political economy, Alexander Wedderburn, Earl of Rosslyn and distinguished lawyer, and Dr. Alexander Carlyle, an accomplished Presbyterian divine were, along with Ramsay, founder members, although five years later the membership had swelled to a hundred and fifty. The aims of the society were to promote "literary discussions, philosophical enquiry, and improvement in public speaking".[13] The Society was one of numerous philosophical and literary societies of Edinburgh.

A pupil of Allan Ramsay was David Martin (1737-97), who joined him in 1752, and went to Italy with him from 1755 to 1757, but at a time when he was too young to receive much advantage from the visit. He was Ramsay's main assistant as drapery painter and copyist, which was probably his only training. On his return to England, he attended the drawing academy in St Martin's Lane, and obtained some premiums for drawings after life. He built a practice in London, but in the mid 1780's he settled in Edinburgh, where he was the leading portraitist for about fifteen years, until Henry Raeburn appeared the scene. It must be noted that apart from Medina and Raeburn, Martin was the only eighteenth century portraitist who was able to stay in Edinburgh and gain financial success from his practice. David Martin forms an important link between Ramsay and Raeburn, although failing to near the heights of quality of either. Although Martin was chosen for a portrait of Sir James Pringle of Stitchell for the Royal Company of Archers over Raeburn, this was probably because he was an Archer himself and had painted before, "James Ochoncar, Master of Forbes", which used similar light and shade to Ramsay's portrait of Rousseau.

Ten years after Allan Ramsay was in Rome, Gavin Hamilton, a descendant of the family of Murdieston and a distinguished painter, went to Rome for the first time. Apart from brief returns to Scotland, Hamilton spent virtually the rest of his life there, dying in 1775. With the exception of a few portraits, like two full lengths of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, he devoted himself entirely to historical painting, his major preoccupation being with a series of paintings depicting the Iliad, and at one time in Rome, there was perhaps only one other artist who was painting in the new neo-classicist style. Although Hamilton painted at least one historical painting with a Scottish subject, "Mary, Queen of Scots' Abdication," I believe that as he was divorced from Scotland for most of his life, he was more a part of a new European movement in art that one which could be said to be Scottish. Hamilton saturated himself with classicality, and his paintings are intensely theatrical and must commend themselves as great works to devotees of that style of art, but they are far from the "representations of truth and the real existence of things" attitude of the new Scottish painters, started perhaps by Ramsay.

David Allan (1744-96) was a pupil of Hamilton in Italy, and he studied there for sixteen years. Allan was born in Alloa, and was sent to the Foulis Academy of Painting and Engraving when he was eleven years old, where he remained for seven years. After Rome, he received the gold medal given by the Academy of St. Luke in 1775, for an historical painting called "The Origin of Painting", a painting of a Corinthian maid drawing the shadow of her lover. In 1769 however, he had begun to break new ground with "Evening Amusements" and started genre painting, and a visual documentation of eighteenth century Scottish social history. On his return to Scotland, Allan needed casual patronage for a living, but then from 1786 onwards he was salaried as Master of the Trustees Drawing Academy in Edinburgh. In a letter of 1780 he defines his whole new field of interest never before opened up in Scotland, the recording of the customs and daily life of the people. He writes: "I have painted at Athole for myself a Highland dance as a companion to the Neopolitan, but the Highland is the most picturesque and curious". Other subjects at this time were "Highland Wedding", "Penny Wedding" and "Catechisms in a Scottish Church".

Allan made many sketches as illustrations of Scottish songs, which eventually appeared in published collections by Thomson, Alexander Campbell, James Hogg and Motherwell, and some also appeared independently in a book called "Twenty-five Etchings by David Allan Illustrative of Scottish Songs". Also in the 1788 edition of "The Gentle Shepherd" by the poet Allan Ramsay, he provided etchings which came from sketches drawn around Penicuik, the supposed scenery of "The Gentle Shcpherd".

In 1793, someone inspired Allan to illustrate Burns, and it is known that Burns wrote to Alan Cunningham, saying: "Do you know Allan? He must be a man of great genius. Why is he not more known? Has he no patrons?... He is the only artist who has hit genuine pastoral costume." His illustrations for the "Cottar's Saturday Night", along with other genre illustrations earned him the title of the Scottish Hogarth, and like Hogarth, beauty, grace and grandeur, either of individual outline and form, or of style, constitute no part of his merit. He was hardly a Raphael or a Michaelangelo, but his characteristic talent lay in the expression of nature with truth and humour. Allan was essentially a vernacular artist, and as Basil Skinner says, "with a considerable sense of fun he recorded the ordinary people of his time doing ordinary things". Ramsay used his skill as a draughtsman to build a kind of portraiture that upholds the values of protestant individualism, but with Allan, though he studied in Italy, he had the boldness to devote his genius to the illustration of Scottish life, and painted such scenes as would have made the classic Hamilton shudder.

FergussonIn poetry, Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) was also recording common people, and according them the dignity of individuals. Fergusson walked to Edinburgh from Aberdeenshire, and got a job as a writer or copyist, a Commissary Clerk, a poorly paid job. He soon had a body of friends, Bohemians and others, including William Woods, star of the Theatre Royal, and later a friend of Burns. In 1769, he wrote some songs for his friend Tenducci's opera "Artaxerxes", and in 1771 began to contribute verses to Ruddiman's "Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement". These poems were in English and generally not very good, being just exercises in the style of the period. Fergusson soon realised this and in January 1772 in Ruddiman's appeared the excellent "The Daft Days", a poem in Scots, about the celebrations of New Year in Edinburgh town. "The Daft Days" made Fergusson popular overnight all over Scotland, and many people sought the company and wit of the "celebrated Robert Fergusson".

The following year, Ruddiman's published a small volume of poetry at 2s 6d, and it is said that the poet made fifty pounds from it, a vast amount then, and proof of his popularity. Now, however, weaknesses began to appear in the form of unreasonable depression. He retired to the country for peace of mind, but it appears to have been a failure, as his journey turned out to be similar to the drunken riots which had been so much part of his life in Edinburgh, and soon he returned to the capital, and to the "horrors of melancholy".[14] Once he accosted Woods, his old friend, and told him excitedly that he had discovered one of those who had crucified our Saviour. Soon he withdrew from company with feelings of remorse and guilt for his idle life, and was almost despairing. Unable to sleep, he stopped writing, burned his manuscripts and read nothing but the Bible. One evening his gloom lifted and he shared a glass with his old friends, but he fell down some stairs and became violent. Eventually, raving, he was removed to the madhouse, where at the age of twenty-four, he died, leaving only about thirty Scots poems and some fifty English poems.

Robert Burns, at a low point in his career, found a volume of Fergusson, which gave him new vigour and encouragement. He often paid tribute, and wrote in his copy of Fergusson's poems:

"O thou, my elder brother in Misfortune,
By far my elder Brother in the muse".
and it was Burns who arranged for a tombstone to be put over the humble grave of the poet.

It has been said that the fundamental quality in Fergusson's poetry is gaiety with melancholy undercurrents, and Henley wrote that "Fergusson was essentially an Edinburgh product...the old Scots capital, gay, squalid, drunken, lettered, venerable, lives in his verses." Fergusson was "appalled at the depth of ignominy to which Scotland had sunk since the Union". He was fiercely patriotic and frustratedly so, as he was too late to be a Jacobite. In "The Ghaists" he writes:

"Black be the day that e'er to England's ground
Scotland was eikit by the Union's bond;"

This sort of Anglophobic prejudice and almost xenophobic limitation was to grown into the "crippling inferiority complex that has provincialised Scottish life and thought since the Union",[15] symbolized by David Hume's list of Scotticisms to be avoided, and Dugald Stewart's approval of Burns' elocution. Fergusson's poetry was essentially about ordinary people and events, through which often his political stance came through, but he drew strength from popular traditions in music and poetry for his "central beliefs as a poet", as Duncan MacMillan has pointed out.

Fergusson was a keen singer of Scottish songs. His friend Cornforth Gilson, a teacher of music at Heriot's Hospital, and responsible for improving the church music in Edinburgh, said of Fergusson that he was a fine singer of Scots songs, and "the best singer of 'The Birks at Invermay' I ever heard". Gilson and Fergusson were fellow members of the Cape Club, which met every night to drink beer and porter and to indulge in conversation, music and song. The club was typical of the period, with the initiation ceremony, grasping a poker and making an oath "so help me poker". The members had amusing pseudonyms, thus making up the Knights of the Cape. Fergusson was Sir Precenter, because of his fine singing voice, and other members were called Sir Brinstone, Sir Macaroni, Sir Scrape Graysteil, Sir Sobersides and many others. Sir Brimstone was the painter Alexander Runciman, a good friend of Fergusson and who painted his portrait and used him as a model for historical paintings. Later members of the Cape Club were Alexander Nasmyth, landscape painter, Sir Henry Raeburn, portraitist and Deacon Brodie, the famous exciseman who was hanged for burglary! Another member of the Cape, and a friend of Fergusson and Runciman, was David Herd, the antiquarian and folk-song collector, to whom Sir Walter Scott refers in his introduction to "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border", when he calls him "the editor of the first classical collection of Scottish songs and ballads." Fergusson, Herd and Runciman all played important parts in the preservation of Scottish culture, Runciman helping to form the Society of Antiquaries, and holding the title of 'Historical Painter to the Antiquaries'. Runciman drew and etched historical buildings which were to be demolished and the feeling of history, probably felt by most members of the Cape, was extended to language, genealogy, the collections of ballads and music. Hamish Henderson, a twentieth century folk-song collector, writes: "...when we explored rural Perthshire and Aberdeenshire in search of songs...one could easily recreate in one's mind the roisterous eighteenth century folk scene of David Herd, Robert Fergusson and their fellow Knights of the Cape, and enter a goliardic world of the imagination not unlike that smokey Anchor Close Howff in Auld Reekie which housed the Crochallan Fencibles".[16]

This was during the great age of tavern clubs in Edinburgh. It was before the advent of the New Town, and so there was a terrible shortage of housing in the crowded city, many lodgings being only two rooms. The prosperity produced by the Union of Parliaments had now reached the people, but the ability to have social evenings at one's home was limited. The social life of Edinburgh, therefore, was in the clubs and societies, of which there were many, and writers, poets, painters and people from all walks would meet regularly for conversation, music and drink. Henley, the orator, wrote: "... (Edinburgh) was a centre of conviviality, a city of clubs and talk and good-fellowship, a city of harlotry and high-jinks, a city (above all) of drink". Earlier mention has been made of Ramsay's Easy Club, and when Burns lived in Edinburgh, he joined the Crochallan Fencibles. There were a number of comic clubs like the Dirty Club, where no member could appear in clean linen, The Bonnet Lairds, who wore blue bonnets, or the Pious Club, which met in a pie-house.

Most of the tavern clubs spent part of their evening together singing, a reminder that the inhabitants of Scotland were very fond of simple music, and the kind of verse that goes with it. The songs that were introduced into the opera "Artaxerxes" were Scots airs with words specially written by Fergusson. This shows that Fergusson was not only interested in the performances of traditional Scots melodies, but also in keeping the tradition alive through his own medium, poetry. Boswell played on his flute to the natives of Corsica "some of our beautiful old Scots tunes", and Burns "southing" his lyrics to "old Scottish airs".[17] David Allan illustrated and published many Scottish songs and dances, and Henry Raeburn's portrait of the celebrated fiddler Neil Gow "makes an heroic image of a man who has no social status but only his talents to commend him".[18] The artists "celebrates the strength and simplicity of Scots music as they are presented in the person of Gow".

Raeburn 1Henry Raeburn was the first truly independent Scottish painter; he spent almost all of his life in Scotland and nearly all of his sitters were Scots. Aikman, Jeremiah Davison, a contemporary of Aikman, and Ramsay spent most of their careers in London, other Scots painters made success overseas, and even David Martin of whom mention has been made spent many years in a London practice before settling in Edinburgh in the mid 1780's.

Raeburn was born in Stockbridge, a suburb of Edinburgh, in 1756, and after he lost both of his parents while yet young, he received his education at Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, and began to amuse himself by making miniature drawings. His master was astonished by these, and took him to see the paintings of David Martin. Martin receiving him courteously and lending him several pictures to copy. When his apprenticeship expired, Raeburn became professionally a portrait painter and, after a journey to Rome which lasted two years, he established himself in Edinburgh, where he soon rose to the head of his profession in Scotland, an eminence which he maintained to the end of his life. In 1815 the Royal Academy of London chose him as an academician, and when George IV visited Edinburgh, he knighted Raeburn. The last pictures on which Raeburn was working were two portraits of Sir Walter Scott, one for himself, and the other for Lord Montague. He died on July 8, 1823.

Raeburn 2Raeburn painted the portraits of many of the most eminent of his contemporaries in Scotland, and his likenesses are generally regarded as "most striking and exact". They are painted with a freedom, vigour and dignity which were not excelled. His style is free and bold, his drawing "critically correct", and his colours are rich, deep and harmonious. It is said that Raeburn took his tone of colour from Runciman's portraits, which are "remarkable for their simple dignity and truth".[19] Again we have a master of direct, simple portraiture with human dignity deriving from the artist's respect for the individuality of his sitter. Duncan MacMillan, in talking about Raeburn's portrait of Neil Gow, says that "through Neil Gow, Raeburn has given visible form to the qualities in the popular tradition from which Fergusson and Burns drew strength",[20] and it is by according the same dignity to a player of popular music as to an earl or a viscount that Raeburn retains a quality that had been almost inherent in Scottish painting since Allan Ramsay. This quality is also in the poetry of Fergusson, Burns, and to a lesser degree, Ramsay.

BurnsAlexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) was another pupil of Allan Ramsay, who released him from his apprenticeship in heraldry. After four years in Ramsay's London Studio, Nasmyth returned to Edinburgh and took "with him the kindest good wishes of his master". He set himself up as a portrait painter and had ample employment, but in 1782 he went to Italy "determined to follow landscape painting", and stayed about two years before returning to Edinburgh. Nasmyth painted a full length portrait of Robert Burns, with whom he formed a close friendship. Edinburgh in the 1790's was in a state of unrest. The causes of the French Revolution were discussed, and the similar plight of Scottish industrial and agricultural workers was recognised. Nasmyth counted himself with the radical left, and as Edinburgh was under the reign of the Dundas family at this time, who had different opinions, his income from portrait painting dwindled, as nobody dared speak against the authority of the Dundas family. Another reason for this happening was the fact that Henry Raeburn had arrived on the scene, and so Nasmyth's last known major portrait commission was in 1792.

Edinburgh was now more important as a cultural centre, and Nasmyth took classes and trained professional artists in a large painting room in a house which he had built for his growing family. There, he also trained ordinary men and women in the basic skills of sketching and painting. The artist himself had turned to landscape painting, inspired by Lorraine, and he got commissions which involved the painting of a large country house in natural setting. At times he was even employed to make his patron's gardens and parks resemble his pictures of them. Nasmyth also took of scene-painting, a task which provided employment for many artists, and he contributed sixty illustrations for the 1821 edition of Sir Walter Scott's "Waverly Novels", and designed St. Bernard's Well.

Dr. Lewis, in Smollet's "Humphrey Clinker", said "Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius". Nasmyth was a part of this and played a role of fundamental importance to the artistic life of the time, teaching art classes, advising on architecture and landscaping, painting the Scottish theatrical scenery, portraits, and painting the Scottish landscape in a new and personal way. Personally he was an important member of the Edinburgh Society, encouraging casual callers at his home in the evenings and joining his fellow artists, writers, poets, lawyers, scientists and others in the tavern meetings of first the Cape, or Poker Club, and later the Dilettante Club.

Alexander Nasmyth and Henry Raeburn can be said to have been the last eighteenth century painters before we move on to the nineteenth century developments, and it is significant that both had contact with Sir Walter Scott and that Nasmyth became a good friend of Burns, as the association between painters and men of literature was particularly vital throughout the eighteenth century, and important to the development of a stable Scottish culture and a consciousness of folk traditions. At the beginning of the century, William Aikman painted his friend, the poet Allan Ramsay, and made friends with many poets and writers in London in the 1720's, among whom were Dean Swift and Alexander Pope, and others who lamented his death in eulogies and verse. The painter John Smibert was also a friend of Allan Ramsay, and also painted his portrait in 1717 and 1720. The poet Ramsay's son, the portraitist, was a poet and a man of great literary taste, publishing many papers during his career. Later, Alexander Runciman used his friend Robert Fergusson, the poet, as a model for his historical paintings, and both belonged to the famous Cape Club, later members of which were Sir Henry Raeburn and Alexander Nasmyth. Well-known and influential friendships existed between Nasmyth and Burns, and later the painter Sir David Wilkie and Sir Walter Scott. The eighteenth century had been fertile ground for a "unified cultural sensibility" and established the foundations of a truly Scottish school in painting, and left the way open for the successful developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


NOTES

Introduction Setting the Scene The Artists Index