The Story of Scottish Art


In the BBC4 documentary, ‘The Story of Scottish Art’, artist Lachlan Goudie explores the last 5oo years of Scottish art in four episodes, taking us to Italy, Rome as well as Scotland on his ‘artistic pilgrimage’.

The series starts with the Neolithic world of Orkney and the Ring of Brodgar, the ‘cultural point of contact with the stars.’ The second episode is on one of the most exciting times in the history of art, the age of enlightenment. Here Goudie’s passion for his Scottish heritage is especially poignant and this is encapsulated in the fact that there is a great deal more momentum in comparison to the previous episode.

Goudie presents with zest and enthusiasm about the work and lives of some of the most celebrated Scottish artists such as Allan Ramsey, Henry Raeburn and David Willkie. Inspiration was sought in the Highlands in 18th century Scotland, as it was associated with romanticism, heroism and grandeur. However, many Scottish artists had their eyes opened when exposed to the philosophy and Avant-garde experimentalism of their European counterparts, such as Italy. The polarity must have inspired creative individuals immensely, triggering a wave of romantics and philosophers, who emerged ‘blinking into the sunlight,’ ‘intoxicated by what they saw, ’and driven to express their love of culture onto canvas.’

When listening to Gaudie, it is hard to dispute the intrinsic importance of understanding the lives of these artists in order to have a full appreciation of their art. Scottish artists such as Allan Ramsey and Henry Raeburn travelled to Rome where ‘their imaginations would be released’ and they were transfixed with the depiction of the ‘privilege, bravado and brilliance.’

However, I find that the works of David Willkie, a son of a minister in the parish of Cults in Fife, the most memorable and poignant in this episode. Where Intellectuals, philosophers and writers had taken centre stage, Willkie painted markets, card players, and village festivals, presenting everyday life as a soap opera.

He focussed on provincial life and recorded exactly what occurred in front of his eyes with quick sketches, which he would transform into his well-known masterpieces. The wealthy aristocrats who would view and buy Willkie’s work were fascinated by what they saw as they were used to sombre paintings of their peers, but instead saw the hustle and bustles of everyday life, with little grandeur, but with contentment and humour.

Willkie wanted the people that he painted to be shown more respect than the standard subjects of the time, mostly depicting them in good humour despite their poverty.

‘Restraining the rent’ has a serious message and shows a domestic issue with English law. Bailiffs appear to be seizing a man’s possessions, with no visible reason, villainising the landlords, and victimising a whole family. The drama shown is panoramic, epic, so that people were forced to look and to pay attention to Willkie’s message, a demand for respect and dignity for all, no matter their status.

Willkie’s own turmoil may have be a driving force in producing such works; the heat of his emotion would sear through some of his paintings and be transcribed onto a canvas, portraying the sadness of a troubled artist.

‘John Know dispensing the sacrament at Calder house’ (c.1840) is an unfinished painting by Willkie displayed in the Scottish National Gallery. The fact that it is unfinished gives it a beautiful rawness, a charm and individuality. You are aware of the artist and not just the artwork in front of you as the technique the artist has implemented can be seen with the outlines of the painting. It has a modern feel to it, a more simplistic stripped back image rather than a rich, embellished painting.

‘The History of Scottish Art’ is available on BBC iPlayer

Image by Jeff Barnes via Flickr Creative Commons



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