The Scots invented everything

Narrow roads, lochs, mountains, the sea, and a pint. The road from Edinburgh to Iona is beautiful no matter the season.

Sheep ambling down to the pub at Fionnphort. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
I drove from Edinburgh to Fionnphort just three years ago. This year, I relaxed as others managed logistics. At the Green Welly, one of our party purchased a CD of traditional Scottish songs. Amazing Grace was the last tune, and we all sang as we climbed the last rise to Fionnphort harbor. Single-track roads in the UK can make an atheist pray.
The subtext of this week’s trip has been, “The Scots invented everything,” which seems very nearly true. The Scottish Enlightenmentwas part of a worldwide outpouring of ideas. In Scotland, that took a particularly practical bent. Their chief aim was improvement, virtue, and practical assistance. Matters like lighthouse design were not too plebian for Scotland’s greatest thinkers.
If you head to the Hebrides, you go on a boat operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. This company has been in operation since 1851, although it had a period of government ownership from 1973-2006. As with most ferries, it’s a monopoly. A ditty around here goes:
The Earth belongs unto the Lord
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and the Western Isles
And they are all MacBrayne’s.

Eilean Musdile light, designed by Robert Stevenson. Photo by Carol L. Douglas
Two waters intersect across a bar on the route of the Oban-to-Mull ferry. On either side, there’s a lighthouse standing atop a rock.  Eilean Musdile is the larger of these two. It stands at the mouth of Loch Linnhe and has a prehistoric standing stone as well as other ruins. Its lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1833.
The Stevensons are famous for their literary son, Robert Louis Stevenson, but they were known in their day as great lighthouse engineers. Robert Stevenson learned his trade from his stepfather Thomas Smith, an engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board. At the tender age of 19 he was entrusted to supervise the Clyde Lighthouse construction on Little Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde.
Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819, watercolor and gouache on paper, JMW Turner, courtesy Scottish National Gallery
His most famous work was the Bell Rock lighthouse. Balanced on a partly-submerged reef, its construction was risky and difficult. It was done so precisely that its masonry has endured for more than 200 years. Robert Stevenson invented the flashing lights that are still used on lighthouses. He also designed and built roads, bridges and other public structures.
In 1797, Stevenson married his step-sister. Three of their sons, Alan, David, and Thomas(RLS’ father), became lighthouse engineers as well. David’s sons carried the lighthouse business into the fourth generation.
Celtic cross on Iona, under last night’s waxing moon. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
Opposite Robert Stevenson’s Eilean Musdile light is the smaller Lady’s Rock, which is submerged at high tide except for its small lighthouse. This rock has a romantic Scottish tale attached to it. Lachlan Cattenach was a Maclean of Duarton nearby Mull. He was unable to father a boy and blamed his wife, Catherine. He left her on the rock to await the incoming tide, taking care that it should look like an accident.
Lachlan duly reported her death to her brother, the Earl of Argyll. Later, the earl invited Lachlan to supper, where the scoundrel found Catherine seated next to her brother at the high table. Lachlan was allowed to leave unharmed, but was later found murdered in Edinburgh.

The Golden Hour

My Edinburgh portrait is finished. Now I can head to Iona and some plein air, once again in the footsteps of the Scottish Colourists.
The Golden Hour, Carol L. Douglas. This isn’t a perfect photo, but is the best I could do at the time.
In some ways you might have found the execution of this painting brutally workmanlike. There was no flailing or fits of self-discovery; I save those for my own studio.
I started on Wednesday of last week. I laid down my brushes for the final time at 4:26 PM yesterday. That was exactly four minutes before I’d agreed to finish. Most of those days, I worked strictly from 9 to 5. The exception was Tuesday, when I overran my hours and worked until after sunset. But that wasn’t panic-painting; I simply needed more time for Poppy (the dog), who hadn’t figured in my original plan.
The client stated up front that he wouldn’t look at the painting until it was done. Indeed, he carefully averted his eyes whenever he entered the drawing room.
My worksite.

His only request was that the painting be in the manner of Francis Cadell. I studied a number of Cadell paintings over the winter. Once I entered the drawing room, however, I resolutely looked at no other paintings, except the James Morrisonlandscape peering over my shoulder. Morrison’s a terrific modern Scottish landscape painter and there are two of his paintings in this townhouse. It was a unique opportunity to study his work closely.

Interior with opera cloak, date unknown, Francis Cadell, courtesy Portland Gallery. This was painted just a few doors down from this townhouse.
I did see one Cadell painting at the preview for Bonhams’ Scottish Sale. But otherwise, I cloistered myself from other painters for the duration. Studying art while in the midst of an important painting muddies my vision.
We’d planned an unveiling for 4:30 yesterday. Yesterday, my client chipped a tooth and needed emergency dental work. By the time he came back, I’d cleaned up my kit and we’d returned the drawing room furniture to its usual places. He looked at the painting, made a brief, eloquent, and complimentary speech, and then turned back to spend more time with the piece. I can’t remember a word he said, but the model was happy, the patron engaged with the painting, and I breathed a great sigh of relief.
My client inspecting the finished work.
Someone asked me how I was able to estimate my time so precisely. Part of that comes from painting for a long time. I’m pretty certain how long it takes to finish a canvas. But part of that is also confidence—not in my own abilities, but in God. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Jesus famously asked. I get up every morning knowing that the God who has brought me this far intends to carry me through. That saves me a lot of worry and self-doubt.
I’m off to Ionain two hours and still have not packed. I first visited this island in 2016. Since then I’ve longed to return and paint its white sands and tropical aquamarine waters. This takes me, once again, in the footsteps of the Scottish Colourists. Here Cadell worked in a much looser style, as befits plein air, but on Iona I anticipate working in the manner of nobody but myself.

The servant stairs

My diet is in tatters but I’m on schedule with the portrait.
I spent most of my time yesterday moving the coffee table from place to place trying to make an interesting geometry of that bottom left corner.

Mary Killen tells the story of Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and his lifelong enmity to Colin Tennant. It began when Armstrong-Jones was told to go to the tradesmen’s entrance while photographing Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke. The two men had been at Eton together.

I’d assumed it was a story of injured amour-propre. This week I’ve spent some time on the servants’ stairs of a Georgian townhouse, and my sympathy for Lord Snowdon has increased (albeit marginally). I would not have enjoyed hefting the absurdly-heavy photography equipment of 1956 up and down those narrow stairs, skirting past the maids and footmen I ignored in everyday life.
I’ve rearranged the furniture, set up my easel, and otherwise made a terrible mess of the drawing room. That’s a James Morrison landscape overlooking my shoulder there; a happy omen, if you ask me.
The house in which I’m working has had many iterations since its construction. The main staircase, very grand, rises in a beautiful spiral from a first-floor vestibule. There is a modern staircase, added after the building served a stint as offices after World War 1, when the house was converted to flats. This staircase connects the first floor with the basement floors into a three-story unit. But in its original form, the public rooms of this house—the first floor, the piano nobile above it, and the bedrooms above that—were effectively sealed off from the tradesmen’s entrance by this lack of public staircase.
The only staircase which ran the height of the house was a stone one, intended for servants. Despite my familiarity with historical English novels, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until I’d trotted up and down them a dozen times.
It’s easy to feel how intimidated a homeowner would be at the idea of running down those service stairs to check on the operation of his own home (if such an outlandish idea had even occurred to him). The stone steps are set as far back as is possible without actually being in the garden, and they’re not easy on the feet. They are narrow and turn fast in their circular shaft. The humble historical housemaid must have had legs of steel.
I captured my subject briefly for a quick drawing and managed to make her look all of fifteen years old. The bones are right, however, and I’ll try again today.
The modern Scots who live in these terraced houses are more fit than their American cousins, with our easy, lazy two-story homes. The stone stairs are now the main stairs between the garden-level kitchen and the main rooms of the house. Our host, a man in his fifties, regularly trots up and down them. I’m working in a drawing room, and I’m not as strong as a Regency lady’s maid, so I recruited my husband to carry my easel and kit up for me.
This room is a symphony of indirect light and beautiful paneling. The setting is very lovely, but I don’t want to allow it to dwarf my subject. I spent the day carefully measuring and plotting my composition.
I’ve also managed, occasionally, to sit my subject down for some preliminary drawings. I’m afraid I’ll need a butterfly net and some duct tape to fully capture her. She’s a very energetic woman.
Then there is the city itself, which is hilly and congested. It was a foggy, rainy evening, and our hosts graciously took us to dinner. We took a cab there and walked home; the trips took the same length of time, and walking was frankly more pleasant.
I had Shetland scallops, served very differently from the bay scallops at home, with a dry white wine along the lines of a vinho verde. This was followed by a nightcap of a private cask single-malt whisky. My diet is in tatters but I’m feeling less guilty than you might think.

The Athens of the North

Edinburgh is a glorious medieval, Enlightenment, Victorian layer cake whipped up by canny Scots.

“The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,” and if a man can make a few dollars in the bargain, that’s all to the better, egh?

I defy anyone to sleep in the economy class of a modern airplane. My solution to the transatlantic night flight is to grit my teeth and suffer through the next day, allowing my body to recover at night. No, said my hostess. You’ll feel far better if you rest for a few hours and then restart. With childish stubbornness, I refused.

Instead I headed to the Greyfriars Art Shop on Dundas Street to collect my canvas. There I had trouble remembering the term white spirits, which is what the rest of the world calls mineral spirits. Mercifully, I recognized the Winsor & Newton bottle. “That!” I stammered. By the time I got to my bed, I was sinking fast.

Francis Cadell’s last house on Ainslie Place preserves the open plan of the original Moray Estate townhouses. This allowed the owner a view of neo-classicism to the front and ‘wilderness’ to the back. I peered intently, but didn’t see the mantle in front of which he painted Portrait of a Lady in Black

Three hours later, I awoke miraculously refreshed and quite happy. The sum total of my work toward my project was to take my model into the drawing room in which I will be working and discuss clothing, lighting, and the furniture. Then we took an amble.

Edinburgh’s New Town is the largest and best-preserved example of Georgian town planning in the UK. The severity of its terraces and monuments is offset by abundant green space, now budding out in green and frothed with bluebells and hawthorns. It will be my temporary home for the next week.
The New Town (as distinct from the medieval street plans of Old Town) was started in the second half of the 18th century. It is strictly neo-classical in design, in keeping with the intellectual fashion of the moment.

A back garden along the Water of Leith.

Edinburgh was the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was the distinctly Scottish version of an international outpouring of scientific and intellectual achievement. The Enlightenment as a whole affirmed the importance of human reason, and the Scottish form was practical in nature. It’s upon this that the Scottish reputation for invention and engineering is based.

Not only were Scottish achievements prized in their own right, but their principles were carried around the world, particularly to Canada and the United States. They’ve profoundly affected our material and economic culture to this day.
My own perambulations took me out through the back garden down to the Water of Leith, a small river that touches the city center at the New Town. Below me was the pump house for St. Bernard’s Well. Its name comes from the almost-certainly-spurious legend that the spring was first discovered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order in the 12th century. In 1760, it was conveniently rediscovered by three members of George Heriot’s School. At the time, ‘taking the waters’ was all the rage among the well-heeled, based on the example set in Bath.

Victorian Hygieia presides over the Georgian temple and purportedly-Medieval well.

With typical Scottish practicality, a new pump room and ornate structure were designed for St. Bernard’s Well and then marketed aggressively:

This water so healthful near Edinburgh doth rise
which not only Bath but Moffat outvies.
It cleans the intestines and an appetite gives
while morbific matters it quite away drives.
(Claudero, or James Wilson)

In 1884 the property was purchased by publisher William Nelson, who commissioned the statue of Hygieia and then gave the property to the city. It’s a capsule history of Edinburgh as a whole: medieval fable capped by an Enlightenment temple, with a Victorian diety overseeing it, all whipped together by a bunch of canny Scots with an eye to the main chance. Ah, what a glorious city!

Style versus substance

I wanna go north, east, south, west
Every which way, as long as I’m movin’…

My method of packing is to start with the important stuff, like vacuuming the floor joists in the basement. That’s excitement speaking. Like Ruth Brown, I’m happy as long as I’m moving. I’ve been home in Maine since February, when I went to Pecos, NM to paint with Jane Chapin. For my mid-Atlantic friends, the plein airseason has already started in earnest, whereas we in the north are just starting to believe the snow is finally behind us.
My current adventure started with a deceptively-simple question. Could I do a portrait “in the manner of Francis Cadell?” That the inquirer differentiated between “style” and “manner” meant that he wasn’t asking me for an imitation Cadell painting. I wouldn’t know how to do that.
Iona Croft, 1920, by Francis Cadell, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland
“In the manner of” has a specific meaning in art history, which is that it was done by a follower of a particular artist, but after the artist’s death.
Style, on the other hand, is the mark-making, composition, color palette and other visible attributes (or method of working) that give the appearance of the finished work. Style ties a painting to other works by the same artist, or to a specific period, genre or movement. It’s the art historian’s principle tool in classifying artwork. I can never be a Scottish colourist, any more than I can be a Canadian Group of Sevenpainter. Each of us is tied too closely to our own time and place in history, and imitating the Dead Masters is a sure path to mediocrity. But we can think seriously about the values those painters brought to their work.
Cadell had a palpable affection for his subjects: human, still life or landscape. Even so, people and objects were always somewhat subservient to their settings, which were frequently the Georgian rooms he occupied in Ainslie Place in Edinburgh’s New Town. Ironically, I’ll be painting just down the street, in a similar Georgian townhouse.
Full stop, by Carol L. Douglas. Well, we both like purple.
Cadell chose beauty over stylishness. The difference is depth and staying power. It takes some scratching to get down to fundamental truth. It’s easier to go for pretty scenes, cheap symbols or trendy commentary. But those things are only transient.
My old friend and model Michele Long used to say that figure painting was a collaboration between the artist and the model. I think that was a profound insight, but I’d add a third player: the audience, present and future. Art is primarily communication, and that requires that the subject, artist and audience all bring something to the engagement.
Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
People sometimes ask me if there are paintings I would never sell. There’s one: my grandson Jake as an infant. (It was the last time he was ever still.) Once I’ve laid down my brushes, I don’t think of a painting as mine any longer. From that, it’s easy for me to realize that it was never really mine in the first place.
Thus, it isn’t about me, my skills, my whims, or my inadequacies, but about the subject and the viewer. That takes a lot of the ego out of the process, and makes me able to relax and enjoy painting.

Like a rolling stone

I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
The Sound of Iona, c. 1928, Francis Cadell, private collection

This is the time of year when my husband and I look at each other and say, “we never go anywhere.” That’s ridiculous, since I have plenty of opportunity to travel. But I’m a restless soul.

One place I’d like to return, palette in hand, is Iona, in Scotland. It’s home to one of Christendom’s oldest religious sites, but it was also a favorite haunt of the Scottish Colourists.
These were four painters who brought Impressionism and Fauvism home and married them to their own native landscape. They wouldn’t have broken the constraints of Scottish tradition without leaving, but at the same time, they were clearly torn between the two milieus.
I understand the impulse to go, but I’m also starting to consider the cost.
A Rocky Shore, Iona, undated, Samuel Peploe, courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Samuel Peploe was born in Edinburgh. He studied briefly at the Royal Scottish Academy, and then moved on to the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi in Paris. His Scottish plein air work started in 1901, when he began traveling through the Hebrides with his pal John Duncan Fergusson.
In 1910 Peploe moved back to Paris. It was a short relocation; he returned to Scotland in 1912. During the 1920s, he summered on Iona with his friend Francis Cadell. He died in 1935, after advising his son Denis to not take up art as a career.
Dark Sea and Red Sail, 1909, John Duncan Fergusson, courtesy Perth & Kinross Council
Disenchanted with the rigid instruction available in his hometown of Edinburgh, John Duncan Fergusson traveled to Morocco, Spain and France, determined to teach himself. By the 1920s, he was settled in London. In 1928, he and his wife, dancer Margaret Morris, moved back to Paris, until the threat of another world war drove them home. They moved permanently to Glasgow in 1939. He died in 1961, a famous, feted artist.
Francis Cadell, too, was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the Académie Julian starting at the age of 16. Unlike his friends, Cadell spent his adult life in Scotland. As a consequence, he concentrated on intimately local themes—landscapes, New Towninteriors, society portraits, and the white sands of Iona. He served in WW1 with Scottish regiments.
Cadell died in poverty in 1937. His success is largely posthumous; his paintings now command upwards of half a million pounds.
Boats in Harbour, undated, Leslie Hunter, private collection
Leslie Hunter was the outlier.  He was born in Rothesay, the only town on the Isle of Bute. After the death of two of his siblings, his family emigrated to California. Hunter was 15. By age 19, he had moved alone to San Francisco, where he worked as an illustrator.
In 1904, Hunter made the requisite visit to Paris. He saw, for the first time, the fantastic ferment of Impressionism. He returned to San Francisco and began painting. This body of work was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Disappointed, Hunter returned to Scotland, settling in Glasgow. He was introduced to the Fauvists in a 1907 visit to Paris. There, his old buddy, Alice Toklas, took him to the Stein Salon. Hunter was shocked but impressed by the painting.
The outbreak of WW1 forced him back to Glasgow, but by 1927, Hunter was again in France, sending work back to Britain. In 1929, he suffered a physical breakdown. His sister fetched him home. Recovered, he still hoped to break out, this time for London. His health continued to fail and he died in a nursing home in Glasgow at age 54.
As I write this, I am reminded of a beach near me, also with white sand, also lovely. No chance of that, however; I’m leaving again on Tuesday.

The art of political domination

Mary, Queen of Scots by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.

Mary, Queen of Scots by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.
Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse is apparently where the Queen stores the motley family geegaws that don’t fit in her other palaces. There is one room that should be of interest to art aficionados, however—the Great Gallery, which originally served as the Palace’s privy gallery and is still used for state occasions. Its decorating scheme revolves around a monumental series of portraits of the Scottish monarchs, beginning with the legendary Fergus I (who is said to have ruled Scotland from 330 BC) and ending with Charles II.
This series of paintings was intended to endorse the ancient, venerable and divinely-appointed line of the Stuarts. It told the viewer that their rule would ensure peace and prosperity for Scotland. It was done as part of Charles’ extensive restoration of the Palace after it was burned by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1650.
The portraits were done by Dutch Golden Age painter Jacob de Wet II in an act of unrivalled hard work. There is nothing incisive or unique about them, nor could there be: he churned 110 of them out at the rate of one every two weeks, working non-stop on the project from 1684 to 1686.
The Scottish king Dorna Dilla, by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.

The Scottish king Dorna Dilla, by Jacob de Wet II, from the Great Gallery at Holyrood Palace.
Charles II was de Wet’s principal patron. The king never saw the work; after his Scottish coronation in 1651, His Royal Highness hightailed it south and stayed there. De Wet’s portrait of Charles II was done from other likenesses. In fact, Holyrood Palace never commissioned a state portrait from any of the great painters of the day, and certainly not from either of the two great  Principle Painters in Ordinary to the KingSir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller. That tells us exactly where Holyrood and Edinburgh ranked in the politics of the day.
Back to humble Jacob de Wet, then. He was first hired in 1673 by Sir William Bruce, the King’s Surveyor and Master of Works in Scotland. De Wet produced a series of classical history paintings for the newly-rebuilt state apartments at Holyrood. Many of these paintings remain. After this, he remained in Scotland, doing commercial work for the great and mighty.
The Royal Collection carefully controls images of Holyrood Palace, but here are Jacob de Wet's paintings in situ, courtesy of Susan Abernethy.

Most of Jacob de Wet’s paintings in situ, courtesy of Susan Abernethy.
In 1684 de Wet returned to Holyrood. His contract with the Royal Cashkeeper reads: “The said James de Witte binds and obleidges him to compleately draw, finish, and perfyte The Pictures of the haill Kings who have Reigned over this Kingdome of Scotland, from King Fergus the first King, TO KING CHARLES THE SECOND, OUR GRACIOUS SOVERAIGNE who now Reignes Inclusive, being all in number One hundred and ten.”
Today 97 of the final 111 portraits are on display in the Great Gallery.  They were loosely based on a series of 109 Scottish kings painted by George Jamesone in honor of Charles I’s Scottish coronation in 1633. Such of Jameson’s work as survived civil war were sent to Holyrood for de Wet to copy. De Wet relied on these, on George Buchanan’s list of Scottish kings, and on other source material. If he used any models at all, they were completely interchangeable, for there is nothing characteristic about those ancient faces.
The scale of de Wet’s achievement is unique. While he may never be remembered for his delicacy of brushwork or incisive understanding of character, he deserves recognition for having finished at all.
On leaving Holyrood, I remarked that, were I forced to live there, I’d abdicate. The weight of those ancient stones is not romantic to me; it’s oppressive. Apparently, I’m not the only person who sees historic privilege as a burden, as this sad obituary states.
I intended to post regularly from Scotland, but the internet defeated me. My mobile’s problem I sort of get; it’s elderly (all of two years). My laptop generally travels well. Its refusal to acknowledge wifi at our destinations was baffling.
Nonetheless, I’m home and working this morning after that new tradition of modern air travel: the short hop that becomes a 24-hour dance contest.
We flew with a Canadian carrier just to avoid this, and they were, in all things, far kinder than their American cousins in similar circumstances. A delay in Edinburgh caused a missed connection in Toronto that in turn revealed our luggage to have strayed, resulting in an additional delay in Montreal for Customs declarations. This meant we left the airport at rush hour, which in turn meant a climb over Grafton Notch at night when the wee sleekit moose were in motion. We left our flat in Edinburgh at 6 AM GMT and arrived at home at 1 AM EST, meaning 24 hours of travel. If I don’t make sense, that’s why.