Tag Archives: Scottish Enlightenment

Three Degrees of Separation

When I was a child I knew a woman named Jenny Urquhart. Her family had a holiday house on Arran, next door to the cottage my parents rented for 2 weeks each summer. She seemed a good, gentle woman though her sons were brash, competitive…boyish I suppose. She was married to a man name William who, inexplicably to a working-class Scottish boy like me, was keen on cricket.

And then there was the other Mrs. William Urquhart I encountered at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Galleries as a boy.
Ann Patton, Mrs. William Urquhart – in a painting by Henry Raeburn.
I thought her quite exquisitely beautiful. My type I suppose. Painted 200 years ago, I suppose she must have been dead for most of that interval. And by this sleight of hand, (the word magic I then felt existed between my Mrs. William Urquharts) do I then have three-degrees of separation from Henry Raeburn?

It’s all in the eyes with Raeburn, the paint is magnificently vague except around the face and then – the eyes.

Raeburn was born in 1756 – 11 years after the defeat of the last Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden and the subsequent suppression of the Gaidhealtachd by Sassenach interests (Scots and English) and almost 50 years after the Scottish magnates had sold out and foisted the Act of Union on a generally unenthusiastic population in 1707.

According to the literature, Edinburgh society was liberated and transformed by the decamping of the Scottish magnates to London. The day to day political business of managing Scotland fell to ‘the middling ranks’ of Scottish society – the lairds, lawyers, professors – and the political vacuum and flight of the aristocracy left these middle-classes with the question of how to comport themselves in the absence of cultural ‘models’. It could be argued that this sudden liberation enabled ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’.

And one of the hallmarks of that enlightened society was a propriety characterised by stoic self-command, serenity and moderation. Moreover, in a mercantile society sucking in income from estates, slave plantations and imperial racketeering, it didn’t do to offend…complaisance was the order of the day at home, in the town, no matter what methods might be used in the country and abroad to fund an enlightened manner.

Raeburn was the son of a ‘shady character’ with interests in textiles and quarrying. He was first apprenticed to a silversmith before branching out into portrait painting. To sharpen his craft he visited Rome in 1784, funded by the income from an advantageous marriage to a widow, Ann Edgar.

Ten years previously, Rome was visited by another artisan painter seeking to improve his professional skills – Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – born in Zaragoza, the son of a gilder. Goya, on his return to Spain, worked his way up through ‘the creative industries’ toiling in the royal tapestry works (as a designer) before becoming a court portrait painter. Goya painted the Spanish aristocracy of his day, not only Bourbon royalty (with some of whom he was on good terms) but many illustrado and, after the revolution, franscesado magnates. But that is not, I suspect, why or for what we have heard of Goya. Goya, today (though not in his lifetime), is known as the creator of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War and the Black Paintings.

When I was a child, at about the time I encountered Mrs. William Urquhart, one of the few books in our home was an old, hardbound copy of Classical Myth and Legend, illustrated with colour plates of 19th century genre paintings. Perhaps, as a boy in early adolescence, I was ‘interested’ at first in the nearly-naked nymphs, but the images that stuck, that stay with me till this day, are of Clytemnestra, emerging from the bathroom with a blood-smeared labrys and Saturn eating his son – one of Goya’s Black Paintings. If Jenny Urquhart is my link to Henry Raeburn, is poor parenting my link to Goya then?

And what of them both – Raeburn and Goya?

Contemporaries – ten years apart at birth, Goya outlived Raeburn by five-years, dying in Bordeaux in 1828. Both were portrait painters, visited Rome, lived through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and their immediate aftermath.

In 1790, Raeburn painted a double portrait of the Fergusson Brothers, Robert and Ronald – two young boys, Robert drawing a bow, Ronald gazing towards the viewer.

In 1812, Goya painted the portrait of Arthur Wellesley, subsequently Duke of Wellington, hero of the Spanish ‘Wars of Independence’ (or the Peninsular War as the British termed it).

Ronald Fergusson was highly praised by Wellesley for his services during the Wars of Independence. They knew each other. Three degrees of separation.

And indeed many of the martial figures, in tartan trews and scarlet swagger, Raeburn painted later in his career had served on the Iberian Peninsula during those wars. Yet Raeburn did not produce Caprichos or the Disasters of War. Goya did.

Well he wasn’t there…it can be argued. He was safe in the New Town in Edinburgh experimenting with interesting contre jour effects, painting lairds and professors, nabobs and blushing brides – like the future Mrs. William Urquhart. Spain, struggling to free itself from a French occupying army (and settle back into the comfortable certainties of the monarchy and the inquisition) was far away from Scotland and enlightened Edinburgh – except…despite Yo Lo Vi, Robert Hughes (at least) has argued Goya wasn’t ‘there’ either. Not at the moment the body was impaled, the women were raped, the children were starving, the cannon was fired, the heretic garrotted. He wasn’t there when Saturn tore his children limb from limb. But he imagined it, piecing together the truth from the available facts. And commenting.

Henry Raeburn’s life spans the period from the suppression of the gaelic speaking regions after 1746 through into the clearances of the 1820s. Deprivation, violence and despair were just over the hill, on the estates of some of Raeburn’s sitters, through-out his working life. Yet no-one in the Scottish Enlightenment depicts, condemns…even reports in such vivid, timeless terms as Goya did.

The Highland Clearances are a complex issue and/but they were not exceptional. I am always amazed at the way all cultural memory of the enclosure of land and dispossession of the population has been supressed (or repressed) in the South of Scotland and in England.

Everywhere tenants and peasants were evicted, dispossessed, their commons enclosed and privatised in the cause of ‘improvement’ by ‘enlightened landlords, lairds and lawyers. For the Scots Gaels it came a little later and they were, relatively, farther from the growing industrial centres which sucked in and mangled the indigent poor. They were closer to the ships and the sea lochs so many of them left. But it happened and it was happening in Raeburn’s lifetime…and Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy McGregor instead and dressed King George in tights.

Goya sold few of the Caprichos in his lifetime. The Disasters were not published till 40 years after his death and the Black Paintings remained on the walls of the Quinta de Sordo…this wasn’t about the market for art…it was about ‘noticing’.

This is not to blame or condemn Raeburn…why would he care…dead these 195 years…but to reflect on my noticing that they shared a world, had only three degrees of separation, that some of Raeburn’s sitters were and had been’ there’ – there where the bodies were impaled, the dead lay unburied, the destitute sought refuge where they could. Not much changes in the world.