Christmas Quiz

The Bad Eggs of Art

Where do we start
with the bad eggs of art?
The Italians once had
several quite bad.
Gesualdo comes first
as one of the worst –
a child, lover and wife
deprived of their life.
Next the painting bad sport
who murdered on court
and the gay silversmith
who crossed, slew forthwith.
Though unreliable still
art hoods then go downhill:
there’s a painter gone mad
who did for his dad;
a poet not so deft
involved in art theft;
last, pathetic to see,
Tracey drunk on TV.

1, 2, 3, 4, There are four unnamed ‘bad eggs’ in the verse above. Who are they?

5, A famous jazz composer died as a result of the celebrations for his hundredth birthday. Who was he?

6, 7, 8, There are at least three centenarians connected with the American musical. Can you name a composer/lyricist, a lyricist and a producer/director who lived to be over 100?

9, Goya’s first portrait of the Duke of Wellington had been started as a portrait of someone else. Who was the original sitter?

10, 11, 12, In a critical essay, Craig Raine collected phrases of three authors who compared a woman’s bottom to a valentine-style heart.Who are these three authors?

13, A composition described in 1934 as ‘still the most sensational essay in modern music from the point of view of pure strangeness of sound’ and which might well be so described today, was one hundred years old this year. Can you name the piece?

14, Robert Hughes, the Australian writer who was at one time the art critic of Time Magazine, was surprised when an up-and-coming composer arrived to fit his dishwasher. Who was the part-time plumber?

15, Which French painter won the country’s lottery?

16,17, Two French composers met their deaths as a result of unusual accidents. Who died from a stab wound self-inflicted while conducting and who was crushed by a bookcase?

18, The works of which painter were collected by both Rembrandt and Rubens?

19, A European classical composer died when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship in which he was returning from America. Who was this unfortunate musician?

20. Which painter changed a painting to suit a dictator, had other painters imprisoned and signed death sentences?

I am offering a small print, Thinking, Reading, Writing (11 x 13 cm, pictured above) for the first correct, or the most correct entry. Follow the link to my website where you will find my email address and send answers numbered 1-20 by 1st February. I will post the answers shortly after that date.

Getting Sibelius Wrong

Sibelius, Nielsen, Berwald, Grieg
form the Norse composers’ league.
One for Finland, Denmark and Sweden,
Norway as if planned by some great but fair intrigue,
Sibelius, Nielsen, Berwald, Grieg.

I know people with some interest in classical music to whom the prospect of listening to those most accessible of twentieth-century composers, Shostakovitch and Poulenc, presents something of an ordeal. At a concert in a little eleventh-century church in France that I attended during the summer, both natives and expats were apprehensive beforehand because Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony was to be performed. Afterwards, the same people admitted that the experience wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t get the feeling that any of the group thought that the composer’s work merited further investigation. It’s a bit depressing for anyone connected with the arts. I discovered early on that it was worth putting in time to get to know new works. Yet I must confess to an appalling prejudice of my own, which I harboured for many years. It concerns the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.

In his wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross devotes a whole chapter to Sibelius. He describes how the Finn became a victim of the style war in which Continental composers postulated an obligatory trajectory along atonal lines. They may even have led him to destroy his eighth symphony and stop composing altogether. One ideologue actually published a pamphlet entitled Sibelius: The Worst Composer in the World.

As a schoolboy in the Orkney Islands, I don’t think that I was part of that zeitgeist. But I do remember my prejudice being kindled by the remarks of two teachers. Why twentieth-century composers ever came up in history lessons in Stromness Academy, I can’t imagine but when they did, a teacher who played the organ in one of the churches muttered that Sibelius was the ‘only one’. By this time I was listening to the harmonically advanced jazz of Charlie Parker, and we had records at home of Stravinsky’s Petruska and The Soldier’s Tale. I put the history master down as a hopeless reactionary.

The comments of a science teacher proved even more damaging. He described to the class how pictures of Finnish landscape flashed up in his mind when he listened to Sibelius’s symphonies. Although I hadn’t heard a note of his music, Sibelius became for me an adjunct of the Finnish Tourist Board. The very title Finlandia seemed to confirm this and whenever I glimpsed a Sibelius LP cover, it was sure to depict Finnish lakes and forests. When I went to art college and interest in jazz gradually gave way to an involvement with classical music I would avoid any concert that featured Sibelius. As well as the major figures, I investigated all sorts of minor composers. These included Constant Lambert, whose book, Music Ho, I read. In it he has a large section on Sibelius, credits him with solving the problem of the post-Beethoven symphony and in the last part, Sibelius and the Music of the Future, champions him as the answer to the dodecaphonic and neo-classical impasse. I couldn’t have thought Lambert more wrong.

But had I read Lambert more closely, he might have allayed my fears. Of Sibelius’s symphonies he wrote ‘Though their grim colouring clearly owes much to the composers nationality and surroundings, there is nothing in them that can be considered a folk song’, and he chided critics ‘more noteworthy for geographical knowledge than for nervous sensibility’, adding that ‘the chilly atmosphere of the fourth symphony is something more than a Christmas-card nip in the air’.

Alas, it was not until Alex Ross’s book came out in 2008 that I realised how wrong I had been. I bought CDs of the great symphonies ­– four to seven – and eventually the earlier symphonies and tone poems as well. And Constant Lambert’s assertion written in 1934 that ‘of all contemporary music, that of Sibelius seems to point forward most surely to the future’ is proving to have much more substance. A host of contemporary composers including Maxwell Davies and Thomas Adès claim him as an inspiration, as did the late Morton Feldman. Meanwhile, John Adams, who seems to have emerged as the most significant figure to have moved beyond the easy listening of both secular and holy minimalism, mentions him constantly.

My new interest in Sibelius has led me to revisit other Scandinavian composers. I had heard a little Nielsen, for I once bought an LP of his clarinet and flute concertos for my father, who was a keen amateur flautist. Grieg I had always associated with pretty piano pieces of no great significance. That was until I heard his first string quartet. As for Berwald, who gives Sweden a famous composer to keep up with her neighbours, my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (admittedly published in 1955) has an odd entry on this composer: ‘Works much praised by those by who know them’. I have apparently joined a select band.

Edinburgh's New Plinth Sculpture

The remarks Ken Livingstone made about the figures celebrated on plinths around Trafalgar Square, which led to the projects on the empty plinth, missed an important point. It is this: statues in this ancient tradition, to work well, must make an architectural impact. They act as centres of interest in the formal urban scheme and can be life enhancing whether or not the people represented interest the public. In every major city throughout Europe and beyond, such statues have been erected through the ages with a well-rehearsed competence. Edinburgh has a great number of such works dating from the 17th century right through to the early 20th. Recently, no less than five more have been added, four of them by the Paisley sculptor Alexander Stoddart, now appointed the Queen’s sculptor in ordinary in Scotland

Stoddart cannot be faulted for his modelling skills. Judged by these, he can hold his own with the practioners of previous ages in Scotland. Continuing with this tradition today, however, is problematic not least because all the best positions for placing such works in the city centre have been taken. Two of Stoddart’s figures are seated and there is an additional problem with these. Seated figures do not form pinnacles like standing figures and the back view is likely to be unsatisfactory. The great examples of seated figures from the past, like Michelangelo’s Moses, in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome or the figures on the Medici tombs, Florence, are all set in architectural facades. There seems to be some awareness of this problem with Stoddart’s statue of Hume (see photo above) in front of the old Sheriff Courts, as there is a rather pathetic attempt to link it to the building

by echoing its rustication on the low plinth. But to be effective it would have to have been embedded much higher up in the building. For this to have happened, Stoddart would have had to be involved when the building was being erected.

With his sculpture of James Clerk Maxwell (pictured right), the scientist, in George Street, the problem is even more acute. When we enter the street, Clerk Maxwell has turned his back on us. What is bad manners in life is bad manners in monumental sculpture. Again, the figure needs to face out from an architectural surround, which, in this day and age in an already completed city street, cannot be arranged. Photographs of the Clerk Maxwell sculpture in the artist’s studio have appeared in the press. It looked enormous. Placed among the buildings of George Street it looks too small. It therefore lacks the presence of the other sculptures at the junctions of the street. One of these is of George IV, unloved in his time and unrescued by any revisionist historian since. Yet serving as a finial on top of a monolith of the right scale, few would wish to remove him. It says a great deal about how these monumental pieces work.

Stoddart’s standing figure of Adam Smith on a high plinth in the High Street fares rather better. There is room for it on the widened pavement. On the other hand it is not obvious that a feature was actually needed at this spot. By far the best of Stoddart’s pieces is the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial featuring two characters from Kidnapped, mounted on a plinth of cyclopean rustication, giving some relief from the miles of blank wall on the right that is passed driving out of Edinburgh towards the airport. If any ideological objections to an artist working in a neo-neo- classical idiom can be put aside, everything here works very well, down to the little roundel featuring a relief of Stevenson himself.

The fifth of these revivalist sculptures is a representation of Sherlock Holmes by the pop-artist-gone-conservative-sculptor-turned-born-again-modernist, Gerald Laing. It is a poor piece, indifferently modelled and far too small in scale to be successful. Ironically, although removed, temporarily or for re-siting, by the tram works, it did have one of the best positions of any of the new works.

It is worth asking why we should again be raising statues to dead Scots males. The Roman purpose in celebrating heroes was part of the process of turning them into gods. We no longer believe in this. If we believe that it serves to increase interest in the achievements of the individuals represented, we should look at the evidence. How many citizens could locate the statue of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish doctor/scientist previously plinthed? As has often been said, the way to create greater interest in science and its heroes, is to teach the history of science in schools. Of our great Enlightenment figures, David Hume and Adam Smith, it could be said as Horace said of himself that they had constructed a monument more lasting than bronze, although it wouldn’t have been in the nature of either to so boast. As for statues of characters from literature making their authors more read, it should be remembered that Sir Walter Scott has a statue with a sixty metres architectural canopy which is very well known, yet Allan Massie has written recently, that he was stumped when asked how more reading of the great novelist could be encouraged.

Most important cities have masses of skilful sculptures in stone and bronze. Tourist guides, local historians and a few others will know what they represent but they are generally ignored precisely because they have become so common. Where they complete a pleasant urban composition everybody benefits but cramming in more may even destroy the balance already achieved.

The Greatest Scottish Painter of the First Half of the 20th Century

Many years ago when I was teaching art in a high school, the certificate for 4th year pupils required the submission of two short written pieces, one on a designer and the other on a painter. A rumour went round that one teacher had guided his charges to produce both on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, treating him as a designer and as a painter. Apparently, the markers decided that Mackintosh was a designer and not a painter and all the pupils were failed.

No doubt, the teacher had not behaved very wisely. Career teachers who become markers to add something to their CVs or to earn a little extra cash are not necessarily experts on the history of art or even very knowledgeable. But if the story was true, the exclusion of Mackintosh from the profession of painters was definitely wrong. He had turned his back on architecture in disappointment and resolved not to have anything to do with it again. in 1923 he moved to Roussillon in south-west France to make his way as a fulltime painter.

Mackintosh is said to have admired the Viennese painter, Gustav Klimt, probably in the days when as an architect and designer he was being fêted by the Secessionist artists. No one would deny that Klimt was a painter. Yet his paintings veer far closer to pure design than Mackintosh’s landscapes ever do. Mackintosh in his last period was indeed a painter and a very fine one. He was more original and weightier than any of the Scottish Colourists and he achieved this status with barely forty works in the medium of watercolour. To find anything comparable, where an artist established himself by sheer quality with such a small oeuvre, we would have to turn to the history of music where in the field of the art song, the French composer Henri Duparc, placed himself alongside the immortals of the genre with only fourteen superb songs.

The major art exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival in 2008, Scotland and Impressionism, only served to highlight how inferior Scottish efforts, that might have some resemblance in subject matter, were to French examples. If it’s felt necessary to recover a little national pride try this: place a reproduction of a Mackintosh painting, one with buildings or a rocky landscape, next to a plate with a similar subject by Cézanne. The Scottish work will stand up very well. Try the same thing with a work by J.S. Peploe and we immediately become aware of a crude follower. Mackintosh, on the other hand, owes nothing to Cézanne. He has his own style and methods. It could be said of him as Cézanne said of himself, that he was doing Poussin after nature, such is the analytical intensity that he brings to his landscapes.

One of the things that turned Mackintosh from architecture and design to painting, it might be said to be the last straw, was the criticism that he was old-fashioned. It was bound to happen. An undoubted genius in those fields, he was an exponent of what has come to be called design fascism. He would design everything in a building down through the furniture to the light fittings and cutlery. That is apt to put an insupportable burden on anybody who has to live in it. Mackintosh would design you an exquisite bookcase but you wouldn’t be able to become much of a book collector or even have many reference books. Even his architectural masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art, apparently the nation’s favourite building, and it is easy to understand why, probably isn’t really very suitable for purpose. His designs have a continued life as ‘Mockintosh,’ jewellery and other artefacts drawn from them. In the end, perhaps his design work has proved too precious in the derogatory sense, while his late paintings are the real gems. But then, aren’t we lucky to have both.

Scotland's Two Hidden Goya Masterpieces

For the second year in a row, the Scottish Nation Galleries’ major exhibition running during the Edinburgh Festival has been a patched up affair. It features a few interesting, borrowed works but is padded out with paintings that can be seen throughout the year, plus lots of mediocre pieces and copies, advertised as ‘as a spectacular celebration of Spanish culture seen through the eyes of British artists and art collectors.’ Probably a mixture of curator’s arrogance that believes that the public can be led by the nose to follow a narrative, and economic constraints is behind this hotchpotch. Two far more rewarding exhibitions were actually available during the festival period, one of them in the same complex: From Raphael to Renoir, drawings from the collection of Jean Bonna, needed no curator impute other than an alliterative title, simply because it was full of masterpieces; at the Queen’s Gallery an exhibition entitled The Conservation Piece, contained two further masterpieces, Stubbs’ The Prince of Wales’ Phaeton, surely his greatest work, and a large oval-shaped painting by Gainsborough where he returned to the Watteauesque style of his early work and anticipated Goya in the delicacy of his paint handling.

Goya was the under-represented presence in The Discovery of Spain exhibition. The Scottish National Gallery does possess a rare Goya and it was included in this show. But it is a very rare Goya because it is relatively uninteresting. This cannot be said of two other Goyas in a Scottish collection. I call them Scotland’s hidden masterpieces because I have never seen them reproduced in any monograph of the artist other than as thumbnails in a catalogue raisonné. I have spoken to several Scottish painters with a keen interest in the master who know nothing of them. Yet. I have checked with Pollok House, now looked after by the National Trust where the Maxwell Stirling Collection is housed and I am assured that they are currently on show.

They are part of a small series of paintings of children playing by the Spanish master, none of which seem to be in any major museum or art gallery and are thought to belong to the same period as the tapestry-cartoon paintings. There may be a tendency to dismiss these works, which can be described as rococo, a term thought by some to be derogatory, but it would be quite wrong to do so. It was in these paintings that Goya developed his strikingly original approach to composition. In Boys Playing at Seesaw, one of the two masterpieces, the seesaw figure in the air describes an ‘X’ shape while two groups of wrestling boys form tripods. Another of the five pairs of figures in the composition make one more novel composite with their silhouettes linked by the brims of their hats. All these combine in a lopsided pyramid that is balanced by a little monkey chained atop a high wall. It is a startlingly inventive performance as is the other work, Boys Playing at Soldiers that can be analysed in a similar fashion.

I do not know if any attempt was made to borrow these paintings which belong to the same collection as the Portrait of a Lady in a Fur Cape, supposedly by El Greco, part of the Spanish exhibition and chosen for the poster. The Pollok House Goyas would have raised the exhibition’s quality considerably. To anybody who has not seen these two great works, I can only make the suggestion that they hot foot it to Pollok House, Glasgow. They have a wonderful aesthetic experience awaiting them.

The Tickle Factor

There is a farm auberge in the area of France, which I visit frequently with my wife, which has often been recommended to us. Invariably the recommendation came with a strange suggestion. Do visit the loo when you go there, we were urged. Eventually, we did eat at the restaurant, where we were not disappointed, and duly inspected the facilities. Everybody is immensely tickled by the lavatory of this establishment. Above the porcelain there are a series of shelves filled with toilet rolls with their pastel shades arranged in a specific pattern. It has been described as a work of art.

Once upon a time avant garde art was the preserve of the cognoscenti or an elite. No longer. Today the Tate Modern is much more popular than Tate Britain. Where provincial cities have galleries providing programmes of contemporary visual art, they are generally well attended and the sort of people who formerly would have been stating that they didn’t know much about art but that they knew what they liked and weren’t finding it, are often enthusing about what they have seen. The tickle factor has a lot to do with this.

Some individual pieces have become immensely popular. Rachel Whiteread’s cast of the inside of a house and Richard Wilson’s work where he covered the floor space of various rooms with a shallow tray of oil which acted as a mirror and completely changed the spatial feel of the place, are just two examples of unconventional works which have greatly tickled the public.

Constructing objects from unusual materials, a little house made entirely of books for example, always provides a high tickle quotient. The Scottish artist David Mach has completed a whole series of works of this kind, a submarine and a Parthenon from old tyres (the latter with its maquette made from polo mints), a steam locomotive from bricks, heads from metal coat hangers or match heads. The most internationally famous work of this kind is Jeff Koon's puppy dog constructed from growing plants, outside Frank Gery’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

Now, there is nothing wrong with amusing the public in this way. Obviously, it adds to the gaiety of nations. It could be said, as D. J. Enright said of pieces from another art (quoted in The Movement Reconsidered, edited by Zachary Leader), ‘the effects may be striking but they don’t strike very deep.’ But at least these works give the lie to the notion that contemporary visual art has nothing to give the general public.

A few words on two local visual art controversies


From time to time a controversy breaks out about the merits of the painter Jack Vettriano and whether or not his paintings deserve to be bought by The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Vettriano’s work is highly indebted to the American painter Andrew Hopper and shares that painter’s lack of anatomical substance in the figure painting. This need not be considered a defect. Hopper had no need to become a modern Michelangelo. He was an original because of the modern social and industrial imagery he introduced and the hard light that he used that owed nothing to Impressionism.

Vettriano may be said to stand in relation to Hopper as J. S. Peploe is placed vis-à-vis Cézanne, but the he differs from the American master in one important respect: whereas Hopper painted his own times, Vettriano’s work seems to be stuck in the age of his model. This gives it a nostalgic feel and reminds the viewer of old films. Here, I think, Vettriano has missed a trick. Slowing down old films has become a hailed visual art pursuit. If Vettriano had done something similar and restricted his art to actual scenes from old films, he might have achieved cutting edge respectability.

Formerly, I was of the opinion that The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art should not buy Vettriano’s work. Now, I have changed my mind. He meets the criteria for inclusion: he is controversial and expensive.

I don’t know whether or not the following will soften the curators’ attitude to the popular Scottish painter, what with the marketing imperatives of recent years. Early this year in Munich, I saw the large exhibition of Kandinsky’s paintings from all stages of his career which was having its first showing in an underground space attatched to the Lembachhaus, along with an extensive display of his graphic work from the gallery’s own collection. In the gallery shop, believe it or not, cushions bearing reproductions of The Singing Butler were on sale.


At one time the little painting of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch in the National Gallery of Scotland was attributed to Henry Raeburn but it was acknowledged that there was no evidence that it was by him. At some point, I am not sure when, the attribution was firmed up. Officially, the work is now deemed to be unequivocally by the great Scottish portrait painter and there has even been further inflation of its status. Writing in a column in The Scotsman Tim Cornwell referred to ‘Raeburn. famous for The Skating Minister and other landmark Scottish portraits…’ A work of which the authorship was once a hunch has become the signature work of the artist so identified. It has become to Raeburn what The Night Watch is to Rembrandt.

Going against the tide, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery has attributed the painting to the French painter Henri-Pierre Danloux. Another expert has come back with an assertion that it is definitely by Raeburn, the clinching factor being the treatment of the minister’s cravat.

I am not in a position to advance any opinion on the likelihood of it being the work of the French painter but the technique used in the painting of the cravat surely does not settle anything. If every painting where white paint was scumbled over a darker ground was to be attributed to Raeburn, the master’s oeuvre would increase enormously. It is the usual means employed in any number of routine portraits of admirals of the fleet and the like, who wore the once fashionable dress item. The technique is used in a painting recently bought cheaply on ebay and thought to be an early Gainsborough.

I am convinced The Skating Minister is not by Raeburn. My reasoning is simple : it is not good enough. Very few painters throughout the history of European art are very convincing with really small figures. Watteau would be one and Adrian Brouwer another. Although, the work under consideration is not tiny, the painting of the face is rather cramped. It is possible that Raeburn could not translate his bravura brushwork to this unaccustomed scale in the way that Brouwer could bring to his much smaller paintings what he had learned from his master Frans Hals. This I could understand. What I can’t accept is that he would have been satisfied with the placing of the single figure on the small canvas. Cut out, as the Scottish National Gallery has used it in some of its marketing material, the figure works well enough, and this may be of some significance in the whole debate. It may be inconvenient to downgrade the authorship. As a whole the composition is boring. A portrait painter has very few options in placing a figure, but in his full-length portraits Raeburn is a master operator using the limited possibilities to the full. It is inconceivable that this could be his work.