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.