The Frenchness of Scottish Art

I am old enough to remember Nicolas Pevsner’s Reith Lectures entitled The Englishness of English Art. They featured Hogarth’s Anglo-genre paintings and prints, Stubbs’ very English classicism, the work of Blake and Samuel Palmer. I do not remember that there was much about more modern artists but Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Edward Burra and William Roberts are just a few of the artists that could be grouped under Pevsner’s title.

It is impossible to imagine any presentation on 20th century Scottish art having a similar heading. It wouldn’t make sense. It would have to be The Frenchness of Scottish Art. Certainly in the early 20th century, the group of artists known as the Scottish Colourists were following the example of French painters, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who they took to be the progressive forces of the day, the obligatory track. Although they were not unhappy about it, they were in the position of the young man in the limerick by one of the Knox brothers:

… who said ‘Damn!
I have suddenly found that I am
A creature that moves
On predestinate grooves
Not a bus, as one hoped but a tram.’

Meanwhile the 20th century English painters mentioned above, and even others who did show the influence of the French school, always seemed to drive like the free moving bus in more individual directions wherever their fancy took them.

Viewing the current exhibition of Francis Cadell at the Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh, I found I could get little pleasure from it because I was always conscious of how much better the French originals did this sort of thing. Cadell invited comparison and came off badly.

I know enough of the work of the other members of the group to be pretty sure that I will have the same reaction to each of the painters that will be given an exhibition in an ongoing series. There are Scottish artists before and after the Colourists who are much more individual, but they are not so popular. The crowds viewing the Cadell exhibition were obviously in raptures. I felt a bit sorry for them. Have they never looked keenly at Manet’s paintings?

Exhibiting Small Paintings

For the first time, I submitted two paintings (the maximum number allowed) to the RSA Open, running at the Royal Scottish Academy’s galleries from 12th November until 18th December. There is always a danger in entering for this sort of show: you may find your work rejected and then find the exhibition crammed with the sorts of works which you try hard to avoid. However, my pieces were duly hung. I show them above. One is based on a sketch I did when sailing down the Forth. Modern ships have been intriguing me, particularly container ships which look like Paul Klee’s magic squares afloat. The neatly arranged caravans on the Fife shore allowed an interesting interplay between two sets of rectangles. This is the first of what I hope to be a series.

The RSA Open has a size restriction of no more than 60cm. in any direction. The works are displayed in groups, triple-hung in some cases, forming shapes with spaces between. Although it makes for a rather dinky effect, I cannot see how so many small pieces could be shown otherwise. Small pieces of sculpture, even from distinguished practitioners always tend to look a bit like ornaments.

Being a long established venerable institution, the RSA has a varnishing day and a private view, unlike in France where the word for private view is a varnishing (un vernissage). I popped into the academy to have an unobstructed view of the work. Most people will be familiar with tales of J.M. Turner actually repainting parts of his works at RA varnishing days. I did not come equipped to tamper in any way with my pieces, but I would have liked to have adjusted the tones of the frames. Never before having exhibited small paintings, I was unaware of the larger part played by the frames. Normally I use a rule of thumb method: print frames with their white mounts I frame with an off-white lime wash effect, for oil paintings I use a warm, dark grey. This works well enough with large paintings, but I now see that with small works the tone needs to be varied. Bright paintings with lots of light areas need a lighter tone of frame. For economic reasons I sometimes have to re-use print frames. When I framed these paintings I thought that this was permanent but I have learned something which I will remember if I submit to this exhibition in the future.

Appreciating Foreign Poetry

I have read one or two translations of the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Whether or not he is a worthy winner I cannot say because I do not understand Swedish. Several people who do not read Spanish, tell me that Neruda was a great poet. Likewise non-Gaelic speakers have extolled the stature of Sorley MacLean. I wonder how they can make these judgments.

Can poetry in an unfamiliar tongue ever be fairly evaluated? I suspect not. But we can get a better idea of works in foreign or dead languages if they are translated again and again. For many years, the poet James Michie, set The Spectator weekend competition and one of his inspired ideas was to call for translations of Rimbaud’s Au Cabaret-Vert. With four or five published winners, we could get a good idea of the flavour of the poem, though the French original wouldn’t present much difficulty to people of my generation who would all have done some French at school.

Michie was no mean translator himself. I find his versions of the epigrams of Martial better than any of the others I have read. He also translated Catullus, Horace and La Fontaine. Probably, no poem has been more often translated than Horace’s ode addressing Pyrrha, Book 1 no.5, a who’s-kissing (or something more Anglo-Saxon) -her-now poem. Michie’s translation begins, ‘What slim youngster, his hair dripping with fragrant oil, / Makes love to you now, Pyrrha, ensconced in a / Snug cave curtained with roses?’ It then goes on to deal with Horace’s metaphor of shipwreck that awaits the new lover, finishing with, ‘My plaque tell of an old sailor who foundered and, / half drowned, hung up his clothes to, / Neptune lord of the element.’ This requires a note, explaining that shipwrecked sailors dedicated the clothes they were rescued in to the deity. Boris Johnson, who read Classics at Oxford, has written that Michie’s translations are so accurate that they can be used as cribs.

There is, however, another way of rendering a poem from an unfamiliar language, one that will be of no use to scholars but will bring it alive for new readers. Instead of scented oils and lavish roses, Anthony Hecht begins his version, ‘What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex / Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,” / Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha, / In your expensive sub-let?’ And after predicting the ingénu’s swamping and dismasting inserts an extra note of bitterness by changing the lady’s name in the last line to Piranha.

An excellent modern imitation of Rimbaud’s Au Cabaret-Vert by Fay Hart was published in The Spectator though not as an entry to the weekend competition. Entitled At Casa Verde, five in the afternoon, the gender of the speaker is necessarily changed and the setting is now South America. Instead of ‘Depuis huit jours,j’avais dechire mes bottines,’ we get, ‘I ripped my feet to bits walking the pilgrim trail…’ and replacing Rimbaud’s buxom barmaid whom he suggest wouldn’t be averse to an encounter, is a ‘Cuban-heeled boy, able-bodied, slicked-back, skintight jeans and a scowl’ of whom the poet says, ‘he could have me in a heartbeat that one.’
I would love to give both these re-creations here but it is one of the unintended consequences of the copyright laws that they impede proselytizing.

The Swedish laureate’s work may not be suitable for this sort of treatment and perhaps we will have to go in ignorance of his poetic achievement unless we learn Swedish.


4th - 15th October 2011
Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 5pm
The Gallery at McNaughtan's Bookshop
3A & 4A Haddington Place, Edinburgh

My exhibition Recent Prints opens next week at the gallery attached to Edinburgh’s premier antiquarian bookshop. I originally conceived it as something different. It is good economic practice to make small prints from scraps of material and off-cuts of the tosa shojo paper I use, left over from bigger works. Having made a number of these over the years, which I exhibited mainly in Glasgow, I had the idea of collecting them under some such title as Some of My Little Ones. But the economics of this proved less sound. A small frame has four corners just as a larger one and although it may use a little less moulding is not much cheaper. I toyed with the idea of mounting groups of the prints in large frames, but when this proved unsatisfactory, I decided to show my larger current work.

My small prints could be described as genre pieces. I based them on sketches produced on public transport, in cafes etc. In my latest work I have been using a different sort of figure composition, more cohesive, less aleatory. In the absence of a grand theme what evolved were prints of people engaged, as participators or spectators, in rather absurd leisure activities. I hope it says something about the modern world.

Another group in the collection consists of one or two garden images. I know a garden in France whose owner is not there all year. He has tried to make it drought-proof and weed-resistant with low, ground-covering plants from which the more architectural ones emerge. He did not manage, however, to achieve all-year-round flowering. I became intrigued by the variety of greens on display and I tried to produce the effect within the limits of lino cutting.

Integrating into the Digital Community

I have metamorphosed from a digital immigrant into a digital emigrant, recently. My website has not been updated for ages and I haven’t posted a blog in months, the latter fact only partially accounted for by a hard drive failure. I do have a basic mobile phone (pressed on me by my wife) but I rarely use it. Actually, I seldom use a traditional phone.

Having an internet presence has proved worthwhile to some extent: the odd sale has come via my website and an all expenses-paid invitation to exhibit further a field. But there can be disadvantages too. A gallery owner has told me that she regards anything displayed on the ether as not virgin work and not worthy of being exhibited. Then there is the sort of bait that I’ve had from a New York gallery, offering to promote me for a fee. I’m not going to pay to practise as an artist.

A retreat from the computer may be more general as people become aware of the time wasted in front of keyboard and screen addicted to pointless googling. Readers of the philosopher Karl Popper may remember his searchlight theory of the mind about the futility of collecting random facts.

A digital device I do love is my radio. Test Match Special is my favourite working background and I’m able to listen to it without interruption from the Shipping Forecast and the Daily Service. I’m spared outbursts from my wife who seemed to think that the presence of the programme on Radio 4 long wave, was a personalised persecution with which I was somehow involved. Now she has her own digital set which helps to preserve domestic harmony. I only ever watched cricket on television during a coffee break. These days, even if it returned to terrestrial TV, I’m not sure I would be able to get the right channel, now that we have that little black box on top of our set.

I realise that I’m never going to pass myself off as a digital native and there is pride in keeping up ethnic traditions, consulting reference books accumulated over a lifetime, reading print without a light behind it.

But I will still continue to blog from time to time even if it is only to sort out my own thoughts. Looking at the map of my hits, there seems to be a cluster in Alaska. Perhaps Sarah Palin is a fan.


Foreign travel for me has always been about seeing art. Of course, I take in other things, but visiting galleries and museums has always been central. When I was fifteen I made my first visit to the Louvre during a school trip, and in my early adult years, I was able to see the Prado, the Brera, the Uffizi, the Venice Accademia and many other smaller collections. For many years the family holiday was always in Italy, based around one or other mural cycle or architectural figure. My family was usually interested or tolerant, although I remember my daughter going through the several miles of the Vatican Galleries neither looking to left or right, waiting for the bribe of an ice cream. In Verona she sighed and exclaimed, ‘Dad and his Sanmicheli gates,’ signalling that she well understood adult madness. In recent years it has become my custom to have a short break early in the year to visit the galleries of northern Europe: The Netherlands, Germany, Vienna. I have still to visit the Hermitage. This year I have already had the good fortune to see ten collections in New York and France.

The great change that I have seen over the years has been in museum shops. At one time, major museums would stock postcards of practically every work in their collections. Today they sell books, toys and anything on which they can stamp a reproduction of a well-known work, from wine bottles to cushion covers. There may still be a handful of cards of signal works – the very last ones I will need any prompting to recall.

The primary reasons for visiting the great collections is to see in actuality, the masterpieces of European art already known from reproductions. Collecting postcards, for me at any rate, was a way of retaining some memory of minor or unusual works that impressed. It consolidated the experience of the visit. I was often disappointed in smaller museums. I would see a small work, by Signorelli for instance, that seemed to me better than anything he achieved on a grand scale, or something in one of the minor galleries in Milan that contradicted the rule that paintings by the Leonardo followers are uniformly awful. By the very nature of the problem, my list of missed opportunities to get any memento of these aesthetic experiences is small. Any impression of these finding has escaped for ever. Among the cards that I treasure are those of a series of small murals by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, (who is for me a more interesting painter than his prolific and accomplished father), from the Ca’ Rezzonica; Venice, a painting of a flute player with a white horse from the Musee des Beaux Arts, Rouen, attributed to Watteau, (it convinces me that it can only be by the master); and portraits by da Messina from the palazzo galleries in Genoa.

In a gallery shop, I am not going to buy a guidebook illustrated with works that are known worldwide. Nor am I going to buy heavy tomes that I can consult elsewhere and certainly not tat that uses great works of art inappropriately. From the now lapsed practice of stocking inexpensive reproductions of a large range of a collection’s exhibits, I have a personally selected gallery in miniature of works that would be difficult to track down even in a good library. I regret not being able to add to it.

New York, New York!

A most generous and unexpected gift from our two children gave us five days in the Big Apple. In that time we viewed seven great art collections, took in an Off Broadway show and did a bit of the tourist stuff – marvelled from the top of the Empire State Building, exhilarated across Brooklyn Bridge and wondered at Harlem, Soho and Greenwich Village, where in Washington Square, we saw an outdoor performance, by students of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Were they from the nearby New York University, fees 56 million dollars per year?

The propaganda that New York is now a very safe city would seem to be true. I certainly felt more relaxed on the subway there than in a Paris metro carriage covered in graffiti, floor, windows and ceiling, with dubious youths parading up and down. It was striking how often we were aided by African-American ladies, middle-aged and middle-class, proud of their city and ready to help visitors.

If I had come to New York as a young man, I would have been most anxious to see more work by Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, the two Abstract Expressionists I loved. Today, I think of them much as I regard the Bop jazz musicians that I listened to at the time: with respect but with less passion. The painters still represent for me the peak of American Modernism and I was pleased to see more of their work. At the Whitney we started at the top of the building and wandered past much so-what sort of works, greedy of space but not notably inventive, down to the first floor (second floor in American parlance) where there was an exhibition of Hopper and his contemporaries. Hopper was certainly the most consistent of the bunch but there was very worthy stuff from others. I would have dearly loved to get a reproduction of a figure piece in watercolour by Delmuth.

Thanks to the wealth of America’s great industrial barons, New York has a vast collection of European art. It is not seeing the iconic pieces which is so enjoyable for me, but those that I have never seen reproduced. In the Metropolitan Museum there is room after room of paintings from most schools. Among the masses of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work there are pieces that seem better than those often seen in monographs. Is it just that the works are new to me? We barely touched the galleries devoted to early civilizations. In the shop (store to Americans), I picked up one of the few postcards on sale, a drawing of a horse’s head, taken from a Chinese scroll attributed to Hans Gan (Tan Dynasty). It is a wonderful, incisive piece of draughtsmanship but I didn’t see the complete scroll, if indeed it was on show.

The Guggenheim was showing an exhibition of early Modernism. Two new-to-me paintings I remember fondly were a wonderfully economical snow scene by Van Gogh and a Malevitch peasant painting also in snow.

Manhattan, as everybody knows, is an island dramatically crammed with skyscrapers, of every style from gothic fantasies to the latest that technology and human ingenuity can devise. It is ironic, therefore, that the buildings that housed two of the most enjoyable art collections were distinctly European in style. The Frick Collection in the steel magnate’s former mansion, has so many outstanding examples of the major European artists that it is easier to say what it doesn’t have – no Frans Hals, I think. The Cloisters which is actually built from bits of ecclesiastical masonry brought from France, houses the magnificent Unicorn Tapestries. Its site at the upper tip of Manhattan almost feels like countryside. Rockefeller, who was behind the project, bought the cliffed shore of New Jersey across the water so that it couldn’t be developed.

On our final morning it was raining heavily and we decided to take shelter in the Neue Galerie, with its re-created Viennese café. The decorative paintings of Klimt and Schiele are not great favourites of mine. I actually dislike Klimt’s portraits where the ladies gowns are made up of coloured shapes and gold leaf. But there is another aspect to him. Male visitors viewing a whole wall of his very explicit drawings of women masturbating may wish they had not hung their overcoats in the cloakroom.

Sawing My Beams

The last book I read in 2010 was Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, not a self-help treatise, but a biography of the French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Montaigne did most of his thinking and writing in one of the towers of his chateau where he had his library and where he had the beams inscribed with favourite precepts. As he had been brought up to speak Latin as his first language, it is not surprising that these are all from classical thinkers. I have been wondering which aphorisms I might apply to the beams of my studio if they were visible. Here are ten of them.

1. Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child all your life. Cicero

I have a friend who thinks that revisionist history is only about authors selling their books. It would be odd if they were not interested in disseminating their views, but there is such a thing as peer review. If we do not read up-to-date history, we will have a Boy’s Own Comic notion of it.

2. Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Pascal

We might have hoped this would be an outdated observation, but it has become more and more relevant.

3. There is no item of information however insignificant, which I would not rather know, than not know. Dr. Johnson

For me to be curious is simply to be alive.

4. Anything that elicits an immediate nod of recognition has only reconfirmed a prejudice. Don Paterson

There wouldn’t be much point in either Montaigne or myself posting a series of wise sayings if this aphorism contained an absolute truth. Nevertheless, it is a good warning about being alert to lazy thinking.

5. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests. Adam Smith

Some Scots who are proud of their great Enlightenment figure but can’t take his economic message are always trying to suggest that modern thinkers, who like to quote him, have somehow got his message wrong. Yet there is no way you can say that Adam Smith is talking about a planned economy.

6. La pire chose, c’est de vouloire être à la mode si cette mode ne vous va pas. Poulenc

The music of Poulenc should make any artist confident that there is no need to think that worthwhile art should follow a linear progression. The visual arts may be somewhat derrière garde in this respect compared with what is happening in literature and music.

7. Formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego. Auden

I do deplore the self-indulgence of so much free verse, nearly always read in a special way that tries to say ‘This is so profound, full of deep insights and ultra-sensitive.’

8. I love the correspondence of viva voce over a bottle, with a great deal of noise and a great deal of nonsense. Sir Joshua Reynolds to James Boswell.

A good summing up of what makes a great evening.

9. My watch cost more than your car.

This is apparently a favourite insult of the super-rich. I’ve never been particularly concerned about people having much more money than myself and this sort of inanity makes me even more contented with my lot.

10. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it. Montaigne

To end with, one from the great essayist himself. When you think of what Keats and Masaccio achieved before dying in their twenties and Schubert, Raphael, Mozart, Seurat et al who were cut off in their thirties, one can’t help thinking that in these days of longer life expectancy, we tend to forget that we don’t live for ever.

The thing about age,
though you may rant and rage
like a beast in a cage,
is that you can’t disengage
or turn back the page.
And there isn’t a stage
of being worthy and sage
as a long adolescence
goes straight to senescence.

I celebrated my 70th birthday on the penultimate day of 2010. Strangely, I never considered myself old even in my late sixties. Now the nought-ending digit has brought home to me that I am. Everything that Two Brains said about baby-boomers is true about we war babies: it has been easy for us; jobs were plentiful; on one modest salary we could buy a house; and wives, if they so wished, could give up work to look after children. I consider myself personally fortunate too: I got through the scrapes of early adulthood unscathed and my greatest piece of luck was to be able to leave teaching – always un travail alimentaire for me – at 56. These last 14 years have probably been the best years of my life.

When I went to art college in 1958, Pablo Picasso was the painter who most interested me. When I left, the abstractionists Miro, Pollock and Alan Davie were my heroes. Within a year an interest in Marxism had returned me to realism via John Berger and Fernand Léger. A period of intellectual sorting out followed. Working in a sort of representational mode meant going against a prevailing idea that, to adapt a famous limerick by one of the Knox brothers, the history of art ‘was a creature that moves / on predestinate grooves’ inevitabitly towards abstraction. Ironically it was Marxism, with its theory of historical inevitably, that had led me to reject aesthetic historicism. I needed some intellectual support and read Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism. It turned me completely away from Marxism and allowed me to see that the ideas that I had thought progressive, led to anything but humane regimes. I read Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and the works of the so-called Popperian Knights, Hayek, Gombrich and Medawar, which have greatly influenced the way I think. Eventually I added Isaiah Berlin, Schumpeter and Oakshott to my personal canon. They are all exemplars of writing in a clear way about difficult things.

Having almost all my time to myself has been wonderful. I listen to more classical music: four string quartets can be played before coffee time, or alternatively, the time can be spent on serious reading. As soon as I left teaching I stopped painting in acrylics, which are more suitable for interrupted work, and took up oils again. In printmaking, I gave up screen printing and reverted to relief printing where I could do all the work except the editioning in my studio. (I imagine the young members of the printmaking workshop asking, ‘Who’s that old, bald guy that’s always on the relief press?’)

I am certainly not going to live to 140, so it’s easy to make the calculation that I am much more than half-way through my life. When I get half-way through a long book, I am always surprised how quickly I read the remainder. I expect it will be the same with life. Inevitably, I wonder a bit how I will end up, but I do not let thinking about it disturb whatever time I have left. Nor do I want to lay down elaborate funeral prescriptions to bother those that might either be a bit sad or guiltily relieved that my life is over. Crematoria are ghastly places, not because they deal with death, but because they are so naff in their designs and arrangements. I would suggest a few simple things for my last rites. I do not want any death professionals, religious or otherwise involved, beyond the clearing up people. Perhaps a friend could say a few words or read a poem. I chose music for both my parents but it was played so softly that it might never have been used. I would want some favourite music played at a decent volume. And anyone turning up should be invited, not to some crummy hotel, but to the flat for some decent wine. As for a humiliating end, what one wants is not the Swiss business, but just some professional help about how to prepare a hemlock bottle from a decent red wine. Then that cheesy euphemism ‘He passed away’ would become ‘He finally passed out’.