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?