Moira Jeffrey, in her Saturday Scotsman review of the J.D. Fergusson exhibition, found a few nice things to say about the artist. But she had reservations. The work could be ‘just too sweet and palatable against the acid flavours of his times,’ there were ‘comically proportioned busts and bottoms’ and ‘the irksome nature of some of Fergusson’s paintings speaks for itself. There is their repetiveness, their monumentality, their unique way of being both saccharine and butch.’ My reaction to this, just before the beginning of the year of the referendum on Scottish independence, was to exclaim out loud, ‘Well, there’s a brave girl!’ It seemed like putting a NO sticker in your window and endangering the glazing.
The Scottish Colourists are sacrosanct for much of the Scottish public. Nationalist-inclined politicians like to be photographed in front of their paintings and buy them if they can afford them. The Colourists’ work forms the visual part of the distinctiveness that separatists hope will be boosted by independence. Superiority over English art of the period is claimed, because the Scottish painters with their bright colours, were more in tune with what might be termed the significant forward stream of art history taking place in France with the Post-Impressionists and the Fauves. There were additional Brownie points for the Scots because Fergusson actually took part in a Paris exhibition with some of the French masters.
Such vicarious claims to respectability, however, are double-edged. If you are not in the field for buying, why be content with the substitutes when you can get the real thing? Why look at Peploe when you can look at Cézanne? Why bother with Cadell when you can see what is perhaps Manet’s best still life in a public gallery in Glasgow and his masterpiece of figure composition at the Courtauld in London. As a non-obligated Scot, some of the English Post-Impressionists do seem to me to be more individual, Wilson Steer, for instance and Harold Gilman. And England has throughout produced an array of artists who stand proudly outside the supposed vital juggernaut of art history: Blake, Hogarth, Palmer, Stanley Spencer, Burra, Lowry. There is no Scottishness of Scottish art like there is the Englishness of English art, as Pevsner titled his Reith Lectures.
This not to say there are no very fine Scottish painters. Ramsay’s royal portraits stand up well with any of England’s numerous continental imports (always excepting Holbein and Van Dyck) and his portraits of Rousseau and Hume are works that we look at not just to see what the philosophers were like, but for the art itself. Raeburn stands in the middle of a triumvirate of painters who could construct a perfect human face from a few broad brushstrokes. As he was a jobbing portrait painter, there are some dull works in his oeuvre, but it is remarkable how many are excellent. Yet I wouldn’t quite rank him as the equal of Frans Hals and Manet who make up the trio.
And then, earlier than the Colourists, there is William McTaggart. He is not popular like the former and has probably suffered from attempts to give him significance by linking him to French art as a Scottish Impressionist. But McTaggart cannot be pigeon holed. In some of his best work, he is an odd mixture of landscapist, genre artist and history painter. He also constructed large-scale works from small plein air sketches. If he is to be judged as an Impressionist these things will downgrade him. Many years ago at the Edinburgh International Festival, when a large exhibition of his paintings was mounted, some academics moonlighting as art critics on radio detected some narrative in his work and did just that. Martin Kemp, the Leonardo specialist, who taught art history at St. Andrew and then moved to Oxford (I’m not sure whether he was an Englishman ‘white settling’ in Scotland or a Scotsman who went on to ‘white settle’ in England or vice versa) said at the time that he thought that the exhibition would finally establish McTaggart as an important artist. He also said that he was less sure of the Scottish Colourists.
Three of McTaggart’s greatest works belong to a group which has been called by a biographer his Celtic paintings.They are Emigrants Leaving the Hebrides (Tate Britain), The Emigrants - America (private collection) and The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship which apparently belongs to the Scottish National Gallery. I have never seen it there. Is it because this historical, narrative painting does not fit with the idea of McTaggart as a Scottish Impressionist? Is it another example of the way that nationalist emotion, in trying to escape an inferiority complex, distorts aesthetic judgment?