Artistic Exchanges Between Scotland and Flanders – Part 1

Amy Eberlin
Friday 31 October 2014

This is the fourth in a series of postings that look at the role the Flemish have played in shaping Scottish architecture and the arts more generally. In this first part of two postings Professor Macmillan examines the artistic exchanges between Scotland and Flanders and is able to discern a long thread of connection winding through almost six centuries. Part 2 will be posted next week.

Reflecting on the relationship between Scotland and Flanders, pan tiles and crow steps come immediately to mind as enduring witnesses, for Scotland at least, to its importance. The pan tiles and crow steps are there to be seen on many of Scotland’s oldest buildings.

Of course, after the Reformation the relationship between Scotland and the southern Netherlands was replaced with a very close relationship with the Protestant north, Holland as it became. That certainly had a profound influence on Scotland’s later history. The Dutch too use crow steps and pan tiles on their buildings, but their use on the Scottish east coast predates the emergence of Holland as a dominant influence on the nations around the North Sea. The Auld Alliance with France has also left a deep mark on Scottish culture, but France was further away and more a political ally than a trading partner. There were also important links with the Hanseatic cities of Germany, with Denmark and with Norway and indeed right around the Baltic. There were, for instance, Scottish communities in Helsingor, Cologne and Bergen, and in other places too. There still is a Scotsgaten in Bergen. Indeed Scottish masons built the castle there. Nevertheless, the Flemish connection was I believe definitive in the creation of modern Scotland because it touched the daily life of ordinary people at a critical time in the emergence of the modern nation.

Hugo van der Goes, the Bonkils and the Trinity College Altarpiece

The importance of the relationship between Scotland and Flanders is personified in Hugo van der Goes’s portrait of Sir Edward Bonkil, one of the earliest known portraits of a Scotsman and still one of the most outstanding. Bonkil is portrayed as donor of the Trinity College altarpiece, itself the most famous surviving piece of art linking Scotland to Flanders. During the period at which the altarpiece was commissioned, “contacts between Scotland the Netherlands were … close on levels political, dynastic, commercial and cultural.”[1] Thus Lorne Campbell and Colin Thompson summarise the exchanges that were the background to this commission.

This link shows the Trinity College Altarpiece and provides some background material:

This posting draws in part on the research of Campbell and Thompson[1] as well as earlier work of Father David MacRoberts.[2] They provide important insights into the background of the commission. It is to an extent therefore just rearranging the furniture they have set out. Nevertheless, I think that it is necessary to do that to understand fully what Scotland’s relations with Flanders were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Trinity College altarpiece was commissioned most likely in the late 1470s  for the Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh. The artist was the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c.1440/45 – 1482). Sir Edward Bonkil, who is presumed to have been responsible for the commission, was Provost of the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity. Painted in Bruges, the altarpiece was originally a triptych — a set of three panels, two hinged and thus two-sided on either side of a wider central panel with only one painted side. Thus in its original state it would have presented five painted surfaces, three when open and two when closed. The altarpiece would have stood above the altar in the church.

The central panel is lost, presumably destroyed by the iconoclasts of the Reformation. Only the two wings remain and these, the property of Her Majesty the Queen, can be found in the National Gallery of Scotland. Painted on both sides, these panels present four images. The two that would have been visible when the altarpiece was closed show, on the right, Bonkil kneeling in prayer beside an organ and supported by two angels. He is facing to the left and thus kneeling to the image on the adjacent left-hand panel which shows the Holy Trinity: the crucified body of Christ supported by God the Father, with a dove to represent the Holy Ghost hovering above. The other two panels which would have flanked the main and now missing central panel, and would thus have been visible when the altarpiece was open, show on the left King James III and his son supported by St Andrew and on the right James’s Queen, Margaret of Denmark supported by a saint wearing armour who may be St Canute, sometime king and patron saint of Denmark.

It is important to resist the conviction of inferiority in Scottish art history, however. It goes like this: Scotland was remote and poor. It follows that Scots could play no part in the great events of Western art except as recipients of occasional crumbs from its table. From this perspective, unless the outcome is explicitly provincial, the presumption must be that there were no Scots involved. It is clear from the evidence, however, that commercial exchanges between Scotland and Flanders – and indeed with other places in northern Europe – were also reflected in close personal links between people of the two nations and these included links between expatriate Scots, of whom Bonkil is clearly an important example, and the artistic communities of Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. It is also clear that within these latter exchanges there was room for the development in Scotland of a self-conscious national aesthetic, seen especially in royal buildings like Stirling Castle and Linlithgow. It is also seen in grander domestic buildings like Craigevar, or Glamis, but is apparent in other aspects of life too where the evidence survives. That is not the subject of this posting, however. Nevertheless understanding the connection with Flanders, the most important area of this kind of exchange, as one perceived at the time as between equals, does help to illuminate the self-confidence of the Scots that made this possible.

Being scrupulously academic, Campbell and Thompson refuse to draw the obvious conclusion suggested by the various bits of evidence that Edward Bonkil’s links with Van der Goes are representative of a broader artistic relationship between Scotland and Flanders.[1] They rightly argue that there is no documentary proof that Bonkil sat for his portrait in Bruges, but such proof is hardly necessary when the portrait itself was so manifestly painted from the life and is correspondingly so much in contrast to the portraits of the members of the royal family in the same painting. They could not travel to Bruges and indeed their portraits were clearly not painted by the master himself. Bonkil’s portrait is therefore its own witness to his presence in the painter’s studio.

Neither is there any explicit proof of any connection between Edward Bonkil and his contemporary Alexander Bonkil who acted as emissary between Charles the Bold of Burgundy and James III and who became a naturalised citizen of Bruges. Indeed he looks in his portrait as prosperous as he must have been to occupy such a prominent position in the picture alongside the king and queen. Clearly like Alexander Bonkil, he enjoyed the royal confidence. To reverse the argument that there is no evidence to link the two Bonkils and that therefore we cannot do so, it seems highly improbable that two men with the same name enjoyed the royal confidence at the same time, but were not otherwise connected. Thus, though again not proven, it seems very likely that Edward Bonkil’s prosperity reflected his position in a family whose wealth came from trade with Flanders. As well as Alexander there were several other people with the name of Bonkil recorded as active in this area. When the population of Scotland and indeed even more so of the city Edinburgh alone was so small, it is more likely that they were members of the same family than that they were not.

The altarpiece itself is witness to the importance of this Flemish connection. It was also strikingly modern at the time. Absorbing the naturalism of Flemish painting since Van Eyck, Van der Goes nevertheless also seems to look back to an earlier kind of painting that is less naturalistic and more visionary. Not only does he reintroduce the use of gold leaf, but in the panel of the Trinity he also deliberately distorts what had become the conventional, perspectival arrangement of space to create a deliberately unreal, or in modern language, surreal vision, that is not of this world. The only comparable commission is the Portinari altarpiece in the Uffizi. The Portinari commission was also the result of important trading links between Flanders and the wider world.

The marriage of James II, father of James III whose portrait is in Van der Goes’s picture, to the Flemish princess Mary of Guelders bears witness to the importance to both sides of the relationship between Scotland and Flanders. Mary was daughter of Catherine of Cleves, Duchess of Guelders, the great-niece of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who evidently arranged the marriage. Incidentally, as this marriage also bears witness, in the fifteenth century these links were with the Duchy of Burgundy that controlled the whole Netherlands. Later political changes meant, however, that what was once Burgundian and Flemish is now Dutch or Belgian. For instance the Scottish Staple, or merchants’ colony, moved from Bruges to Middleburg in the late fifteenth century and from 1541 it was located in Veere. Neither town is far from Bruges or Ghent, but being on the north shore of the Scheldt that eventually divided the Catholic south from the Protestant north, they are now in the Netherlands. In 1564 the Scottish Staple moved again following the order of Margaret of Parma, prohibiting under the pretext of danger from the plague the importation of wool from Scotland into Flanders (The plague she was acting to prevent was perhaps the spread of dangerous Protestant ideas, rather than the deadly disease known as the Black Death). The Staple for cloth was consequently transferred to Emden, a small but rising port in Friesland. Initially however its presence in Bruges is important for this story.

Bening and Binning

One of the most interesting figures in these Scottish-Flemish circles in Bruges was Alexander or Sanders Bening, who died in 1519. He was a member of the painters’ guild, first in Bruges, where he was sponsored by Hugo van der Goes, and later in Ghent. It has been suggested that Bening was the artist responsible for illuminating a manuscript known as the Book of Hours of Maximilian I, and so, by comparison, it is proposed he was also responsible for other similar works. What is distinctive about the group of illuminations thus identified as by the Master of the Hours of Maximilian I is that the artist who painted them was clearly very close to Van der Goes. This makes it more likely that this artist was indeed Bening, who was actually related to Van der Goes by his marriage to Catherine van der Goes, a sister, or possibly a niece of the artist. Marriages between families in the same profession were common and it is also normal to find successive generations of painters with the same name as children followed in the family profession. Alexander and Cornelia’s son, Simon, became one the most celebrated artists in the last flowering of manuscript illumination in Flanders in the sixteenth century.

Intriguingly,  we also glimpse in the records a painter called Sanders Escochois, or Sandy the Scotsman. It cannot be proved that he and Alexander Bening are one and the same. Nevertheless there evidently was at least one Scottish artist working in Flanders. There is, however, also circumstantial evidence to suggest that Sanders Escochois might very possibly have been identical with Alexander Bening, or at least that Bening was a Scot. Painting was a family business and there were no less than five painters called Binning (a simple variation on Bening or Benning) working in Edinburgh during the sixteenth century. Notably at least one of them, Walter Binning, worked for the court of Queen Mary in 1558 and 1561. It is perfectly possible that the same family of painters had two branches, one in Flanders, the other in Scotland, or that members of the family returned to work in Scotland. It is also significant, however, that Alexander Bening’s daughter (and Simon’s sister), Cornelia, married a Scot, Andrew Halyburton. This surely strengthens the argument that Bening was also a Scot as Halyburton would most likely have chosen his wife from within the Scottish community, while Bening would have been happy to be allied to such a powerful potential source of Scottish patronage. Nor was Halyburton just any Scot.  As Conservator of the Privileges of the Scots in the Netherlands, he was in effect the Scots ambassador. Halyburton also regularly acted as agent for the king in procuring art works and indeed artists from Flanders and also further afield. In 1505, for instance, the expenses he incurred in sending Piers the painter to Scotland were reimbursed. We do not know anything by Piers the Painter, but his presence in Scotland and Halyburton’s role in arranging for him to come here is further evidence of the normality of this relationship.

Other Ecclesiastical Art

Nor is the Trinity College altarpiece the only survivor from this exchange, although it is undoubtedly the most notable. We cannot, for instance, now tell where the original painting came from that included the portrait of Bishop William Elphinstone of Aberdeen. The portrait only survives in a copy of a fragment of a much larger original, but it was evidently an ambitious painting in the Flemish style. In 1505, Bishop George Brown imported Flemish altarpieces for the chapel of the Three Kings in St Mary’s, Dundee and for one of the chapels in Dunkeld Cathedral. Father David McRoberts quotes an account of similar altarpieces at Pluscarden Abbey which is also specific about their being made in Flanders: “Twa tabirnaclez in ye said abbay that is to say ane to yie hie alter and ane oyer to our Lady alter to ye making in Flandris.” Archbishop of St Andrews, William Schevez, commissioned the magnificent medal that bears his portrait and his arms from a Flemish artist of great skill. The consensus is that it was Quentin Matsys. There is also a small number of surviving illuminated books that appear to have been commissioned in Flanders for Scottish individuals or institutions. Dean Brown’s Book of Hours, for instance, is one of the most personal of these. We know he went to the Netherlands on his way to Rome and, as the book includes his portrait, it does itself bear witness to his presence in the artist’s studio. The book was evidently not finished in time for him to bring it home complete. The later miniatures seem to have been added after his return by a less skilled hand. The Perth Psalter was evidently made also in the Netherlands, expressly for St John’s Kirk in Perth, as it includes a dedication to that church. The same church also has a beautiful Flemish brass chandelier, a rare survivor of the havoc that John Knox’s preaching in the same church wrought throughout Scotland. The Epistolary of Aberdeen Cathedral was commissioned in Antwerp by Bishop Gavin Dunbar in 1527 and there can be no doubt that there were once many more such books as these and that they are but rare and chance survivors of what was once the normal furnishing of at least the better-off Scottish churches.

Prof. Duncan Macmillan
October 2014

Duncan Macmillan is Professor Emeritus of the History of Scottish Art and former Curator of the Talbot Rice Gallery at the University of Edinburgh. He is art critic of The Scotsman and is also the author of Painting in Scotland: the Golden Age (1986), Scottish Art 1460-1990 (1990, Scottish Book of the Year in 1991, enlarged edition in 2000, Scottish Art 1460-2000) and Scottish Art in the 20th Century (1994, Scottish Arts Council Book Award). His most recent book is Scotland’s Shrine: the Scottish National War Memorial (2014). He has also written a number of monographs on Scottish and European artists including Will Maclean, Stephen Campbell, Elizabeth Blackadder and Victoria Crowe.


[1] Colin Thompson and Lorne Campbell, Hugo van der Goes and the Trinity College Altarpiece, (Edinburgh, 1974).

[2] David MacRoberts, ‘Notes on Scoto-Flemish artistic contacts’, Innes Review X (1959).

Further Reading

Duncan Macmillan, Scottish Art 1460-2000 (Edinburgh, 2000)
M. R. Apted and S.Hannabus, Dictionary of Painters in Scotland 1301-1700 (Edinburgh, 1978)
Robert Brydall, Art in Scotland: Its Origins and Progress (Edinburgh, 1889)
John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Fife (London, 1988)
Miles Glendinning, Ranald MacInnes and Aonghas MacKechnie, A History of Scottish Architecture (Edinburgh, 1996)
Angels, Nobles and Unicorns (National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1982)
Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (London, 2003)

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