Artistic Exchanges between Scotland and Flanders – Part 2

Morvern French
Friday 7 November 2014

In this second of two postings Professor Macmillan further examines the artistic exchanges between Scotland and Flanders. The narrative begins where last week’s posting left off – a discussion of the Trinity College altarpiece that dates to the early 16th century – and ends in the present era.

The Book of Hours 

After the Trinity College altarpiece, discussed in last week’s posting, the most important work to survive from these exchanges with the Scottish-Flemish circle was the Book of Hours of Margaret Tudor. Another piece of royal patronage, it was James IV’s present to his wife at their marriage in 1504. This beautiful book was previously attributed to Simon Bening. That attribution has now been challenged. Nevertheless, the work is close enough to his style for it to be clear that it is a product of the artistic circle to which Simon Bening and his father belonged and which, it seems, was also closely linked to Scotland.

The Book of Hours is especially remarkable for the evidence of the detailed oversight of the commission, or perhaps the close link it demonstrates between the artist and the king’s agent responsible for the commission. Given the date this agent is very likely to have been Andrew Halyburton. Indeed the book is notable for its Scottish detail. This includes separate portraits of the king and queen at prayer. The king’s portrait is pointedly modelled on the portrait of his father on the Trinity College altarpiece. In that painting, however, James III and his son are presented by St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, to whichever divine personage was originally in the missing central panel. Here the king is kneeling before an altar, but is supported by St James, his name saint, not St. Andrew. St Andrew does also appear, however. He is represented, full-length, in the left hand panel of an altarpiece, displayed on the altar in front of the king. Like the Trinity College Altarpiece, though much smaller, this altarpiece is a triptych. The right hand panel is not visible, but the central panel, and the image to which the king is kneeling, is a striking half-length of Christ as Salvator Mundi.

The small size of this painting suggests that what the artist has portrayed here is the king praying at his private devotional altar. There is no reason to suppose that the picture displayed on it was an actual altarpiece, but it is surely indicative of the kind of painting that would have furnished the royal chapels in Scotland.

Pilgrimages were often an act of penance, so perhaps the choice of St James, the pilgrim saint, in this miniature, rather than St Andrew, the national saint, reflects the king’s own sense of the need for penance for what he felt was his complicity in his father’s death. He built Cambuskenneth Abbey as an act of contrition on a site near where his father died and was reputed always to have worn a heavy chain beneath his clothes. Certainly the very striking miniature in this book of a Scottish royal funeral would seem to be connected with that event. These Scottish references were clearly specified as part of the commission for the book. So too is the inclusion in the secondary decoration of numerous thistles for James and daisies or margeurites for Margaret. There are also, however, a number of landscapes of lochs and mountains included in this secondary decoration. These too might have been part of the commission, but perhaps it could also be an artist living in a flat country thinking of the hills of home. Certainly it seems that long before Walter Scott, the artist has characterised Scotland as the land of the mountain and the flood. This beautiful book is therefore an important example of Scottish royal patronage of artists in Flanders, but perhaps it also bears witness to the close relationship between the two communities, not only by the fact of its being commissioned, but in its detail too.

The two great acts of royal patronage that reflect the closeness of the relationship between Scotland and Flanders are this Book of Hours and the Trinity College altarpiece to which, as we have seen, the miniatures in the book make direct reference. No other work of similar importance survives, though from the evidence given above it is clear that such things existed. It also seems likely that the presence of Piers the Painter early in the sixteenth century was not the only occasion on which artists came from Flanders to work here. Robert Brydall describes a letter in the correspondence of Sir George Bowers from much later in the century reporting the difficulty experienced by an unnamed Flemish painter in securing sittings with the young King James VI in Stirling Castle during the turbulent events of the Regency of James Douglas, Earl of Morton. We do know that Arnold Bronckhorst painted the king for Regent Morton. He was Dutch, but the account quoted by Brydall may refer to him. It would have been easy to confuse a Dutch painter and Flemish painter at that point in history. Nevertheless, even if it is a mistake, it still suggests that Flemish was the expected nationality of an immigrant painter. These are evidently artists working for the court.

Ecclesiastical Architecture 

There are also monuments that bear witness to the relationship between Scotland and Flanders at a more humble level. Thus, like the pantiles and crowsteps, they reflect the way in which this connection was not just for the court and the nation’s grandees, but for the ordinary people in Scotland, at least in the coastal towns of the east that traded regularly across the North Sea. Older church towers in Fife, like St Salvators in St Andrews, Kilrenny Parish church, or the old church of Anstruther Wester are very simple. Their effect depends on mass, proportion and very spare but telling decoration; but in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries one or two examples of an altogether more flamboyant model appear. The spire of Cupar’s old church, for instance, though dating to 1620, bears a striking resemblance to Flemish models. Its precarious pinnacles at the four corners of the tower and blind balustrade half way up the spire are in fact very close to the same features on the church of Our Lady of Bruges, though of course much smaller.  The Tron steeple in Glasgow follows a similar pattern at much the same date. The balustraded parapet and waterspouts of the Tolbooth Tower attached to Pittenweem Church, dating from 1588, also seem to reflect a similar influence, though its asymmetry is nevertheless distinctively Scottish.

Inevitably, however, the connection with the Catholic Southern Netherlands diminished rapidly as the reformed religion became established in Scotland. Nevertheless the tower of Cupar church indicates that the connection endured well into the seventeenth century. Indeed, though it is not part of the main topic of this posting, it is worth recalling that one of the most ambitious pieces of patronage of a Flemish artist anywhere, the ceiling of the Banqueting House painted by Rubens, was commissioned by Charles I, a Scottish-born king. Van Dyck too enjoyed extensive patronage from Charles and his court, including a good many of its Scottish members.

John Medina and his Legacy 

Notably, too, it was again a Flemish painter, John Medina, who brought an international style back to Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century. Medina was born in Brussels in 1659, son of a Spanish army captain, and trained there with François Duchatel. He came to Scotland as a visitor in 1694, but was so successful that he returned with his family to settle in Edinburgh. So it was a Flemish painter who sowed the seeds of the remarkable artistic renaissance of Scottish painting in the eighteenth century. Medina was knighted and naturalised as a citizen of the independent kingdom of Scotland during the last sitting of the Scottish Parliament before the Union of 1707. He died three years later in 1710.

The portraits of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons are among the most notable of Medina’s achievements. The series also includes his own self-portrait, added at the request of the surgeons. Its inclusion is an indication of the esteem that he enjoyed, but it also significantly places him in the company of fellow professionals, among his peers in fact. Another self-portrait that he painted in which he presents himself in character as the greatest of the ancient Greek painters, Apelles, painting Campaspe, mistress of Alexander the Great, makes the same point. In this self-image, he asserts both the status of the art he practises as a profession, not a mere craft, and his own standing as practitioner in a great tradition. It was an important example for his fellow artists in Scotland, and during the following decades they moved decisively from the relatively humble position of craftsmen to become masters of a proud profession.

Nor was this Medina’s only legacy. William Aikman was his apprentice and Allan Ramsay followed Aikman, close friend of his father, Allan Ramsay the poet. The antiquarian David Laing also recorded a tradition that the brilliant colouring and free handling seen in the painting of the Runciman brothers, John and Alexander, was learnt from ‘a very old man trained in the Rubens tradition’. This is not supported by any other evidence, but might nevertheless reflect the value to them of the example of several of Medina’s vividly painted subject paintings acquired by Sir John Clerk from the painter’s estate and still at Penicuik House. A century later, David Wilkie certainly did learn from the example of Rubens, especially in the exquisite way he used colour in his later drawings.

19th and 20th Century Artistic Exchanges 

During the nineteenth century, too, looking for a language suitable for the new self-image of Scotland created by Sir Walter Scott, architects remembered the old connection with Flanders. For the winning design for the monument to commemorate Scott, George Meikle Kemp turned to Antwerp Cathedral and Brussels Town Hall for inspiration. The civic architecture of fifteenth-century Flanders also became a favourite model for buildings intended to embody a new commercial self-confidence in Scotland, and the civic pride that went with it. Glasgow City Chambers is the most remarkable (and most expensive) example of this. Modelled on the great town halls of Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent, it even seeks to surpass their opulent display of civic grandeur. Nor were humbler artistic connections completely forgotten. E. A. Hornel spent three years studying at the Antwerp Academy between 1882 and 1885, and the acquisition by the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent of James Guthrie’s Schoolmates further bears witness to the continuing mutual awareness between the Scots and what by then had become the Belgian school.

Finally, a touching footnote to this long story: in one of many self-portraits, the artist John Byrne holds a label inscribed with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas un Autoportrait.’ It is a personal homage to the great Belgian Surrealist painter, René Magritte, and to his famous painting Ceci n’est pas un Pipe. In 1967 John Byrne, apparently trapped in a dead-end job in a carpet factory, wrote a despairing letter addressed simply to M. Magritte, Belgium. It was almost a surrealist gesture, but nevertheless the letter reached its destination and Byrne received a touching and thoughtful reply in which the Belgian Surrealist connected the mystery in his own paintings with the mystery of life and death in ‘a mysterious universe.’ Magritte’s words became a text for Byrne’s own career as a Surrealist painter and so perhaps it links Byrne back to Hugo van der Goes in a long thread of connection between Scotland and Flanders winding through almost six centuries.

Prof. Duncan Macmillan
November 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 author of Scottish Art, 1460-2000 and art critic of The Scotsman.

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