Art conservation | Preparing Guthrie's 'Oban' and Paterson's 'Edinburgh from Craigleith' for display

The Conservation team at the National Galleries of Scotland is hard at work preparing for the opening of a new suite of display spaces for the Gallery’s unrivalled collection of Scottish art. Construction of the new galleries began in October and, with the new rooms set to open in early 2021, the thinking, the multi-disciplinary research and not least, the physical preparation of the works of art required to tell these stories, is well underway!

The new displays, arranged both chronologically and thematically, have provided the impetus for conservators and curators alike to focus anew on the contribution of Scots to the development of art history over the last four centuries or so. In preparation for their inclusion in the transformed gallery, two late-nineteenth century-landscape paintings from the well-known ‘Glasgow School’ have been recently cleaned in the painting conservation studio and the removal of a discoloured varnish from both has proved revelatory.

Oban, dated 1893 by Sir James Guthrie and Edinburgh from Craigleith by James Paterson dated 1899 exemplify in their own way the approach of the so-called, ‘Glasgow Boys’. In each painting we have an artist working out his thoughts, probably outdoors, directly on a commercially-prepared fabric support using a muted palette of colours and without elaborate preparatory drawings. 

The technical examination of these two paintings combined with their recent cleaning has clarified the difficulties both artists encountered with these quite different compositions. In addition, the passage of time has brought to our attention the fact that the landscapes were not created as effortlessly as they might first appear.

Sir James Guthrie Oban, 1893. Pictured is the whole composition during varnish removal.
Sir James Guthrie Oban, 1893 after cleaning.

The smaller, slightly earlier painting of Oban is portrait format, the upright aspect emphasised by two vertical lampposts placed along the curved promenade of the coastal town. It is an overcast scene, possibly evening and almost certainly the moments before dark clouds unleash a heavy rain shower. Buildings in the background are dashed, abbreviated forms executed in tones of grey, green and brown whereas the figures are no more specific but added seemingly for decorative effect or to suggest life in the bustling scene.

Sir James Guthrie Oban, 1893. Detail before varnish removal showing artist’s adjustments to composition.

Guthrie has clearly struggled with the composition. The lampposts have been hastily shortened from the top, presumably at a late stage with the artist’s adjustments now clumsily visible. Along the foreground an initial dark horizontal band has similarly been painted out and with an equal lack of success. This is now barely concealed beneath a scumble of light grey. Such obvious modifications however rather than detract from the scene, offer the viewer an insight into the artist’s working method.

Regarding the way the composition is cut off on the diagonal this can be interpreted as evidence of the impact of photography, but also of Japanese prints that were at that time readily available and very popular in artistic circles.  Clearly Guthrie was aware of both.

James Paterson Edinburgh from Craigleith, 1899.

Paterson’s cityscape, Edinburgh from Craigleith by contrast has a horizontal format with an apparently conventional layered structure. Arranged perhaps as a nod to the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape tradition, there are three distinct zones to the composition; a boldly expressive green foreground, a subtle mid-ground with human life presented as dashes of red paint on the road on the right while the protagonist of the scene, the quarry, sits monumentally to the left. Thirdly, there is the distant, muted profile of the Castle with church steeples in the upper background identifying the location of the scene as Scotland’s capital. Like Guthrie, there is a diagonal focus to the landscape as tree branches cross the foreground and draw the viewer’s eye from lower right to left and towards the imposing, recognisable form of the Castle rock.

James Paterson Edinburgh from Craigleith, 1899. Detail of the quarry after cleaning.

Although there is no visible major alteration to the original design, the heavy application of paint, combined with a number of conspicuous drying cracks in the paint describing the quarry, suggest that Paterson laboured over parts of the composition.

Such localised, wide-mouthed cracks will have developed shortly after execution and may indicate a medium-rich paint applied over earlier layer that had not yet sufficiently dried. The upper paint layer contracts and cracks result often exposing an incongruous colour beneath.

Ironically, this has proved (unintentionally) advantageous by adding texture to the surface of the quarry but this craquelure also indicates the degree of difficulty experienced by Paterson in realising the scene. 

Like Guthrie’s Oban, perhaps the landscape has not been as easily composed as an initial glance might suggest.

To sum up, the recent removal of the dull and flattening effect of a degraded yellow varnish from both paintings has not only markedly improved their overall appearance but has highlighted fascinating aspects of the artist’s working method previously concealed. This is just a glimpse of what can be gleaned from the preparation in the Conservation Department, of parts of the Scottish collection for the much anticipated new displays at the Scottish National Gallery.

By Lesley Stevenson, Senior Conservator, 20 December 2018