David Young Cameron (1865–1945) was one of Scotland’s most prolific and influential artists. He was born in Glasgow, the son of a minister, and in the early 1880s he went to study at Glasgow School of Art. By 1885 he had gained a place at Edinburgh School of Art, where he was encouraged to take up etching because of the strength of his pen drawings. Although he also made many paintings, drawings and watercolors, it was as a printmaker that he initially received the most recognition. Cameron had a rare ability to capturehis subjects with remarkably few lines. During his career he produced over five hundred etching plates, with subjects ranging from atmospheric interiors to dramatic landscapes, as well as detailed studies of buildings and figures.
Cameron had grown up in the great tradition of landscape painting in Scotland and had been surrounded with sublime romantic views of the Highlands by celebrated predecessors such as J.M.W. Turner and Horatio McCulloch. Cameron’s work, and especially his prints, are more spiritually expressive by comparison.
Rather than focusing on spectacular natural forms and extreme weather, he had a preference and a talent for capturing stillness and ambiance, popularly describe as the ‘atmosphere’ of a place. His representations of the Scottish Highlands remain some of the most poetic images seen in British printmaking in the twentieth century.
From the 1890s until the late 1920s there was an extraordinary interest in printmaking and Scottish etchers were much encouraged by the support of art dealers in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but also in America. The demand for Scottish prints surged and prices rose to levels that had never been seen before, and Cameron’s career spanned this period (known as the ‘Etching Revival’).
Cameron was considered one of the leading ‘master’ printmakers. The basement of his house at Kippen included space for his very own printing press. He made relatively small editions of his prints and these were eagerly sought after by collectors who would pay premium prices. One of his etching sold for the record-breaking sum of £640 in 1929, equivalent to around £36,000 today. However, the collapse of financial markets after the Great Crash of 1929 also resulted in the collapse of the print market, and prices for contemporary prints never reached such heights again.
This is Cameron’s original copper etching plate from 1916 for the print below. It was issued to subscribers of a special edition of 'The Royal Scottish Academy 1826–1916', by William Darling McKay and Frank Rinder. It shows William Henry Playfair’s two great gallery buildings seen from East Princes Street Gardens. Cameron captured these ‘temples to the art’s and their setting with his typically economical use of line, creating an atmospheric print that celebrates Playfair’s designs. This plate was deliberately crossed out and ‘cancelled’ by Cameron. He was very particular about the quality of his printing and would only produce about fifty impressions of each plate to prevent deterioration of the plate resulting in poor quality prints.
This portrait of Cameron was painted by his friend Alfred Kingsley Lawrence. Here, he has been chosen to be shown dressed in his painting smock, as though interrupted at his easel.
Although a talented printmaker, his reputation as a painter in oil and watercolour was also substantial. Cameron was an inventive painter of Scottish landscape, his works on a larger scale characterised by their dramatic contrasts of light and colour, which belie the more sensitive handling of his etchings.
One example from 1913, The Hill of the Winds is an austere depiction of a mountain, which makes a striking contrast to the romantically charged Highland scenery displayed by earlier Scottish landscape painters.
In the work, Cameron emphasised the structure and outline of the mountain range against a bright sky which gives the central peaks an overwhelming presence. He excluded all non-essential detail and at no point hints there may be a supplementary ‘story’ to the scene. More fascinating for Cameron was the changing qualities of light, and many of his watercolours, oils and etchings explore the effects of sunrise or sunset over the landscape. An example of this work is The Waning Light of 1905, where Cameron uses a restrained palette to create a feeling of serenity as the evening light faded.
The success and popularity of Cameron’s work made him a wealthy man, which meant that he could afford to travel widely; discovering fresh subjects in the museums, churches and backstreets of European towns. In addition, thanks to his wealth he was able to become a significant collector of art. Cameron was a great connoisseur of prints, with an immense admiration for printmakers such as Rembrandt and Whistler. He also collected a great deal of contemporary art covering various media. His selection of bronze sculpture included works by Jacob Epstein, Alfred Gilbert and Auguste Rodin.
Cameron left a lasting legacy in Scottish design through his promotion of ecclesiastical stained-glass making. This activity was motivated by a combination of his appreciation and encouragement of fine craft and his deeply held religious beliefs. He had considerable influence in British artistic circles, serving for many years as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland, for which he held a great fondness.
Prior to his death in 1945, he presented his collection of bronze sculptures, drawings and prints to the National Gallery of Scotland. The gallery also received a substantial bequest after his death, which not only included works of art but also a large sum of money to acquire new works for the collection.