Restoring 'Christ Teacheth Humility' by Robert Scott Lauder (part one)

In this three-part blog by Lesley Stevenson, Senior Conservator at the National Galleries of Scotland, we will be following the conservation processes involved in restoring 'Christ Teacheth Humility' by Robert Scott Lauder. 

Find out more about the project below and follow us on all social media channels for bi-weekly updates on the project.

Christ Teacheth Humility, a monumental painting by the Edinburgh-born artist, Robert Scott Lauder, is the focus of a major conservation project currently underway in an empty gallery space in the Royal Scottish Academy. Exhibited in the very same building in 1848 and described at the time in a Scotsman review as ‘a lovely scene enacted at one of the gates of Old Jerusalem, presented with such touching pathos as will gather many a daily crowd of the gay assembly, and send them away wiser and better’, the painting represents one of the first purchases for the keenly anticipated ‘National Gallery of Modern Art’ before construction of the building had even begun.

'Robert Scott Lauder, 1803 - 1869. Artist' by Thomas Duncan.

What do we know of the artist and this painting?

Robert Scott Lauder (1803 – 1869) trained at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh before heading to London to pursue a career as a portrait painter. After a few years he returned north and by 1829 had become a full member of the RSA. In common with many British artists of this period he subsequently headed to the Continent in pursuit of inspiration and spent most of the next five years in Italy. Returning to the UK in 1838 he settled in London and made a living as a painter of historic, literary (mainly Scott) and biblical subjects. When appointed Director of the Trustees Academy in 1850, Scott Lauder returned finally to Edinburgh and established a reputation as a highly influential teacher.

Completed in 1847, Christ Teacheth Humility, arguably represents the artist’s greatest achievement, as well as his largest. Over 3 metres in width and 2 metres in height, it represents his ambitious entry for a competition organised by Her Majesty’s Commissioners on the Fine Arts to find pictures for the Houses of Parliament. It was exhibited in Westminster Hall and despite widespread admiration, did not win. The painting was later bought for £400 by Mr David Chadwick, Borough Treasurer of Salford and shown in Sheffield before being sold to Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, for £200 (as that was apparently all they had to offer). The painting returned north in the hope it would help establish a Scottish National Gallery. Robert Scott Lauder was clearly honoured by selection of his painting for this new institution, ‘and rejoiced that a Work upon which he has put forth his whole strength, has found a lasting resting place in his native city’.

'Christ Teacheth Humility' at Leuchie House, near North Berwick.
'Christ Teacheth Humility' at the Royal Scottish Academy.

Temporary accommodation was found for this large work in the Royal Institution Building upon the Mound, now known as the RSA Building and where the painting is presently sitting on an easel. And so, we have a wonderful circular journey and how fitting that the painting should feature prominently in forthcoming new gallery spaces designed to showcase and Celebrate Scotland’s Art.

Turning to the painting’s more recent history, in 1983 the painting was transferred on long term loan to a respite home, Leuchie House, near North Berwick, East Lothian where it was enjoyed by many residents until its return to Edinburgh last year.

A Young Goatherd with a Gourd. Study for the Painting 'Christ Teacheth Humility'.

So – what next for Robert Scott Lauder’s Christ Teacheth Humility?

Earmarked for the exciting new exhibition galleries at the Scottish National Gallery, now is the moment for some essential remedial treatment on the painting and its frame by the Conservation Department. Although for a painting of this age and size, the general condition is good, not surprisingly on return from an extended period away the overall appearance seems somewhat ‘tired’ and dull. Following discussion with curatorial colleagues it has been agreed that in order to highlight both the importance of this specific work to the establishment of the Scottish National Gallery and also the artist’s contribution as a teacher to the development of art in Scotland, the painting would benefit from some attention. In addition, we are extremely fortunate in having in the collection a small preliminary oil sketch as well as a preparatory watercolour figure sketch for the painting (pictured to the left and below). Consequently, there is the possibility of exploring the artist’s thinking and working methods through comparison of these associated studies to the finished work, and in doing so add value to the endeavour.

Study for the Painting 'Christ Teacheth Humility'.
Lesley, Senior Conservator at the National Galleries of Scotland working on 'Christ Teacheth Humility'.

As soon as the project was given the green light and fortunately, supported by The American Friends of British Art, the next hurdle proved to be logistical. The painting is simply too large to be accommodated safely in the Conservation Department at Modern One. An unlikely ally, the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant disruption to the NGS exhibition programme, came to our rescue and a vacant gallery at the Royal Scottish Academy Building was offered as a solution this autumn.

Aspects of what the conservation team are presently up to in this empty space – the processes involved and findings from the detailed investigation into the artist’s technique and materials, will be discussed in a further two blogs. These are due to appear over the next couple of months as work progresses on site. We also look forward to sharing news of the painting’s spectacular original 19th century gilded frame - its recent discovery, history and restoration!

Restoring 'Christ Teacheth Humility' by Robert Scott Lauder

By Lesley Stevenson, 10 November 2020