‘Imagination is Evidence of the Divine’
William Blake (1757-1827)
It is a paradox that in Scotland, a country of rational thinkers and scientific discovery, there could be such a strong cultural belief in myths, magic and legends. Scottish artists throughout the centuries have chosen subjects that have allowed them to explore aspects of fantasy in their work. Some artists have drawn from ‘fantastic’ themes that appear in literature and music. Other artists look to ‘other worlds’ such as dreams, hallucinations and intoxication for inspiration.
In exploring Scottish fantasy, we probe a tradition that not only spans all of the creative arts, but also the more humble art of story telling. Fairy tales, ghost stories and legends are part of Scotland’s culture, and this casual anecdotal stimulation of people’s imaginations traditionally began at home. George Paul Chalmers’s The Legend shows just such a scene, as the children gather to hear the old lady’s tale. This painting in fact encompasses the two threads that run concurrently through ‘fantastic’ Scottish art: the legendary and the literary. Chalmers’ painting actually shows a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate.
Several artists have been inspired to illustrate literary subjects that tackle aspects of fantasy, and Scotland has produced numerous writers that have explored the genre. For example, Robert Burns with Tam O’Shanter, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. One of the most influential was James MacPherson’s so-called ‘translations’ into English of Gaelic poems by the fictive figure Ossian. John Brown’s portrait of the painter Alexander Runciman shows him resting on a book of Ossian’s work. MacPherson’s writings stimulated a renewed interest in the ancient Celtic arts and indigenous legends. This ‘escapism’ was refreshing after almost two centuries of Reformation, rationalism and Enlightenment. By the late nineteenth century a full Celtic Revival was underway, attracting artists such as John Duncan and Phoebe Anna Traquair.
Fairy stories have provided yet more stimulation for Scottish artists and writers, from J.M. Barrie and George MacDonald, to Joseph Noel Paton and David Scott. Paton’s Oberon and Titania paintings derive from Shakespeare, who himself had created his own Scottish legend of witchcraft and ghosts in Macbeth. The nineteenth century saw a whole genre of Shakespearean fairy pictures, drawn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular. David Scott painted scenes from the play, and his brother William Bell Scott also displayed interest in mystical themes with his pictures of goblins, water sprites and figures from legend.
During the Victorian age, and even well into the twentieth century, many people actually believed in fairies wholeheartedly. This led to an even greater focus on folklore and undoubtedly contributed the invention of new myths. Not even modern rational men are immune to the power of magical tales. Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced of the existence of the Cottingley Fairies, and the first reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster occurred as late as 1933, with searches still underway today.
Encounters with ghosts and death also feature prominently, both in art and in literature, as do other worlds and alternative creative states. William Fettes Douglas’s The Spell shows a man attempting to conjure the spirit of the dead, whereas John Bellany’s Ventriloquist is the voice of the dead. While these sorts of fantastic images are more serious and contemplative than fairy pictures or illustrations of legends, they nevertheless stimulate the imagination in the same way as more whimsical subjects.
Ultimately, the escapism that fantasy artworks provide is one of their most appealing aspects. They have the capacity to remind us of the naivety of childhood and the comfort of magic and make-believe.