The Scottish landscape has been one of the principal subjects for native artists for centuries. Dramatic mountain wildernesses that have become synonymous with Scotland first emerged in the eighteenth century. Artists began to approach the landscape with a new romantic feeling that was in itself part of a wider cultural drive to celebrate and ‘discover’ Scotland. Artists, writers and poets all contributed to the emergence of Scotland’s national identity, and the effects of their efforts still course through our modern notion of Scotland and Scottishness. That landscape painting helped to define the nation is an artistic accomplishment unique to Scotland, and many of these remarkable images are in the National Galleries of Scotland collection.
Before the eighteenth century, most examinations of landscape painting revolved around the work of individual artists. The principal figures were James Norie and his two sons, who were all initially decorative painters. They went on to produce topographical paintings of specific places that combined classical idealism with a more Scottish ‘realism’. Crucially, the Nories liberated decorative painters from their status as mere craftsmen, and expanded the idea of the artist as a professional and enlightened gentleman.
Landscape had become a subject in its own right, and by the mid-eighteenth century, a number of well established landscape painters had emerged, including Jacob More, Alexander Runciman, and Alexander Nasmyth. They all visited Italy, but the classical, picturesque echoes of these visits in their work would be unthinkable for the next generation of painters.
By the early nineteenth century, images of the landscape emerged that epitomize the now long-held stereotypical view of Scotland as a dramatic wilderness. Artists such as John Thomson of Duddingston and Horatio McCulloch painted recognisable places, but imbued them with drama: rocky cliffs, stormy waters and crumbling castles contributed to the early nineteenth century romantic vision of Scotland. Artists, writers and tourists were drawn to the Scottish landscape by Sir Walter Scott’s atmospheric descriptions of the countryside, particularly of the Highlands, which he promoted with patriotic zeal. John Knox’s work is a prime example of Scott’s influence.
By the later nineteenth century, grandiose views of castles, lochs and glens were beginning to seem outmoded. A new generation of artists such as Robert Herdman, and Waller Hugh Paton, were absorbing the growing influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Truthful observation of nature and more humble subjects such as villages and crofts were their aim. This was also the dawn of the photographic era. John Muir Wood was one of Scotland’s first landscape photographers and captured some of the country’s most magical views.
Inspired by their French counterparts, the late nineteenth century saw a new spirit of naturalism among Scottish artists, who turned their back on studio painting and began to work outside. Perhaps the greatest Scottish exponent of outdoor painting was William McTaggart. His work has often been compared with the French Impressionists, but his influences were varied and included the work of the Dutch Hague School, and the dramatic landscapes of J.M.W. Turner. McTaggart’s paintings came to define the West Coast of Scotland and rural village life.
The impact of French and Dutch landscape painting in Scotland was most obvious in the work of the ‘Glasgow Boys’, such as James Guthrie and William York Macgregor, and later the painters collectively known as the ‘Scottish Colourists’, who adopted the brilliant colouring of French post-Impressionists, such as Derain, and applied it to their native country.
The strong Scottish tradition of landscape painting carried on throughout the twentieth century. A growing awareness of wider British and European movements naturally affected Scottish artists. Abstraction and Surrealism made an impact on the work of William McCance, William Johnstone and Edward Baird. Artists such as James Cowie and James McIntosh Patrick used a similar, hard-edged though more naturalistic style. Late in his life Charles Rennie Mackintosh made a series of outstanding watercolour paintings in the south-west of France, which owe much to his brilliance as a designer.
More generally, the predominant trend in Scottish landscape painting up to the mid-twentieth century and beyond is typified by the work of artists such as William Gillies and John Maxwell, whose faithful portrayal of the Scottish landscape was stimulated by modernist continental painting but never subservient to it. This trend carried on into the post-1945 period, notably in the work of Joan Eardley and more recently with artists such as John Houston. Both understood the possibilities offered by abstract art, without abandoning a truthfulness to their original subject matter.
Among contemporary artists, the only consistency appears to be their diversity of approach and their ability to be inventive. In The Lamp of Sacrifice, Nathan Coley constructs a physical landscape made up of models of all the places of worship in Edinburgh, while Carol Rhodes makes paintings of places which are a fusion of the real and imagined. Other artists such as Charles Jencks have actually used ‘landscaping’ to construct their work. Landscape remains a strong draw for artists, and their work helps to bring our modern vision of Scotland into sharper focus.