A discerning eye
Dutch painting emphasises man’s frailty and pride, and is imbued with a humane Calvinism which has attracted Scottish collectors over the centuries. Nicholas Phillipson reviews the current exhibition of Dutch Art and Scotland, and reﬂects on the links between the two countries.
Don’t be put off by the slightly pedantic title of this exhibition. Dutch Art and Scotland: A Reflection of Taste is a stylish and scholarly look at Dutch art and Scottish collectors which reminds you that during the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland incurred important cultural debts to the Low Countries on which it is still quietly paying interest. This is a magnificent group of 76 paintings which were executed during the so-called Golden Age of Dutch painting and found their way into Scottish collections during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is mostly art of the highest quality. The nine Rembrandts cover every period of his career and include four of his self-portraits. The seven Ruisdaels include some of the most metaphysically charged of his landscapes. The three Frans Hals pictures include two of his most disturbing portraits. The three Saenredams pieces include his enormous and serene interior of the Grote Kerk in Haarlem, now part of the the National Gallery of Scotland collection. They have been chosen because they seem to represent the taste of Scottish collectors.
The big question the exhibition raises is whether they shed any light on the peculiar workings of the
Scottish collectors obviously felt at home with Dutch painting. The superb catalogue tells how their Dutch collections were built up by canny purchases, inheritance and lucky marriage settlements. During the 17th century, it was possible to buy at source, and even by the yard; in 1691 , Sir James Dick, told his Dutch agent to get him around twenty paintings for the stair of his new house at Prestonﬁeld: ‘Lett your choyce runn upon Lively Light coloures and not sadd,’ he wrote. The early 19th century seems to have been a particularly good time to collect, when the market was ﬂooded with the collections of Continental families who had come unstuck during the Napoleonic Wars. Most of these early collectors were noblemen and lairds, but by the end of the 19th century, a new breed of industrialist collectors had grown up, such as the canny and discerning Sir William Burrell; who discovered neglected Dutch painters like Frans Hals and still looked on the Dutch Old Masters as the building blocks on which to raise their enormous and varied collections. As the painter Sir David Wilkie once remarked ‘all collections begin with Dutch pictures.’
One could, of course, argue that Scottish collectors were only following the fashion; the Dutch Old Masters had always been a valuable and collectable commodity in Britain and northern Europe. This question is addressed in three excellent essays in the catalogue which discuss the profound impact of Dutch trade, theology, law, university education, and architecture and town planning on 17th century Scotland and remind one how badly the subject has been neglected by historians. It is the story about the impact of the culture of a highly developed Calvinist state on one that was much less fortunate. And it shows that it was perfectly natural for the Scots to look to the
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Low Countries for their art.
But was there was anything peculiarly Scottish about the taste of these collectors? It’s a question that draws one back from the calalogue to the paintings which have been hung with great skill in the lower exhibition hall of the National Gallery. This usually drab and uninspiring space has been transformed and turned into a series of small rooms so that you feel that you are in the house of a collector with a discriminating eye and a great deal of money. There are clearly things he doesn’t like; it’s curious that there are so few still lifes, so little mannerist painting and so few works by the raunchier masters. On the other hand, it is a collection which seems to have its own coherence.
I’m tempted to speculate that that lies in the humane Calvinism which was cultivated by liberal Dutch.
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Whereas Italian renaissance painting was apt to celebrate man’s power over nature and his ability to rival the gods, this Dutch painting emphasises man’s frailty and pride, his interest in improving the world, and his respect for a divine providence that continually watches over us. Look, for example at the frailties that Rembrandt sees in himself and others, which couldn’t be endured unless we were able to console ourselves with fine clothes and grand manners. But it is a story about vanity and weakness humanised and sanctified by the luminous light in which the sitters are. Look at Ruisdael’s The Banks of a River, a landscape in which roads, houses, barges, and ordinary people doing ordinary things, are as much a part of the natural world as plains, rivers and trees. But it is a world which is under the supervision of a stupendous skyscape and the watchful eye of an inscrutable and kindly deity. This is a spirit which stood in stark contrast to the fractured abrasive and narrow Calvinism of Presbyterian Scotland, offering a vision of a humane, orderly, hierachical world which was at peace with itselfand with the deity. In the early 19th century, that great admirer of Dutch art David Wilkie tried to recapture its spirit for modern Scotland with a series of paintings which some Scots valued as much as the Old Masters themselves. They may not have been right to do so.
Dutch A rt and Scotland: A Reﬂection of Taste is at the National Gallery of Scotland until 18 October.
Dr Nicholas Phillipson is Reader in History at Edinburgh University and is a member of the Festival Council.
The List 11 — 24 September 1992 49