Saturday, 2 March 2013

lochaber no more

Visited the Fleming Collection on Berkeley Street, just off Piccadilly. A small, free gallery of Scottish art - one room of art from the permanent collection, one room of changing exhibition. It started as the art holdings of the Scottish merchant bank, Flemings, and became a standalone trust when Flemings was sold to Chase Manhattan.

I'd heard about it a few years ago, but only got around to going to it on Friday morning. It was interesting, and I'm sure I'll go back. A number of paintings I recognised and artists I'd heard of, but the two best known to me were to Victorian depictions of Highland emigration, The Last of the Clan (by Thomas Faed - he did several versions of this, and a larger one is in the Kelvingrove Museum) and Lochaber No More (by John Watson Nicol).

They're both quite sentimental, but the idea is something worth being sentimental about, and I like them both.

I wasn't entirely clear to me what the story in The Last of the Clan was, but the item on it in the BBC's Your Pictures website (which aims to catalogue all publicly-held art, I think) has some useful info, especially the first quote:

'When the steamer had slowly backed out, and John MacAlpine had thrown off the hawser [rope], we began to feel that our once powerful clan was now represented by a feeble old man and his granddaughter, who, together with some outlying kith-and-kin, myself among the number, owned not a single blade of grass in the glen that was once all our own.' Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, this painting was accompanied in the catalogue by this paragraph which was probably written by the artist himself. Such emigrant scenes were common occurrences in mid 19th-century Scotland when, partly as a result of the Highland Clearances, the land could no longer support the people.
Emigration, often forced, to places such as America and Canada, was the only hope of survival. Though sometimes, as depicted here, the very young, women and the old were not allowed to go, and only able-bodied men sailed to the colonies in the first instance. A masterpiece of genre painting on a relatively large scale, Faed combines an eye for detail with a fluent painterly manner. The high quality of the still life painting of objects strewn on the quayside – a ginger jar, a pheasant, pots and packing cases – and the costumes worn by the figures, are typical of Faed at his best and reveal a Pre-Raphaelite influence. These elements are set amidst a fine landscape with a breezy sky and distant choppy sea. All in all, Faed brings an epic quality to a subject which is charged with tragic emotion and powerful immediacy.

From other reading it looks like Faed painted this in London, and died in St John's Wood (and Nicol painted his in London too, it looks like). This article on Intermezzo (connected with Kelvingrove) also relates ('This painting has come to symbolise the Highland Clearances which was a time when many Scots were forced to emigrate, driven from their land by poverty, or evicted by greedy estate owners.  Although by then the worst of the Clearances were over, the story told by the picture still aroused strong feelings and inspired him to create the most enduring image of this tragic period of Scottish history. ... When this painting was exhibited, the Royal Academy had to have barriers erected to control the crowd!').

The title of Lochaber No More of course had me singing Letter From America to myself.  One of the things I liked about Letter From America was that it used the name of Lewis in a serious way.

The Your Paintings page is here. Its text says:
In 'Lochaber No More' Nicol depicts this atrocity with a high level of emotional intensity, with the stark figures looking wilfully back at their lost home. Their meagre belongings surround them, most notably their frail dog, poignantly evoke their desperate position.
The title stems from both a traditional lament favoured by departing emigrants and a song by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay which tells of an enlisted Highlander’s nostalgia for his home country.

Interesting that the title was pre-existing. Interesting also that it sounds like this is the original; I don't know if it's one of which there are a number of versions by the artist.

There's a long and interesting article here, from 19th Century Art Worldwide journal, called 'Lochaber No More—Landscape, Emigration and the Scottish Artist 1849–1895', by Robin Nicholson', which has a long section on both these paintings (and the artists).