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David Robinson Reviews: The Story of Scottish Art

‘But if there’s still anyone out there who thinks that Scottish art is provincial, obscure and unimportant, there is a verve, beauty and breadth of imagination about the artworks in this book that will make them change their minds.’

The beautiful book: the perfect Christmas present. David Robinson finds, in Lachlan Goudie’s The Story of Scottish Art, that not only is the book beautiful, but an inspiration for travel.

 

The Story of Scottish Art
By Lachlan Goudie
Published by Thames & Hudson

 

IV36 3WX. DD2 5SG. PA1 1DG. I’ve never reviewed a book through the medium of postcodes, but there’s a first time for everything, and in the case of Lachlan Goudie’s The Story of Scottish Art, it seems appropriate. A book like this, packed as it is with fine reproductions of paintings and sculptures, usually inspires its readers to go back to the galleries where they can see the originals, but with me, that wasn’t the case: none of those postcodes contain galleries. Yet in 2021, after I’ve had my jags and when the world is back to normal, Goudie’s book made me want to travel to all three of them.

What works of art will I be looking for? I’ll give you three clues. Before I read Goudie’s book I hadn’t heard of any of them, so while they may be well known to some, they’re not mega-famous or established stop-offs on the tourist trail. They’re also to do with Death and Christianity, yet none of them are graves. Any help?

IV36 is Forres and 3WX narrows that down to a solidly suburban street that used to be the old road to Findhorn. A hundred yards to the north is a huge white-painted  tubular bridge  for pedestrians over the main Inverness-Aberdeen road which runs beneath it. Why the bridge is there I have no idea because according to Google Maps, there’s nothing much on the other side apart from flat, featureless fields. Trust me, I won’t be going there for the view.

No: the reason to visit my first postcode is to check out the contents of what looks like an enormous glass box on the east side of Findhorn Road.The carvings on the red sandstone pillar are probably too weather-worn to make out as clearly as I’d like. Even without going there, I suspect that I’ll feel a bit let down when I finally do.

And yet I really will go there in 2021. Why? Because Lachlan Goudie had sold me on it. He’d already taken me, without a hint of artspeak, on an  east coast trail of Pictish carved stones, ending up in front of what you have probably already correctly worked out is Sueno’s Stone. On one side of it there’s an enormous cross, but it’s the other side that is really interesting. Carved into this 21-foot pillar are incredibly detailed battle scenes, like a Pictish graphic novel. Goudie describes them from top to bottom: first, the cavalrymen marshalling before battle, then the bloody fight itself and, at what looks like knee height, the triumphant victory parade afterwards. Like a latter-day Rosemary Sutcliff, he gives us the sounds of battle and highlights some of its more gruesome sights, all in a particularly vivid present tense.

Goudie’s book isn’t like any art history book I’ve read. For one thing, he’s neither an academic or an art historian, but a painter trying to uncover what’s particularly Scottish about Scottish art. So he’ll commit all kinds of sins against academia, like calling artists by their first names once he’s introduced them, stringing together superlatives to emphasise why we should be interested in them, and making a series of often unsubstantiated subjective judgments. His is a very broad-brush approach, and given that he has five millennia to work through, and that he’s throwing architecture and sculpture into the mix too, perhaps it has to be.  His book won’t dethrone Duncan Macmillan’s magisterial Scottish Art 1460-2000 as the essential book on (most of) his subject but then again, it isn’t trying to.

Essentially, the book is everything you’d expect from the 2015 four-part TV series on which it was based – well structured, informal and informative. His page on Sueno’s Stone is a case in point. This is one of those artworks when we don’t need the footnoted caution of academia, not least because academia hasn’t got a clue about it. We don’t know who they were, these people who hacked each other to death on the edge of what is now suburban Forres. We don’t even know where the battle was, when it was, what the war was about, who commissioned the stone, or who worked on it. “A final creative yell left to echo down the ages,” Goudie calls it. Me, I’d call it a massive sandstone question mark. Think you know your ninth-century ancestors? Think again.

What about our 15th century ones? For that, I’ll be heading to DD2 5SG – in other words to St Marnock’s church, Fowlis Easter, about half a dozen miles outside Dundee. Again, it doesn’t look much from the outside, but this is one of Scotland’s finest surviving medieval parish churches (built in 1180). Inside, it has one of only two painted rood screens to have survived the Reformation.

If you’re thinking ‘So what?’, let me put it another way. About a century before Knox kickstarted the Reformation up the road in Perth, here is rare primitive religious painting from old Catholic Scotland. Again, we don’t know the artist, but as Goudie points out, the people painted around 1480 at the foot of the Cross in this 5ft x12ft wooden panel certainly look like locals. They’re there, along with an unidealised Christ and even a jester, in a painting of charming naivety which itself was almost crucified during the Reformation, with angels’ faces scratched out and the rest of it damaged by hammered nails. It only survived, Goudie points out, because the green paint with which it was painted over in 1612 gradually flaked away.

The final stop on this vaguely mystical tour – PA1 1DG – is, as you have probably guessed, right in the heart of Paisley. Having just finished reading Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy, I knew a small bit about the artists of the First World War, but I’d never heard of Alice Meredith Williams, who sculpted what looks like a spectacularly imposing memorial to the conflict. In our multicultural age, no-one would dream of commissioning a statue of the enormous Crusader knight who stands atop Sir Robert Lorimer’s equally gigantic (too high?)  plinth. But it’s the four flanking stone infantrymen that intrigue me more because even though they are idealised to some extent, they still look as though they were drawn from life. And so they should, because Alice’s husband Morris – though not an official war artist – provided her with whole albums full of unflinchingly realistic sketches of life and death in the Flanders trenches. Over a century on, there’s still something incredibly moving about those four soldiers, their greatcoat collars up, striding purposefully forward alongside a mounted warrior from a different, but still faith-soaked, era.

This is already, I must admit, already a death-obsessed journey into Scottish art, so I’m almost afraid to mention Allan Ramsay’s 1741 portrait of his dead son, though I must because it is one of the most moving images I have seen: click on https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5348/infant-son-artist and tell me I’m wrong. Like all the other three, it is something I had never seen before I read Goudie’s book. I’m not convinced by his conclusion that there is “a character to Scottish art, a strand of creative DNA that originates in this place” – apart from Sueno’s Stone, all the artworks I’ve mentioned could easily have originated in other places too. But if there’s still anyone out there who thinks that Scottish art is provincial, obscure and unimportant, there is a verve, beauty and breadth of imagination about the artworks in this book that will make them change their minds. And if you’re still looking for good ideas for Christmas presents, it’s definitely worth adding to the list.

 

The Story of Scottish Art by Lachlan Goudie is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £25.

 

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