NGS Acquires Rare Watercolour of a Black Milkmaid by David Allan

Posted in museums by Editor on January 5, 2022

From the press release (18 November 2021), via Art Daily:

David Allan, Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, ca. 1785–95, watercolour on paper, image size: 21 × 16 cm (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, D 5721, purchased 2019).

One of the earliest known images of a Black person by a Scottish artist has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn by David Allan (1744–1796) is a beautifully painted watercolour, which is both exceptionally rare and striking. It depicts a Black woman alone and centre stage at a time when Black sitters more often appeared as marginal or subservient figures in group portraits.

Looking directly at the viewer, the woman is shown in working dress, going about her daily duties and set against the backdrop of an elegant Edinburgh street. Her name and life story is unknown, but it is likely that she was a servant, a milkmaid, as suggested by the large vessel or butter churn shown beside her.

Modest in scale, the image is dated to the mid-1780s to early 1790s, a period when Allan created evocative drawings of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Edinburgh, such as soldiers, coalmen, fishwives, sedan chair porters, firemen, and officers of the city guard. These works, known as Allan’s ‘Edinburgh Characters’, suggest a background context for Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn, but they are generally sketched in a summary way, intended to capture character types, rather than specific personalities, and were often copied and duplicated. The Edinburgh Milkmaid, however, is highly detailed, precisely painted, and clearly a portrait of a specific person. It is hoped that further research may reveal more about the connection between the artist and the young woman and shed some light on her identity.

Director of European and Scottish Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, Christopher Baker, commented: “We are so pleased to bring this remarkable, rare, and extraordinary watercolour into Scotland’s national collection. It is an incredibly striking and special work, one which we believe will be enjoyed by many and, we hope, lead to new research on its background and most importantly the story of the woman depicted.”

Born in Alloa, David Allan was arguably the first Scottish artist to take contemporary life and customs from across the social hierarchy as a subject worthy of art. With the support of his patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart of Shaw Park, near Alloa, he travelled to Italy around 1767 and remained there for a decade, painting historical pictures and portraits. He became interested in drawing scenes of street life, inspired by the popular print tradition of depicting street criers who called out to advertise their produce or trades. He sketched street vendors, aristocrats on the Grand Tour, coffee house scenes, dances, carnivals, and local costume in Rome and Naples and on a visit to the islands of Procida, Ischia, and Minorca.

These experiences led Allan to take a similar approach after his return to Scotland in 1779. He drew his subject matter from contemporary life, ranging from specific events such as The Ceremony of Laying the Foundation Stone of the New College of Edinburgh (1789) to timeless traditions and customs, such as A Highland Dance and The Penny Wedding. In 1786 Allan was appointed to a teaching post as Master of the Trustees’ Academy and he settled permanently in Edinburgh. The city and its inhabitants became a particular focus for this work. From about 1788 he developed the series of over twenty drawings of workers and traders; often referred to as his ‘Edinburgh Characters’, they typically show an individual or pair of figures with the tools of their trade, set against a simple architectural or rural background.

Allan’s subjects range from higher status figures, such as a Highland officer in uniform and officers of the Town Guard, to those who did the city’s heavy labour, such as the coalmen, chimney sweeps, porters, and water carriers. Female workers are represented by a fishwife, a salt vendor, and a lacemaker. The figures are drawn with strong outlines in ink to enable them to be traced easily, as Allan made multiple versions of his character drawings, several of which are held in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. He also reproduced his Edinburgh characters on a smaller scale as the cast that populate his landscape views of the Royal Mile, such as High Street from the Netherbow, made in 1793. Seen as a group, Allan’s street characters give a broad and fascinating insight into late 1780s Edinburgh as a living, working city.

Edinburgh Milkmaid with Butter Churn is one of several notable acquisitions highlighted in the recently published NGS Annual Review, covering the years 2019–2021. The painting will go on display at a later date following some conservation work, which is currently being prepared. With much still unknown about the painting, the Galleries would welcome information, comments, or feedback about it.

Exhibition | Turner in January

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on January 5, 2022

From the National Galleries of Scotland:

Turner in January
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2–31 January 2022

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Durham, 1801, watercolour over pencil on paper, 41 × 25 cm (Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery).

The National Galleries of Scotland has presented an exhibition of the work of J.M.W. Turner every January for more than a century. This year’s exhibition will showcase all of the 38 watercolours by Turner that were given to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1900 by the art collector Henry Vaughan.

The exquisite works in the Vaughan bequest range from early wash drawings of the 1790s, to the colourful, atmospheric, and wonderfully expressive late works executed on visits to the Swiss Alps during the 1830s and 1840s.

Highlights of the bequest include a series of spectacular views of Venice such as The Piazzetta, Venice and Venice from the Laguna, which capture the drama and explosive skies of late summer Adriatic storms and demonstrate the artist’s consummate mastery of atmospheric lighting effects.

A booking for the Scottish National Gallery must be made in order to enjoy this exhibition.

More information on Henry Vaughan and the bequest is available here»

Exhibition | Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on January 5, 2022

Alison Watt, Centifolia, detail, 2019, oil on canvas, 76 × 62cm
(Collection of the Artist, © Alison Watt)

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Closing this month at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery:

Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 17 July 2021 — 9 January 2022

Curated by Julie Lawson

Alison Watt (born 1965) is widely regarded as one of the leading painters working in the UK today. This significant body of new work consists of sixteen paintings made in response to the practice of the celebrated eighteenth-century portrait artist Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) and are on show for the first time.

Left: Allan Ramsay, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, 1758–60, 74 × 62 cm (National Galleries of Scotland). Right: Allan Ramsay, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Anne Bayne, ca.1739, 68 × 55 cm (National Galleries of Scotland).

Alison Watt | A Portrait Without Likeness explores the artist’s continuing fascination with Ramsay’s portraits. Watt, most known for her beautiful and intricate large-scale paintings of drapery and folds, has long been an admirer of Ramsay’s portraits of women, in particular the intensely personal images of his first and second wives, Anne Bayne (died 1743) and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick (1726–1782). Both portraits reside in the Gallery’s collection and will be shown alongside Watt’s new work.

The exhibition is the fruit of a long period of study of Ramsay paintings, in addition to the drawings and sketchbooks from his extensive archive held by National Galleries of Scotland. Watt has said, “Looking into an artist’s archive is to view the struggle that takes place to make a work of art. A painting is a visual record of the inside of the artist’s mind. A painting is something that takes place over time; it is not static. To look at a work of art is to engage with an idea, and that is not a one sided activity. It’s more of a conversation.”

Alison Watt, Fortrose, 2019, oil on canvas, 61 × 46 cm (Collection of the Artist © Alison Watt).

A Portrait Without Likeness is accompanied by a publication featuring conversations between the artist and Julie Lawson, the Chief Curator of European, Scottish Art, and Portraiture at National Galleries of Scotland, who has curated the exhibition, as well as an essay from art historian Dr Tom Normand and a new work of short fiction by Booker Prize-nominated novelist Andrew O’Hagan.

Normand writes: “The fascination with flowers is uncommon within Watt’s oeuvre, but she has recently been engaged with the works of Allan Ramsay held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Most particularly she has reflected upon his painting The Artist’s Wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, painted between 1758 and 1760. This is an exquisite and mysterious portrait. At one level a tender study of his second wife, some thirteen years younger than the artist, at another a poignant essay on the enigma of human passion.”

Alison Watt, Julie Lawson, Tom Normand, and Andrew O’Hagan, Alison Watt: A Portrait without Likeness (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2021), 96 pages, ISBN: 978-1911054450, £20.


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