Candia McWilliam

All That Glisters

The Story of Scottish Art

By

Thames & Hudson 384pp £29.95 order from our bookshop
 

The painter and broadcaster Lachlan Goudie could not introduce The Story of Scottish Art in a more personal fashion. His preface begins, ‘My father, Alexander Goudie, was a painter; I grew up surrounded by Scottish art, I’ve been depicted in it and I’ve spent my adult life trying to add in some small way to its legacy. I am not, however, an academic, and this is not a textbook.’ Whether those words are meant to offer relief or be a warning is unclear, but I think the implication is that academics are pedantic and textbooks dry. Fairly often, alas, academics do not seem to be aware that they might treat language as a collaborator, even a medium, and textbooks, unless written exclusively in symbols and figures, in which case I must trust that they are beautiful, are unintelligible.

I suspect Goudie may prefer speaking to writing: just occasionally his prose contains what looks like a word ‘misheard’ by a computer speech recognition program – ‘effervescence’ for ‘efflorescence’, for example. Thames & Hudson might have assisted their talented and personable author had they allowed him an indefinite article in his title: presumably that ‘The’ is considered more commercially promising. The title is shared by a television series appealingly narrated by Goudie, who makes much of sharing a profession with the contributors to the long (five millennia, covered in four episodes) history of Scotland’s art. At least he has been permitted, perhaps even encouraged, to deploy the modish but in this context fair word ‘story’, as opposed to the more prescriptive, even tendentious ‘history’. The flag of subjectivity is planted firm.

The book is divided into parts corresponding to spans of time, and those parts into chapters with titles that offer a sense of continuity. Each part commences with a well-chosen epigraph. The vast and, in places, necessarily obscure Part I (covering c 3000 BC to c AD 1540) is introduced with these words of St Columba (AD 521–97):

Delightful to me to be on an island hill, on the crest of a rock, that I
Might often watch the quiet sea;
That I might watch the heavy waves above the bright water, as they
Chant music to their Father everlastingly…

The identification of a mighty force sparkling intermittently seems to me to constitute the finest and most consistent poetic achievement of Goudie’s book. The Story of Scottish Art is expressive of something deep in the works it describes and we meet it repeatedly here, in the lunulae (‘little moons’) rendered in Scots gold to decorate the garments of Bronze Age men, the glitter in the much-fought-over crown of Scotland, the pearling light in the psychologically penetrating portraits of Allan Ramsay, the silvered gessoes and candlelit geometries of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, the chiaroscuro of the death-haunted beds thick-painted by drunk James Pryde, the crashing yet dry atomised sea that lies over the shorelines of William McTaggart, whose reputation Goudie goes far to re-establish, and the splintered teeth and suspicious eye-whites of Joan Eardley’s Glasgow children. Nearer our own time, Alison Watt and Jenny Saville treat differently the nature of white, Watt approaching it as something to fold and to contemplate, as though inspecting the interiority of Ingres (for many Scots artists France has not been far away at all, but the colleague favoured over the neighbour to the south), and Saville allowing the colour to swell within her subjects’ aerated but plausible flesh as in a deflating balloon. And then there is the fish-white mystical glow of a triptych by John Bellany, a tribute to Piero della Francesca, showing a crucified turbot bigger than a man on the shore at Port Seton in Fife. This book is aglow with northern lights, well seen.

Everyone will have a list of missing favourites. My own includes Anne Redpath, Callum Innes, Katie Paterson and Elizabeth Blackadder, limner to the Queen. Goudie is, on the whole, strong on female artists and mentions several prodigies, from Christina Robertson, a mother of eight who became the favoured, ‘grand, silky’ portraitist of the Romanov tsars, and Bessie MacNicol, who painted the (gloriously sexy) A French Girl (1895), to Doris Clare Zinkeisen, a Jewish society beauty and painter of murals on the Queen Mary, who flew to Germany in April 1945, commandeered a Nazi Rolls-Royce and travelled to Bergen-Belsen, where she painted what she saw, quite astonishingly, to break the heart. ‘It’s the heart that’s the thing,’ as McTaggart said.

Structure is essential to such a book. The reader needs a way to absorb the divisions of geography, tribe, culture, religion, clan, allegiance and blood (not to mention the many kings named James), amid the welter of which the art of this small, contended, evacuated, depredated and high-hitting land was made, while following that art’s changes and its account of the times. By making his ‘story’ almost a pageant, such as the one that processes across the walls of the highly decorated main hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Goudie holds our attention and conveys his own enthusiasms and interpretations, from which we are, admirably, left free to demur. He is a never less than generous teacher. At his hand we can feel what it may have been like to make the first ‘pecking’ on the land, the ‘cup and ring’ marks at Kilmartin Glen in the west of Scotland, which Goudie apprehends as the ‘embodiment of a pulse’.

This openness to the far past, far outwith the more frequently or conventionally studied years between the 14th and the 21st centuries, offers a new way of thinking about such structures as the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, which Goudie calls ‘a sculptural point of contact with the stars’. Again, glister. At its best, this book connects the reader with the history that made the artists who made the art of Scotland and conveys with directness Goudie’s understanding of what in Scots is called ‘glisk’, which may be defined as ‘sunlight glimpsed through a break in the clouds; a fleeting glance at a glittering sight; a brief glow of warmth from a fire that’s burned low; a sudden flash of hope in the heart’ (the words are those of Robert Macfarlane).

As to the matter of it not being a textbook and its author not being an academic – what is the purpose of these boathooks (or fenders)? If it is to hold off charges of imprecision and inaccuracy, well, there is a bit of those, in terms of housekeeping and presentation (American spellings, absence of locations of the works in the suitably lavish illustrations, an unhelpful mixture of metric and imperial measurements, a James VII who has lost his II, a Herod who may need identifying as to which Herod precisely he is in relation to Salome, father or stepfather). But the history is engagingly and vividly done. If only there were somewhat less Horrible Histories use of language. It cannot be said of a crowd responding to John Knox in the spring of 1559 that it ‘went bananas’. There were no bananas for it to go. There may be anachronistic and as yet undiscovered veg, such as sweetcorn, twinkling amid the miracle in stone that is Rosslyn Chapel. But with language you undo what you wish to make when you do not work with the weave of time.

Nevertheless, this is a rich achievement for Goudie, a generous and young Scots artist. This better-than-textbook conveys with enthusiasm and feeling what it is to live deep within the story of Scottish art. In that it is invaluable.

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