A Tale of Two Gordons - review by David Wheatley

David Wheatley

On a Scottish Portrait

A Tale of Two Gordons


Pompeo Batoni’s Colonel William Gordon is among the most striking Scottish portraits of the 18th century. Depicting the Aberdeenshire officer receiving an orb and laurel wreath from the figure of Roma against a classical backdrop, the painting grafts post-Culloden Scottish modernity onto antiquity. The result is a dramatic hybrid with an admixture of incoherence – the ripples of Gordon’s toga-like kilt, for instance, belong unequivocally to silk rather than the wool traditionally used for the garment. The hero has planted his left foot on a stone, the better to spring into action at a moment’s notice; the original of his drawn sword is now in a glass case under the canvas. The Dress Act of 1746, prohibiting the wearing of tartan, was still nominally in force when the painting was made two decades later, but here is a figure to synthesise the old and the new.

Batoni’s canvas can be found in Fyvie Castle, that supreme flowering of the Scottish baronial style, its five enormous towers commanding the plains of north-central Aberdeenshire. Nowhere at Fyvie does the 18th century linger as vividly as in its portraits, and alongside the Batoni the castle houses no fewer than thirteen Raeburns. Under William Gordon’s intent gaze and billowing kilt, however, I am reminded of his connection to a figure of the 19th century: Charles Dickens. Dickens is not, on the face of it, a writer much associated with Scotland. Dickens had family ties to the Scottish capital: his wife, Catherine, hailed from that city, and her father was a publisher and friend of Walter Scott’s. Chapter 49 of The Pickwick Papers, ‘Containing the Story of the Bagman’s Uncle’, is Dickens’s sole narrative set in that country. Returning from an evening’s carousing, the titular uncle stumbles on some ruined mail coaches, climbs inside one and is spirited away on an adventure with two sword-waving hotheads.

Not usually one to resist a spot of accent-based slapstick, in The Pickwick Papers Dickens confines himself to standard English. A blast of Scots occurs in The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, an account of a walking tour of Cumberland coauthored with Wilkie Collins. When the two men discuss

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