Beneath the Mask

With most of us now wearing masks on a daily basis, join modern Scottish artists in revelling in the human face.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961), Hortensia, 1907, oil on canvas
University of Aberdeen (c) Perth & Kinross Council

John Duncan Fergusson: Full-frontal

Hortensia of 1907 by the Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) is a full-frontal veneration of female and natural beauty. Fergusson was born in Leith and studied sporadically at the Académies Colarossi and Julian in Paris. He moved to the French capital in 1907. Two years later he was elected a Sociétaire (member) of the Salon d’Automne in recognition of his contribution to the modern movement.

It was during this vital period of creativity that Fergusson painted Hortensia. The title refers to the girl’s name meaning ‘of the garden’ as well as to the common name of the hydrangea flower by which the sitter is surrounded. Already a celebrant of beautiful women in his practice, this work shows how he was stimulated by first-hand exposure to the very latest developments in French painting. For example, the use of undiluted, un-natural colour to portray form, volume and shadow, as well as a technique based on raw brushstrokes, shows the impact of work by Fauve artists including Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954).

Clearly delineated facial features amidst a pale complexion are the main focus of the image. The sitter’s clothing, hair and hair band merge into the flowers which crowd the upper half of the canvas. Spatial depth is ambiguous whilst the surface and texture of the painting is emphasised. A vibrant palette and energetic rendering of the fecundity of nature are as powerful as the striking model’s steady gaze, in this powerful yet poised image.

Hortensia was bequeathed to the University of Aberdeen in 1976 by the Welsh-Scottish writer Eric Linklater (1899-1974), a former student, teacher and Rector of the university.

Cecile Walton (1891-1956), Reverie, 1921, oil on canvas
Perth Museum & Art Gallery (c) Artist’s Estate

Cecile Walton: Looking at Ourselves

Amidst the current mask-wearing requirements, some of us are also becoming accustomed to seeing our faces more than usual, when attending on-line video meetings. In Reverie of 1921 by Cecile Walton (1891-1956), the sitter gazes at herself in a hand-held mirror instead of a laptop screen.

Walton was born in Glasgow, a daughter of the Glasgow Boy artist Edward Arthur Walton (1860-1922). She grew up in London and Edinburgh and studied at Edinburgh College of Art. She was part of the post-World War One Edinburgh Group, which also included her husband Eric Robertson (1887-1941) and her friend Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980).

Reverie was painted during the most creative period of Walton’s career. The title means ‘being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts’, yet the image is enigmatic.  The main character holds up a swagged strip of material as if readying herself to wrap it around her side-lit neck. Unidentifiable objects on a table-top hold the front centreground. Their colours are repeated elsewhere in the painting, including the be-ribboned basket containing tulips at the right. Three faces are visible in the background – one wearing a mask over their eyes – whose presence veers between companionable and sinister. The overall effect is striking, if un-nerving.

Reverie was purchased in 1993 by Perth Museum & Art Gallery, with a grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions.

John Quinton Pringle (1864-1925), Christopher N. Pringle, 1889, oil on canvas
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum: Glasgow Life

John Quinton Pringle: Relatives

In Christopher N. Pringle of 1889, the sitter’s younger brother John Quinton Pringle (1864-1925) pays close attention to a relative’s face. Pringle was born in Glasgow, the second son in a family of seven boys and one girl. He attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art whilst training to be an optician. He eventually combined a fine art practice with running an optical repair business.

Made before Pringle developed the square brush stroke technique for which he is known, this portrait is an intense examination of an intimate’s appearance. Painted on a canvas measuring just  30 x 25cm, the composition is closely cropped into the brother’s head and the beginning of his shoulders and chest. The background is dark and plain, which contrasts with a pale Glaswegian complexion. Tremendous care is taken over the range of skin tones, shadows, hairline and especially the moustache which dangles over the upper lip and towards the sitter’s chin. Christoher’s gaze is to the viewer’s right, the blue of his eyes picked up in that of his jacket. The work is an affectionate, if not demonstrably so, portrait of a sibling.

Christopher N. Pringle was presented by the sitter’s daughters, Mrs Mary Richmond Blackwood and Miss Jeanie Nisbet Pringle, to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow in 1980.

Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964), James Pryde (1866-1941), 1924, oil on canvas
City Art Centre: Museum & Galleries, Edinburgh (c) Artist’s Estate

Herbert James Gunn: Friends

At the moment, many of us are seeing friends either whilst wearing face coverings and at a socially distanced two metres apart, or unmasked on video calls. In his painting of fellow artist James Ferrier Pryde (1866-1941) of 1924, Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964) makes his friend’s face the focal point of an elegant portrait.

Gunn was born in Glasgow. He studied at Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art and at the Académie Julian in Paris. A prolific and successful artist, after World War One Gunn established a reputation as a stylish portraitist and became President of the London-based Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Pryde was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy Life School and at the Académie Julian. His sister, the artist Mabel Pryde Nicholson (1871-1918) married William Nicholson (1872-1949) in 1893 and Pryde formed the poster-design ‘Beggarstaff Brothers’ partnership with his brother-in-law shortly afterwards.

In this assured image, which measures 127 x 102cm, the subject is shown seated and full-length, turned from the viewer. The setting is based on geometrical blanks, such as a black planar screen, the edge of which is highlighted in red. A black carpet set at another angle reaches towards the screen, intersected by triangles of floorboards.

Pryde sits confidently at the centre of this staging, one bare hand on a chair arm, leaning to his right, a gloved hand holding a walking cane between his legs. He is depicted in formal evening wear, including overcoat, top hat and gloves and is presented as the epitome of a debonair gentleman. Flashes of brightness, at his collar, hands and the reflection on his monocle provide structure to the pictorial design. However, the focus of the painting is Pryde’s clean-shaven face, pale amidst his dark surroundings. Lit from the left, with accompanying shadow on his left cheek, his expression is grave, his eyes lowered. Pryde is chic but pensive and one wonders what event has required him to dress in this manner.

James Pryde (1866-1921) was presented to the City Art Centre, Museum & Galleries, Edinburgh in 1964 by the Scottish Modern Arts Association.

If you would like to read more about John Duncan Fergusson and the City Art Centre, you can do so here. Cecile Walton will feature in a lecture I am giving next year, tickets are free and information can be found here.

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