Whilst scrolling through the colour and noise of Instagram, a low-toned Mother and Son portrait slowed my finger to a stop. Taken by the photographer David Eustace it showed Elizabeth and Guy Peploe, daughter-in-law and grandson of the Scottish Colourist Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935).
Depictions of the maternal-filial relationship when the protagonists have reached grandmotherhood and fatherhood are rare and this image was particularly moving: set before a plain, soft brown background, Elizabeth’s geometric bob and colour-block jacket were illuminated by natural light falling from the left. She held hands on a table-top with her black polo-necked and expansively bearded son, the white support around a finger she had recently broken placed on top of a comfortable jumble of digits. Both sitters look calmly and directly at the viewer, proud of their emotional and physical bond.
32 York Place, Edinburgh
The post revealed that the portrait had been shot in the studio designed in 1795 by the Scottish portraitist Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), at 32 York Place in Edinburgh. Peploe had worked in it between 1905 and 1910 and both artists had created some of their best works there. Eustace had been given access to this mythical space and was deep in creating a major new body of work. I was intrigued. A direct message to Eustace resulted in an invitation to observe a sitting that weekend.
A Studio Visit
Bearing a bunch of roses, Peploe’s flower of choice for still-life painting, I was admitted through the imposing Georgian front door. Following in the footsteps of Raeburn and Peploe’s notable sitters, I climbed the stairs to the first-floor studio. Situated at the back of the house, it was painted white and was dominated by an elongated, north-facing window with views over the city and across the Forth to Fife. Even on a dull day in August a gentle luminosity filled the space.
Henry Raeburn and Samuel John Peploe
It was whilst working here that Raeburn had painted masterpieces such as Thomas Elder (1737-99), Lord Provost of Edinburgh, 1797 (University of Edinburgh) and Reverend Thomas Reid (1710-96), Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, 1797 (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). A century later, the studio’s proportions and light had inspired Peploe to paint his celebrated women in white series, featuring his future wife Margaret Mackay (Aberdeen Art Gallery) and the model Peggy Macrae (Kirkcaldy Galleries).
Another century on and Eustace and his assistant BJ had created a minimal set in the studio. An eighteenth-century table and armchair were placed on raw floorboards beside the window. They were dressed with a tawny velvet drape and large, heavy books of a distinguished age. A second armchair, costume accessory boxes and black drapes stood to the right, positioned at 90 degrees to a black backdrop, itself parallel with the window. There was barely time to delight in the surroundings before that day’s sitter arrived. He and Eustace quickly found common ground in talking about football and the shoot began.
Observing David Eustace at work
Eustace was aiming not for a portrait of an individual, but rather for an image to play its part in a series nearing completion. He had established boundaries within which to challenge himself to create something new and began with a preconceived starting point for the session. Amongst Eustace’s banter were simple directions to his subject, seated beside the window, to adjust his pose: right-hand on the table, chin up, look at the camera. Details of the scene were rhythmically tweaked with the help of BJ fine-tuning the position of the props, accompanied by smooth lens and tripod position changes.
The sitting concludes
Working only with the available natural light, at speed and without fuss, Eustace and his sitter were both focussed whilst visibly enjoying themselves. Eventually Eustace declared himself satisfied. A connection to Raeburn, Peploe and their models, which had been palpable during the shoot, melted away and we found ourselves thanking today’s sitter and accompanying him down the stairs and out into York Place in 2020. The results of the day’s work and the overall series are to be unveiled in due course.
If you are interested in S. J. Peploe, you might enjoy this post and also this one. A version of this article was first published in the Scottish Society for Art History newsletter (No. 64 Autumn 2020). The newsletter is one of many benefits of being a member of the Society. If you might be interested in joining, you can find information on how to do so here.
With thanks to David Eustace.