A delight in fresh air
IN his book ``The Englishness of English Art,'' Nikolaus Pevsner referred to that ``English speciality'' (of the 18th century and earlier) ``the open-air portrait.'' He said that no other country had produced anything like it, not, at least, until the French Impressionists in the 1860s and '70s. He gave examples - such entirely English paintings as Joseph Wright's ``Brooke Boothby'' and Gainsborough's ``Morning Walk.'' He also pointed to the ``same delight in fresh air'' in Scottish painting. This was epitomized for him by Raeburn's ```Sir John and Lady Clerk' walking through their possessions and no doubt discussing improvements.'' This splendid picture, painted in 1792, is one of the most striking works included in the recent exhibition of ``Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age 1707-1843'' at the Tate Gallery, London. As Pevsner pointed out, it is indeed part of the British (rather than strictly English) tradition of outdoor portraiture. Wealthy landowners liked the idea of going down to posterity as lords of all they surveyed: Pride in possessions was certainly the motive, and often the essential grandeur of such works. But there is more than an undercurrent in many of them of an identification with nature, a real feeling for landscape as part of a civilized human being's appreciation of life.Skip to next paragraph
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Raeburn's remarkable painting links its human subjects with a sweep of Scottish countryside that, for a painter who never painted landscape for its own sake, displays a memorable awareness of the excitement of the big outdoors. Since the artist is known to have been an enthusiastic follower of such pastimes as golf, archery, angling, and gardening, this is hardly surprising. The landscape in this painting is theatrical and generalized, certainly, even though it has been identified as the Clerks' estate at Penicuik (not far south of Edinburgh).
But more significant is the fact that the Penicuik landscape had inspired a pastoral drama called ``The Gentle Shepherd,'' written by Allan Ramsay (the father of the man with the same name who, before Raeburn, was considered the leading Scottish portrait painter). In other words, it helps in the understanding of this grand picture to know that Raeburn must have been conscious that this panorama had wider associations than those of mere family ownership and of a typical ``English'' delight in ``improving'' or landscaping it. Its links with pastoral poetry of the recent Scottishness of the baronet and his wife - painted with such an attention to their peculiar individualities rather than in some idealized manner - is seen as rooted in the land, as identified with it.
Raeburn's sensitivity to the effects of light also plays an important part in this linking of the foreground couple with the background: They are lit from behind, by the same silvery, winterish light that pervades the brown hills and the sky. It is the subtlety of this light, coolly touching their faces, hands, and clothes, that makes this painting so distinctive; it is also remarkably true to the kind of light experienced in Scotland while the sky is still partly clouded over after a heavy rainfall. The reflected light in the shadowy parts of the Clerks' features, and of Lady Clerk's magically painted white dress, also has remarkable tonal accuracy.