If you were to wander into the British Galleries of the National Gallery in London, the painter Lachlan Goudie tells me, you could be forgiven for thinking that the history of Scottish art didn’t venture far beyond one Allan Ramsay and a David Wilkie. Impressive in itself, but hardly representative, he says. Things are not, in a way, that much better on this side of the border. Ask anyone on our streets what they know about Scottish art and they’ll likely give you an answer that checks one of what I’ll call the ‘Big Three’.
“The Glasgow Boys, The Colourists, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. That is the story of Scottish art for most people in Scotland,” says Goudie, who presents a major four-part series called The Story Of Scottish Art for BBC Scotland starting next week. “And what a great story! Aren’t we lucky to have that? But what’s so engaging,” he adds with relish, “is that it is so much bigger.”
Goudie, who will be familiar to TV audiences from his recent stint as a judge on the BBC's The Big Painting Challenge, has spent the past two years time-travelling through Scotland’s artistic past for the new series. He begins roughly 5000 years ago with the inscribed cup and ring marks of Kilmartin Glen, and surges forward, in fits and starts, via the brilliance of the 18th century (Episode 2) and the subsequent Victorian fascination with the Highlands, the revisionary strivings of the Glasgow Boys (Episode 3), and the exciting and stylistically divergent 20th century (Episode 4) to our current, conceptually-dominated world.
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Blue tweed-suited, dapper, personable, animated, Goudie is passionate about his art. And as the son of Alexander Goudie, a painter known for his artistic flamboyance and enthusiasm, how could he not be? That passion is there in the first episode of the series, as Goudie leaps in 500-year increments across roughly 4,500 years of early Scottish art, from Neolithic wall painting to ‘lost’ Pictish masterpieces to the Dutch painters’ Royal flattery during the Scottish Renaissance, via the devastatingly destructive iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation and the parallels Goudie finds in the current activities of IS. Each subject merits the work of a 60-minute documentary in itself, but Goudie is on a mission, bringing together these piecemeal developments despite the obscured historical landscape.
“There’s a vast screed of time where even the experts can’t tell you what’s going on,” says Goudie, cheerfully, over a cup of tea in the café below the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. He doesn’t profess to be able to do so himself, but he wants to make you look – and look again, as he did.
One floor up, the greats of Scottish art hang: Ramsay, Raeburn, Guthrie, Turnbull, Eardley. Here are the monumental oils in vast ornate frames, the product of past glory days writ large on the red walls of the gallery. One can’t help but think that the equally vast weight of history must have weighed down on Goudie just a little in hammering out the series.
“There’s no doubt that the history of Scottish art is a mighty subject and one that I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered for,” he laughs, when asked if the series was his idea. “But when the BBC contacted me to ask if I would be interested, I could see the challenge and thought we could do it in an interesting way, trying to see if we could alter how we relate to the great art works of our culture by looking at the topic from a practitioner’s viewpoint, through drawing and painting.”
It’s certainly a change to the reams of programmes in which presenters whip out an iPad – with varying degrees of self-consciousness – at any given moment. In The Story of Scottish Art, Goudie sits in the abbey at Iona, where the early mediaeval Book of Kells originated, his brush carefully copying the luminous colours and intricate images of the manuscript (itself held in Dublin). At the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, an archaeologist shows Goudie how to knap flints to create the stone incisions made by Neolithic craftsmen on their house walls. Presenters are always ‘having a go’, but rarely with as much on-the-job skill as Goudie. It is, after all, his vocation.
“For me, getting my hands into it connected me to the artists. You learn a great deal by putting a line around another artist’s work. Even across the vast timespan of that first episode, your mental processes and the way the constraints of the medium affect what you do aren’t that different. You can learn a great deal about their thoughts,” says Goudie, who was sketching most of the time the film crew were “fiddling around, setting up cameras”. “How the hell did these artists do these things?” he demands. “Why? These questions might not be unique insights, but they come to me more through process rather than just reading.”
The highlights were found in the unexpected. The ceiling painted with epic tableaux by the 18th-century painter/archaeologist Gavin Hamilton – more renowned abroad than at home – in the Villa Borghese in Rome. The staggering 15th-century altarpiece in St Marnock’s Church at Fowlis Easter, a rare survival of the fanatical purges of the Reformation. The extraordinary innovation of post-World War II artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and William Gear, pushing at the boundaries of pop art and abstraction respectively.
Goudie, who describes an early genesis as a ‘back-room painter’ while studying Literature at Cambridge University, went on to study at Camberwell School of Art and has since exhibited his diverse work – from still lives to packed tableaux – internationally. But his childhood was artistically coloured by rather more sloshing of paint than his primary school peers. His father, the respected painter Alexander Goudie, occupies his own spot in Scottish art history (one of many artists not included in the programme, including such big names as William Turnbull) although his son, who spent his childhood reading through his father’s extensive art historical library and sitting on the studio floor learning from his brushstrokes, says he was not beholden to the idea of being a Scottish artist.
“I don’t think that my father ever wanted to identify himself as a Scottish artist, and I don’t either. It’s just being an artist that’s important. We were both very proud of that creative DNA, that awareness of a local heritage and the things that bind you to where you come from. But as is the case with most artists, I think, my father was also determined to go way beyond that. One of his greatest heroes was Velasquez.”
For what is Scottish art anyway, we might ask, as indeed Goudie does over the series. Five thousand years ago, Scotland did not exist, in its modern political context. The hills and mountains were there, of course, the heather, the wolves. But human populations were discrete and localised, even seasonal. And the cup and ring marks of Kilmartin Glen that start Goudie’s ‘journey’ are to be found across Europe, across the world.
“We are part of a wider culture,” says Goudie, emphatically. “It’s not just about the brilliant leaps from nowhere that we made in the 18th century, or at times in the 20th. From the earliest point in our story, Scottish art is defined by those fusions. Look at the Hunterston Broach, which combines Saxon, Celtic and Norse styles. I think that’s a statement that, from the very earliest moment, we’re coming at art from many directions, and we’ve continued to do that. We’ve absorbed influences from Dutch art, French art, the Northern and Southern aesthetics. We’ve had to look elsewhere at times because we’ve not always been financially able to cultivate our own artists, or had the time or the peace to contemplate how we would create things, but we’ve built on it later.”
So what, of all the surprises along the way, has been his own personal highlight? It turns out not to be some trailblazing 18th-century painting, but a small stone sculpture, roughly formed, and made some 5000 years ago.
“The Westray Wife. It was found in Orkney six years ago,” says Goudie, remembering its neat hand-sized form, its eyes, its weight. It looks like nothing so much as a Neolithic child’s toy, but its significance, as to date the only known Neolithic figure found in Scotland, is huge. “No matter where we went afterwards, that stayed with me all the way.”
The Story Of Scottish Art begins at 9pm on Wednesday on BBC Two