OF course, it’s a ridiculous idea. The 10 best Scottish paintings. As if anyone could choose. But if you take the folly of it as read, well, then, why not? See it as a game. A declaration of taste and bias, prejudice and ignorance and, more than likely, stupidity. Something to argue with at the very least. A list to incite your own counterblast.

What follows is a declaration of, no doubt boss-eyed, preference. No Howson or Vettriano here. It is not in any way an attempt to say something about the Scottishness of painting or otherwise. It’s simply a chance to revel in painterly pleasures.

1 Self-Portrait, Allan Ramsay, c 1737-39, National Portrait Gallery, London


© National Portrait Gallery, London.

The original and the best? Born in Edinburgh, Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) is Scotland’s premier swagger artist. He eloped with one of his drawing pupils Margaret Lindsay, toured Italy and settled in London where he became Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III.

This self-portrait of the painter in his twenties, though, is a vision of a young man on the make, showing off his facility with paint, his eye for texture and style. The kind of man you would want to be painted by.

2 Margaritta MacDonald, Mrs Robert Scott Moncrieff (died 1824), Sir Henry Raeburn, about 1814, National Galleries of Scotland

Largely self-taught (or so it is believed), Raeburn (1756-1823) was born in Stockbridge and made his career in Scotland (the first significant portrait painter to do so), painting ministers, aristocrats, academics and writers (in the shape of Sir Walter Scott). His most famous painting is probably the Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, but rather than that mixture of douceness and humour, I’ve gone for this portrait of Margaritta MacDonald, the wife of an Edinburgh wine merchant, for its delicacy, for the subtle contrast between flesh and fabric, for the blush on the cheek.

Read More: Raeburn paintings enter nation's collection

3 Wandering Shadows, Peter Graham, 1878, National Galleries of Scotland

Proper, full-on Scottish romanticism. Edinburgh-born Graham (1836-1921) took a lead from fellow landscape painter Horatio McCulloch, but with this vision of shadow and cloud and rock surpassed his predecessor. Spend some time looking at it and you will swear you can see the light changing.

4 Interior: The Orange Blind, FCB Cadell, c 1927, The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow


© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Glasgow colourists are decorative, flashy, fun. The antithesis of Scottish Presbyterian sobriety, they flooded their canvases with light and colour, juiced by their exposure to French art. Francis Cadell (1883 -1937) discovered Matisse and the fauvists when he was a teenager studying in Paris. Both were an influence when he returned to Scotland. This 1927 painting is an elegant portrait of moneyed living. But it’s the way that titular orange throbs on the canvas that makes it sing.

5 Jingling Space, Alan Davie, dated 1950, National Galleries of Scotland

Can you hear it? The loudest painting on the list, Alan Davie’s Jingling Space is pure visual bebop. Not such a surprise given the Grangemouth-born painter’s love of jazz. Davie’s story takes in manning an anti-aircraft battery during the Second World War, being discovered by Peggy Guggenheim, drinking with Jackson Pollock and conjuring up canvases that pulse with colour and line and energy. His death in 2014, at the age of 93, was the end of a remarkable artistic life. Someone should make a documentary about him.

6 Winter Landscape, William Gear, 1955, Jerwood Collection


William Gear RA (1915-1977), Winter Landscape 1955, Jerwood Collection © The William Gear Estate, courtesy of The Redfern Gallery’.

Davie’s near contemporary William Gear (1915-1997), the son of a Fife coal miner, was another artist who embraced the new. One fellow student at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s said that Gear was “alone amongst his peers in pursuing his own work to the point of pure abstraction.” Gear couldn’t match the loose, protean freedom of Davie’s application of paint. His work was more sober, more straight-backed even, and indeed at its best when it embraced the fact, as on his 1955 painting Winter Landscape, where a turbulent sky meets black land, divided by a thin orange horizon. Landscape reduced, thrillingly, to blocks of colour.

7 Seeded Grasses and Daisies, September, Joan Eardley, 1960, National Galleries of Scotland

Eardley’s landscapes are all density and detail, bold marks and subtle colours. This 1960 canvas includes grass stalks and seed heads possibly picked in the vicinity of her easel. Born in Sussex, Eardley (1920-1963) moved to Glasgow at the start of the Second World War. From 1951 she spent time in the village of Catterline, near Aberdeen. The village and its surroundings became the focus of much of her best work.

Read More: Sarah Urwin Jones on Joan Eardley

8 Waiting – Byrnicus Paisleycus Virus Invading Mr Gray, Steven Campbell, 1990, Paisley Museum

Campbell was one of the New Glasgow Boys who emerged in the 1980s and was maybe the best of them. He was certainly the best dressed. If it wasn’t against the rules, I’d choose the entirety of Campbell’s 1990 exhibition in the Third Eye Centre (The CCA as was) in which the late artist covered the walls of the gallery with drawings and paintings in an act of pure chutzpah that worked because it was also an expression of the range and power of his craft and the storied mystery of his work. (The installation was restaged as part of the Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art exhibition in Edinburgh in 2017.) But if we must single out one painting let’s go for this maximalist portrait inspired by fellow artist John Byrne.

Read More: From the archive - The Lost Glasgow Boy

9 Sabine, Alison Watt, 2000, National Galleries of Scotland 

Sex and violence. The two central themes of painting down the centuries, brought together in this sumptuous, sensuous painting by Greenock-born Alison Watt. Drawing on the influence of French neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, it’s a charged, suggestive painting. Watt herself has talked of these paintings having an “absent presence”. But what are we to make of that title? An allusion to the horror of the rape of the Sabine women, later to become the subject of paintings by Rubens and Picasso among others?

10 Tate Moss, Jock McFadyen, 2008

Is there a better painter of decaying Britain than Jock McFadyen? Born in Paisley in 1950 and raised on a council estate, McFadyen has always had an eye for the damaged and the desolate, whether architectural or human. The author Iain Sinclair once described McFadyen as “the laureate of stagnant canals, filling stations and night football pitches.” Tate Moss, a vision of weatherbeaten wood, glass and brickwork, is a prime example of the artist’s eye for distressed beauty.

Read More: Jock McFadyen on sex, violence and paint

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