The history of Scottish visual art which we can take to mean the visual art produced within the modern political boundary of Scotland since the earliest times, forms a distinctive tradition within British and European art. It may be considered to begin with early carvings and artifacts that can date from Neolithic through Bronze Age and Iron Age artifacts, particularly ornamental gold objects, and the religious carvings and illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period and continuing in an unbroken tradition to modern times.
Pictish decorative carved stone balls or petrospheres date from from the late Neolithic to possibly Bronze Age to the Iron Age and are mainly found in Scotland. Carved Stone Balls are around 4000 years old, and nearly all have been found in north-east Scotland, the majority in Aberdeenshire. A similar distribution to that of Pictish symbols led to the early suggestion that Carved Stone Balls are Pictish artefacts. By the late twentieth century a total of 411 have been found, the core distribution also reflects that of the Recumbent stone circles in Scotland. As objects they are very easy to transport and a few have been found on Iona, Skye, Harris, Uist, Lewis, Arran, Hawick, Wigtownshire and fifteen from Orkney, five of which were found at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae and one at the Dunadd hillfort. The balls were prestige objects used in ceremonial gatherings The possible use of the balls as oracles has been suggested. The way in which the ball came to rest could be interpreted as a message from the gods or an answer to a question. The lack of balls found in graves may indicate that they were not considered to belong to individuals. The Picts also, began to record geometric designs and animal forms on stone, sometimes accompanied with inscriptions in Latin and Ogham script. The purpose and iconography of these Pictish stones can only be guessed at, yet the finest achievements of the idiom such as the Hilton of Cadboll Stone and the Burghead Bull testify to a vigorous independent artistic practice and a strong feeling for line and rhythm.
Roughly contemporary with Pictish art was the Celtic Christian art of the monasteries of the western Isles. From the 7th century onwards St. Columba’s monastery at Iona and other scriptoria nurtured the Insular style of manuscript work, including some of the work on the Book of Kells. It was probably not the case that there was an identifiable Scottish school within the Hiberno-Saxon style, yet the work of Iona’s missionaries included conveying the gospels of the west to Northumbria and in doing so helped produced the synthesis of Anglo-Celtic-Pictish art that went to form those masterpieces the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Celtic inspired art lasted up until the reformation in some of the remoter islands where Celtic crosses mark a high point of native sculpture.
The Middle Ages in Scotland did not produce a native religious art. The country’s poverty and obscurity combined with the eclipse of the Celtic church with the reforms of St Margaret of Scotland and her children left behind only the rather provincial products of the borrowed styles of Norman and International Gothic. Though the cathedrals of St Magnus, Orkney and Glasgow deserve honourable mentions.
The Renaissance came late to Scotland and flowered only briefly. Royal patronage under James III, IV and V indicates a truly renaissance sensitivity to the power of art to embody political power. The palaces at Linlithgow, Holyrood, Stirling and Falkland betray the international connections of the Stuart dynasty where they freely adopt the idiom of France and the Low Countries to a native usage. As does the commission to Hugo van Der Goes for the Trinity College altarpiece by James III, the work after which the Flemish Master of James IV of Scotland is named, and the Bening Book of Hours, a gift to Margaret Tudor from James IV. Simultaneously there develops the vernacular style of Scottish Baronial architecture popular amongst the minor aristocracy and merchant class. This building type, often built with defence in mind in the form of the Tower house, is characterised by corbelled turrets and crow-stepped gables marks the first uniquely Scottish mode of building. Ceilings of these houses were decorated with vividly coloured painting on boards and beams, using emblematic motifs from European pattern books or the artist's interpretation of trailing grotesque patterns.
Scotland's ecclesiastical art paid a heavy toll for the fury that was Reformation iconoclasm; as the empty niches of St Giles High Kirk, Edinburgh testifies. And with the removal of the court to London in 1603 the seventeenth century is a period of diminution in the cultural history of Scotland. Yet there is sufficient wealth and interest for a number of immigrant and native portrait painters to make a living, amongst whom is one George Jamesone of Aberdeen (1589/90-1644) – the first identifiable Scottish-born artist, and master of John Michael Wright.
The period of the Scottish Enlightenment is the high-water mark of Scotland’s cultural development. Its artists and architects were self-consciously cosmopolitan and took a leading role on the international stage. Charles Cameron, Colen Campbell, James Gibbs, William Adam and most significantly Robert Adam in many ways dominated the British Palladian and later the Neoclassical movements in architecture. In addition the painters Allan Ramsay, Gavin Hamilton, Henry Raeburn and David Allan were artists of European significance. The period also saw the creation of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art in 1826, an indication that there was an audience and a market to sustain a body of professional painters. Beyond the demand for portraiture, which Raeburn commanded, there was the emergence of the romantic landscape whose iconography David Wilkie can lay some claim to inventing.
The nineteenth century was a period of remarkable expansion in wealth, with it the Scottish urban landscape changed out of recognition. A grid plan was introduced to the newly enlarged cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen each of whom embraced neoclassical architecture and conservatively continued to build in that tradition late into the Victorian era, notable in the figure of Alexander Thomson. However toward the end of the century this was eclipsed by the fashion for Gothic Revival, Baronial style and Beaux-Arts eclecticism. In painting the figure of William McTaggart stands out from his generation of landscape and history painters for his development of a proto-impressionistic technique of loose brush-work. By the 1890s there emerges a school of artists associated with the Glasgow School of Art (founded in 1845 as a government Design school) known as the Glasgow Boys. Herbert MacNair, Margaret and Frances McDonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh formed “the Four” or the “Spook School” made a distinctive contribution to the European scene in interpreting and developing the Art Nouveau style in architecture, painting and interior design.
By 1914 Mackintosh had ceased to practice and with the lacuna of the War the Scottish arts scene did not revive until the 1920s with the appearance of the Scottish Colourists who as a group looked to Paris and the post-impressionist for inspiration. This was part of the larger “Scottish Renaissance” movement; an umbrella term for the Modernist strain in inter-war Scottish arts.
After the Second World War Scotland has enjoyed a lively arts scene thanks in part to the attention generated by the Edinburgh festival. A number of international figures of post-war art from come from Scotland, including Eduardo Paolozzi and Ian Hamilton Finlay and contemporary artists such as Douglas Gordon, Lucy McKenzie and Christopher Orr.
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