Merryn Somerset Webb’s Favourite Painting
John Mcewen comments on Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose Branch
The editor-in-chief of Moneyweek chooses a work that reminds her of ‘small moments of calm in a chaotic time’
‘ When I had small children, we rarely left the ground floor of the National Gallery in Scotland. Instead, we did the same circuit every visit. In the main door. Check out an ancestor of my husband’s on the wall to the right. Find the animals in all the paintings in the “Painting as Spectacle” section. And then on to the little room to the back left, just before heading for Pizza Express. There, I found this precise little painting, which I have popped back to see regularly ever since (the children can barely be dragged to galleries anymore). My daughter loves it, too, and when she was tiny, we spent ages marvelling over the intricacy and brightness of the butterfly wings against the darkness. Years after those happy outings, it still represents for me the small moments time’ of calm in an otherwise completely chaotic
Ferguson may have been born in scotland, but, like many of his countrymen during the Civil War and Commonwealth, he exiled himself to the Continent. His speciality—sporting trophy pictures of hung dead birds—was a Dutch genre. His mastery has subsequently led fraudsters to add false signatures of the best Dutch masters—even the supreme Jan Weenix— to his pictures to raise their price.
He is accepted in Holland as a painter of the Dutch school and his work is in the rijksmuseum and other major foreign public collections. He was not the only scots painter of the period to find success abroad. James Hamilton (germany), Jan Collison (Poland) and John Cruden (silesia) are other notable examples.
Ferguson was recorded in utrecht in 1648–51 and, in 1660, rented a house in The Hague. In 1681, he was living in Amsterdam, where, on June 28, he married sara van someren of stockholm. He was 48. According to Horace Walpole, ‘he lived long in Italy and France’, which may explain some pictures of eerie landscapes with Classical ruins.
Two are over-doors at Ham House, London (richmond), once home of the Duke of Lauderdale. Lauderdale had Ham redesigned by the scots architect William Bruce, thus making it the greatest scottish house south of the border. sales of Ferguson’s work in edinburgh in 1692–93 suggest the ‘salmon instinct’ may have taken him home in old age.
This delightful picture of a live subject shows small heath, common blue, meadow brown, red admiral, small white and painted lady butterflies and a large yellow underwing moth.
Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose
Branch, about 1690, by William Gouw Ferguson (1632/33– after 1695), 8in by 10in, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh