Leslie Geddes-brown puzzles over family portraits
CONTROLLED jubilation here. We have just managed to have one of the family portraits attributed. The charming small oil shows a toddler in a dress. ‘Cam’ Stevenson became a distinguished doctor.
All we knew was the indistinct monogram of the artist in a corner. Now, thanks to a friend, Stephen Calloway, the art historian, we know that the artist was Sir George Reid, later president of the Royal Scottish Academy. Not only is the monogram identical, but he painted Cam (short for Campbell) beside a garden bench with an apple tree in the background.
The same bench—and tree— make the background for a portrait of Mrs Duguid and her son, painted by Reid in 1869, now owned by Aberdeen Art Gallery. Proof positive.
We have 41 family portraits on our walls, plus two bronze busts. Of these, two are from my family: a small silhouette of me done by my father when I was 10 and a rather nice but naïve Victorian oil of Ellen Mcpherson, a distant relative. The rest are Hew’s family.
The sitters are all known, from the full-size former MP for South Shields to his uncle, a Glasgow cotton merchant and campaigner against slavery, who has the accusing eyes of a Scotch dissenter. He reminds me of the P. G. Wodehouse quote: ‘It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’
Of course, you get used to all these puritan Scotsmen just as, I assume, grander house owners get used to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes in their paintings. There’s even an old lady in our guest bedroom dressed in greys and, yes, you guessed it, she’s a Presbyterian, too. Hew’s brother asked if she had to hang opposite the bed, casting a blight on whatever proceedings were going on there.
The nicest portraits are the children. As well as Cam, we have Arthur (seven) by Mctaggart in 1870. He wears knee-breeches and strokes his pet rabbit. Later, he was the land agent for the LNER. Then there is my favourite, eight-year-old Ethel by Colin Hunter. Wearing red, she lounges elegantly against warm brown draperies in the Art Nouveau style. She went on to become a gym mistress.
The painting is small and charming and will easily find a home among the next generations of Hew’s family. But what of the Presbyterian congregation? Does anyone want a huge painting of a dour man whose height of fame was as an MP?
We both think that it’s a tragedy when portrait and family become divorced. All those handsome young officers of the 18th and 19th century, their names lost without trace; the charming babies whose mothers took so much trouble to have painted for posterity; the young girls who have just got engaged, but are now without even a name.
It’s still going on. I saw in an antiques paper the auction of a portrait by Terry Frost of William Grant, 1st Battalion the Gordon Highlanders, painted at the German prison camp of Stalag 383. It’s not a particularly good portrait, but Frost, also a prisoner there, having been captured as a commando in Crete, went on to become a famous abstract painter. He had been taught to paint in the camp by a fellow artist, Adrian Heath, then a Lancaster’s tail gunner. The lot, estimated at £4,000–£6,000 didn’t reach its reserve and is now back with Grant’s Scottish family.
Frost painted busily in the prison camp and his portraits, often on old sacking and cardboard, are quite common at auction. Perhaps the Imperial War Museum might show an interest?
Cam’s future is assured now that we know how distinguished the artist was. Now we have to deal with the Presbyterians. Any suggestions?
We think it’s a tragedy when portrait and family become divorced’