Tag Archives: History

The Waverley Novels

29 Jul

In the 1960’s and 70’s when Feminist historians began rewriting history to include women, they were conscious, as were their readers, that an ideology lay behind the writing of such histories that was just as  important if not more so than the histories themselves. Such a rewriting of history is possible if we concede that ‘history’ is not a given ‘reality’ or agreed upon set of ‘facts’ but conversely that it is contingent upon the values and ideals of those who write it.  History, in this respect, can be usefully conceptualised as a history of historiographies. On the one hand Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels operate in the terms of a teleological historiography which values commerce over feudalism, civility over barbarism and rationality over superstition. However, on the other hand the novels radically displace the notion of historiography altogether. Through the use of elaborate framing narratives, the tropes of romance fiction and playful self-referentiality Scott continually reminds the reader of the fictive nature of his versions of history, and by extension, all ‘versions’ of history. In this essay I will evaluate the ways in which more or less contradictory historical perspectives operate in two of Scott’s novels: Waverley and Old Mortality.

Although it appears at the end of Waverley, ‘A Postscript,Which Should have been a Preface’ with its ironically vacillating title suggests that what it contains is both a prerequisite for the novel as well as the afterthoughts of the author. What we get in this postscript is a sense of comfortable distance from a turbulent past (a sense which is  also established before the beginning of the novel in the subtitle: ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’). The narrator reflects that:

There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or              little     more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of             Scotland. … the total eradication of the Jacobite party … commenced this     innovation. …we are   not aware of the progress we have made, until we fix           our eye on the now distant point from which we have drifted (492).

The idea that society was continually progressing, that society was perfectible, was a popular view during the Enlightenment, particularly for Whig thinkers; many of whom believed this perfectibility to be an indisputable fact of European history. For these thinkers the moral, political and social order of the present day could thus be constantly ratified by a comparison with a less civilised past. The Waverley postscript passage reflects this type of concern; historical change is described as a process of ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’ that hinges on the ‘eradication’ of the Jacobite party. Yet Scott seems to undercut the Whig party line (so to speak) by encouraging the reader, in line with more reactionary Tory ideals, to reconcile what is gained with what is lost:

This race has now almost entirely vanished from the land, and with it,         doubtless, much absurd political prejudice – but also many living examples of singular and disinterested attachment to the principles of loyalty which they     received from their fathers, and of old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and          honour (492)

Apart from being a good old swords and sandals (or cutlass and kilts) romp through the Scottish Highlands the narrative of Waverley functions as means of discursively balancing these two opposing views of history.

At the centre of the novel we have Edward Waverley whose early development forms the beginning of the narrative. Edward is brought up in an environment – very carefully constructed by Scott – to reflect both Whig and Tory views of history. Edward’s family are split down the middle. Uncle Everard Waverley is a nostalgic Jacobite supporter while Edward’s father Richard is a politically active Whig. The distinction between the backwardness of Jacobitism, emphasised in Everard’s fixation on the heroic past of his ancestors, and Whig politics, which play an active part in society, is quickly established. Edward Waverley’s mixed affiliations throughout the novel stem from this quietly divided upbringing. The structure of the novel relies on each successive character he encounters reflecting an aspect of the political standpoints he begins with. While Edward’s uncle inhabits the role of the nostalgic yet perennially inactive Jacobite (perhaps symbolised by his vow of celibacy), Flora Mac-Ivor – whom Edward meets later on – whose ‘ruling passion’ is ‘loyalty’ represents the noble side of Jacobitism. Her brother Fergus, in his lust for personal gain, represents its mercenary self interest. Through each successive character, Scott builds up the full picture.  It is in deposing the negative elements of Jacobitism whilst retaining the values of ‘old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and honour’ that constitutes balance in the novel. This is reflected in the death of Fergus and compounded in the marriage between Waverley and Rose Bradwardine at the close of the novel, in which Rose’s domesticated Jacobitism is married off to Waverley’s newly realised Whig progressivism. Having projected the older forms of social life as obsolete and dangerous despite their virtues, the novel then rescues the virtuous representatives of the past and destroys those it has conceived as dangerous.

This then is not a ‘real’ view of history in any sense, but a considerably engineered one that could be described as a masterful exercise in ‘fence-sitting’. Scott ends the novel with a handpicked selection of Jacobite and Whig values that reflect his own particular worldview, rather than historical reality in any concrete sense. But the historical reality of Scott’s novel is never a given, the reader is never coerced into taking things as ‘fact.’  Although we might think that Scott tries to authenticate his narrative by his detailed descriptions and textual notes – he is always giving us involved footnotes – this is only ostensible. Scott’s reservations about the historical veracity of Waverley are often coded in the text. One particularly significant instance of this occurs towards the end of the novel as Waverley and the Baron of Bradwardine look upon a new painting in Tully-Veolan:

There was one addition to this fine old apartment… which drew tears into the Baron’s eyes. It was a large and spirited painting, representing Fergus Mac- Ivor and Waverley in their Highland dress; the scene a wild, rocky and           mountainous pass, down which the clan were descending in the background.         It was taken from a spirited sketch drawn while they were in Edinburgh by a        young man of high genius, and had been painted on a full-length scale by an    eminent London artist (489).

 This instance of ekphrasis, as the two men look into the painting, directs the reader outside of the text. The painting of Waverley in his Highland dress seems to suggest itself as a microcosmic representation of the novel itself. As the Baron weeps at the painting in acceptance of the decline and fall of the Stuart claim, so the reader has to evaluate their own response to the book. Yet it becomes apparent, somewhat ironically, that the Baron is weeping at a ‘painting’ of ‘a spirited sketch’ drawn in Edinburgh of a Highland pass. Scott stresses the absolute artificiality of the image, though it is important that this still elicits an authentic emotional response from the viewer. This would seem to suggest that Scott is very aware of the particularity of his own ‘version’ of history, its fictive status, and the extent to which it is always twice removed from the events themselves. Scott’s novels turn literature into historiography by not only providing a particular vision of historical process and change, but also a reflection of how that vision is constructed.

Old Mortality is a later novel about an earlier period of history: The Killing Time. Scott’s use of multiple framing narratives in this challenging work allows him to further develop the theme of how historical visions are constructed. The narrative can only begin once Scott has established that the reader is being presented with a set of papers which have been preserved by a schoolmaster, Jedediah Cleishbotham; these papers in turn contain a novel written by his deceased colleague Peter Pattieson, which is based on oral accounts of ‘The Killing Time’ by an old survivor of the extreme Covenanting Calvinists, Old Mortality. These narrative frames ensured that there was suitable distance created between Scott’s nineteenth century readers and a period of history that he perceived as radically different from their own. And yet the framing devices also operate, perhaps paradoxically, as a means for these readers to access the narrative – once it eventually gets going – instantaneously; without this ideological bridge, the whole structure becomes merely unsorted experience. Scott is aware that the ‘sorting’ of historical experience is not only practical, a device to make his books reader-friendly, but that it necessarily constitutes historical writing. This is part of a realisation that all history is founded upon the process of narrative.

The violent opposition between Whigs and Royalists in Old Mortality is obviously comparable to that between the Jacobites and Government forces in Waverley. Also, much like Edward Waverley, Henry Morton occupies a position of centrality in the text to which the opposing forces in the novel gravitate towards. The opposing sides in the novel are both characterised, at numerous intervals, as violent fanatics; Claverhouse the head of the Royalist troops admits of himself and his enemies ‘we are both fanatics; but there is a distinction between the fanaticism of honour and that of dark and sullen superstition’ (356). Both varieties of fanatacism, however, end up causing violence and conflict in the novel. Between them Claverhouse, Burley, Olifant and Bothwell start a bar-fight, persecute peasants, steal a castle, commit murder and provoke a war. By the end of Waverley it is relatively clear which aspects of the novel’s conflicting value systems are to be appropriated and synthesised before a resolution will occur; conversely Old Mortality seems to reject wholesale the ideologies of each of the armies it follows as fanatic and destructive. Scott has written elsewhere that ‘as to Covenanters and Malignants, they were both a set of cruel and bloody bigots…neither had the least idea either of toleration or humanity…’. The inevitable consolation for Scott is in the implied nineteenth century comparison.

The figure of Old Mortality in the novel represents what little residual heritage Scott perceives, or would like to perceive, is left of seventeenth century fanaticism. We come across Old Mortality as Peter Pattieson strolls through a graveyard;

An old man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered Presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the   inscription, which, announcing, in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain, anathematised the murderers with corresponding violence (290).

If Scott’s vision of history is one in which a conciliatory balance is always sought after, here he brings to life a character with values completely opposed to his own. This passage represents another significant instance of Scott’s use of ekphrasis. Just as Old Mortality is employed in preserving the memory of the Covenanters, so Pattieson, and Scott set themselves a task which equally involves preserving the past. Yet whereas as Old Mortality wishes to reawaken old conflicts in the present ‘generation of vipers’, Scott wishes to leave such conflict firmly in the past, whereupon the Enlightement project of understanding historical influence can take place. Old Mortality’s ‘peculiar opinions’ are laughed off and eventually edited out of the anecdotes that Pattieson will use to construct the main narrative. Old Mortality is for Pattieson a ‘singular’ character, both in the sense of novel from an antiquarian’s point of view, and literally singular, the last of his kind, a remnant. He is associated, quite explicitly, with death. He dies soon after he appears in the narrative, leaving his work in preserving the memory of the Covenanters to ruin and decay (34). Pattieson’s story is a ‘re-chiselling’ of a new history onto what Pattieson, and Scott see as an old history of Whig bias: with this new story, Scott seeks to overcome the distortions of the Whigs and their persecutors and to forge a position epistemologically superior to their mutually destructive fanatacisms.

The conclusion of Old Mortality seems ambivalent as to whether such a position of superiority, a position where the past has been laid to rest and conflict ceases, has been achieved. The marriage between Henry Morton and Edith Bellenden in the last line is so quickly dealt with as to seem almost ridiculous. In comparison to the constant to-and-fro of the novel it seems out of place, bathetic. It is tempting to see it as a parody of the marriage in Waverley. Scott then ends the book with a conversation between Pattieson and his gossiping friend Miss Buskbody the draper, who is only able respond to the romance elements in Pattieson’s text. The ‘Conclusion’ is on one level a throwaway piece of levity, a dig aimed at the superficiality and escapism Scott attached to readers of romance novels. On a deeper level the ‘Conclusion’ is a commentary on the failure to fictively interpret and manage the destructive forces of the past. Scott is conscious of his version of history in Old Mortality as precisely that, his own version of history determined by the limits of his literary historiography. There seems to be real uneasiness concerning the degree to which the dead past will stay suitably dead, the degree to which a novel which is intended to be explanatory and reassuring has succeeded in these aims.

You have been reading about the ways in which Waverley and Old Mortality are simultaneously dictated by an Enlightenment historiography of ‘progress’ and a drive to consider what constitutes the particular historiography behind literary productions of the past. I have emphasised Scott’s philosophy of mediation and balance, which, in some respects, seems to stand at odds with historical veracity. The structures of these two novels allow for partial viewpoints to stand in close proxy to each other without one viewpoint necessarily overwhelming the other. This is a supremely rational way to approach a subject for understanding. In these novels, Scott is able to make his own value judgements and yet avoid dogmatism: ultimately his debates remain ambivalent and open ended. In each novel the terms of the argument are again refigured. Scott may structure his narratives so that his characters end with their faces turned bravely towards a progressive future, but at the opening of each new novel the future turns out to have again acquired the features of a barbaric past which, once more, has to be expunged from the kingdom of progress.

(Please click to contact me on Linkedin for full article with references. I deleted them here as a student years ago thinking I was being clever.)

David Hume Documentary

22 Jul

A very interesting conversation about David Hume, one of Edinburgh’s most famous residents.


Rick Steves: A Few Technical Issues

16 Jul

Here is a video by the renowned travel writer Rick Steves about Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Below I have highlighted where I think he goes a little off-piste.



0.01: Bagpipes Rick? Bit Brigadoon is it not.

0.04: “Old Edinboro’s main drag”. Edinburgh Rick. Not Edinboro.

0.06: “Nicknamed the Royal Mile”. The Royal Mile is not nicknamed The Royal Mile Rick: it is in fact called The Royal Mile.

0.14: “This colourful jumble is the tourist’s Edinburgh”. It is only the tourist’s part of Edinburgh because people like you say it is in your guidebooks.

0.20: ” A dense tangle of old buildings, fun museums and cultural cliches on sale”. What are the real cultural clichés Rick? The stuff on display in these shops or the people who come back year after year and pay money for the stuff?

0.25: “Edinburgh was a wonder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”. Edinburgh was fine in the seventeenth century I suppose – if you could cope with the smell – but  it is usually just the 18th century that people describe as the city’s Golden Age.

0.29: “It was famed for its skyscrapers”. Skyscrapers? No Rick, just no.

0.42: “It is said they knew each other not by how they looked but by how they smelled.” Really Rick, think about what you are actually saying here. They weren’t dogs.

0.43: not a great piece of music really is it now Rick?

1.03: “The buildings were narrow and tall, crammed shoulder to shoulder with little courtyards … these closes were connected to the main drag by skinny lanes.” The closes were usually named after a memorable occupant of one of the nearby apartments, or by the occupations of those that traded therein. Generically they are termed closes, although individually they may be named entries, courts and wynds – all of which are Scots terms for an alley. A “wynd” was one wide enough to take a cart, a “close” was too narrow for a cart. Most slope steeply down from the Royal Mile. Many have steps and form huge flights of stairs. To be a true “close” it requires to be built on both sides, giving a canyon-like atmosphere. I lifted this from Wikipedia Rick. You didn’t even bother to do that did you?

1.09: “400 years ago Edinburgh was nicknamed ‘Auld Reekie'”. Auld Reekie: good research there.

1.26: “For several centuries Scotland was ruled from London”. For many people it still feels like Scotland is ruled from London. Because it is Rick. There is rather a crucial difference between devolution and independence.

1.56: Triumphant music commences. We look at various shots of The Scottish Parliament for forty seconds. Thanks for visiting.

I’m only joking Rick. Don’t take it personally. Thanks for visiting and come back again soon old boy.

What did Edinburgh mean to Charles Dickens?

12 Jun

This year (2012) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and more than a dozen other major novels, numerous plays, nonfiction books, individual essays and articles.  Dickens was a kaleidoscopic storyteller; at once a moralist, a slapstick comedian, a mystery writer and a romantic. He evoked the diverse (often bleak) lives a host of Victorian Englanders with acute sensitivity and humour.  But fret not – you haven’t suddenly stumbled into planetlondon.wordpress.com by mistake. It just so happens that Charles Dickens had a special relationship with Edinburgh – despite not actually setting any of his stories here. It’s a tale of two cities, if you like.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in February 1812, the son of an itinerant Navy Clerk. The early part of his upbringing was relatively stable by Victorian standards; by the time he was six or seven the young Dickens was already a voracious reader. But during 1821, when he was only nine, his family fell into financial difficulty and were obliged to move into shabby lodgings in London’s East End. The situation deteriorated further when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens was then forced to abandon formal education and take up work in a blacking factory, putting labels on bottles with hundreds of other child labourers. This was the darkest period of the author’s life – in later years he refused to talk about it – yet undoubtedly it provided him with a great deal of material for his fiction.

After this difficult period, Dickens’ fortunes improved somewhat. His father was eventually released from prison allowing Charles to go back to school and resume his studies. Still, life certainly wasn’t easy. On leaving school he took a dreary job copying out documents by hand in a solicitor’s office before beginning his writing career as a news reporter. But it would take a fortuitous Edinburgh connection to turn this little known cub reporter into a hot literary prospect: George Hogarth.

As a young reporter Dickens was sent up and down the country, his first visit to Edinburgh was in 1834 to cover a political dinner. But it was back in London that he would meet George Hogarth – a man very much involved in the intellectual and cultural life of Edinburgh. Hogarth had studied law at the University of Edinburgh and had gone on to practice for a number of years (Walter Scott being one of his clients) before upping sticks and moving down South, where he began a new career working in the newspaper industry. He rose to editor of the Evening Chronicle where he would publish some of Dickens’ first original work, which was later collected in the book ‘Sketches by Boz’ (Boz was Dickens’ penname at this time). The book was an immediate success. The two men became good friends and Dickens would go on to marry Hogarth’s daughter Catherine in 1836, further cementing their relationship. Charles and Catherine had ten children together but the marriage eventually turned sour twenty years later after Charles was accused of infidelity.

As Dickens reached his mid twenties Pickwick Papers appeared, making him a household name. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby soon followed. When he visited Edinburgh for a second time in 1841 there was a real buzz – here was a bonafide literary celebrity. He attended a public dinner with 250 of the Edinburgh literati, many of them old connections of George Hogarth. During the visit he was presented with a ‘Burgess Ticket’ and given the freedom of the city. Dickens kept his Burgess scroll in his study for the rest of his life – it is now on display in the Museum of Edinburgh. During that visit he told his adoring public:

“I believe I shall never hear the name of the capital of Scotland without a thrill of gratitude and pleasure. I shall love while I have life her people, her hills, and her houses, even the very stones of her streets.”

In spite his fondness for Edinburgh he was greatly moved by the poverty of the Old Town, particularly the suffering of young children. He describes a trip to the Old Town in which he saw “more poverty and sickness in an hour than people would believe in, in a life”.  The deplorable living conditions in the tenement slums shocked him: “in an old egg box which the mother had begged from a shop lay a little, feeble, wan sick child. With his little wasted face, and his bright attentive eyes, I can see him now, as I have seen him for several years, looking steadily at us.” These specific recollections would bolster his campaign to raise funds for the opening of The Great Ormond Street hospital for sick children in London.

Now although Edinburgh didn’t appear in the novels of Charles Dickens (or barely at least, there are one or two scant episodes) a stroll through the city is said to have provided the author with inspiration for one of his most enduring characters: Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The story goes that Dickens was walking through Canongate Churchyard on one of his visits to Edinburgh when he spotted a grave bearing the inscription ‘Ebenezzer Lennox Scroggie – Mean man.’ A dour Scottish sign-out if ever there was one. In fact the author had misread the inscription which actually said ‘Meal Man’. Scroggie was a corn a merchant and also the influential economist Adam Smith’s nephew. The irony is that by all accounts Scroggie was a bit of rogue – nothing like the icy Scrooge. One account tells us that he was expelled from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for putting his hand up a lady’s skirt. Let’s hope her name was Carol.

Edinburgh also furnished Dickens with many of his closest friends, all influential historical figures themselves; the judge and literary critic Lord Francis Jeffrey, the novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle and the great judge and civic campaigner Lord Henry Cockburn. So let’s see… a wife, a book deal, a few spectacular dinners, a host of influential friends. No wonder Dickens was fond of the city. Although he didn’t like the Scott monument very much – the homage to his great novelistic forbear – he called it a ‘failure.’ Make of that what you will.

Looking Out For The Edinburgh Skyline: The Cockburn Association

16 Apr

The Cockburn Association is one of the oldest architectural conservation organisations in the world. Also known as The Edinburgh Civic Trust it has been working to protect and improve Edinburgh since 1875. The Association works closely with developers, architects and other organisations to influence and guide the character of new development and to encourage the re-use and restoration of existing buildings to meet today’s needs. By encouraging certain architectural developments and firmly denouncing others, the Association aims to bring together tradition and innovation in a way that celebrates Edinburgh’s distinctive civic heritage.

Edinburgh is a living city and we encourage the creation of tomorrow’s heritage –  just not at the expense of the wonderful historic environment that underpins our economy and makes Edinburgh one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The Association was named after Lord Henry Cockburn, a prominent Edinburgh figure in the nineteenth century who campaigned to protect the beauty of the city. Cockburn was educated in Edinburgh and entered the Faculty of Advocates in 1800, eventually becoming a judge in 1834. As a member of the famous Speculative Society, along with Walter Scott and Frances Jeffrey, he rubbed shoulders with some of the heavyweights of the Scottish Enlightenment. His opinions on how developments in the city should be undertaken continue to inform how the Association operates to this day. A glance at his Letter to the Lord Provost on the Best Ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh (1849) reveals how Cockburn felt about the uniqueness of the city:

It is our curious, and matchless position, our strange irregularity of surface, its    picturesque results, our internal features and scenery, our distant prospects, our various and ever-beautiful neighbourhood, and the endless aspects of the city, as looked down upon from adjoining heights, or as it presents itself to the plains below. Extinguish these, and the rest would leave it a very inferior place.

Since 1875 the Association has played a key role in saving some of the city’s most cherished landmarks. During the early part of the twentieth century for example, as part of the George Street Tramway scheme, developers attempted to have the statues of King George IV, William Pitt, and Dr Chalmers removed. Members of the Cockburn Association were up in arms pronouncing that

the presence of these statues is of high aesthetic value to the city by adding dignity, richness and historical interest to a street which forms a dignified and worthy   memorial to the genius of a past generation of citizens.’

The proposal was eventually rejected. It is difficult to imagine anyone having the audacity to attempt such a scheme today.

Equally contentious was a proposal to redevelop The Cafe Royal into an extension of Woolworth’s in the 1960’s. This popular and iconic bar was duly championed by the Association which demanded urgently that

            ‘Continued pressure will be needed to persuade the Planning Committee to refuse permission for redevelopment on any terms or (better still) to bring about the withdrawal of this proposal for the destruction of a building of outstanding value in design, craftsmanship and townscape, which is also an important institution in the life of the City.

So if you enjoy a drink at this cosy little haunt on a Friday night, perhaps you should toast one to the Cockburn Association.

Other historic campaigns include a push to save the cobbles on the Royal Mile, appeals to improve the aesthetic appeal of Waverley Station, a move to preserve the open space in the Meadows and encouraging the opening of Inverleith Park. Indeed it would seem that no significant civic development in Edinburgh escapes the inquisitive eye of the Cockburn Association.

In more recent times the association has been particularly concerned with sustainable plans for regeneration. Many of the proposed plans for development in the so called ‘Caltongate’ area, for example, a world heritage site, were rigorously opposed with the support of Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage. Plans to build a hotel and conference centre and create new roads which involved demolishing listed buildings, among other developments, were strongly opposed. One of the major arguments against these plans was that they did not fully reflect the unique historic character of the Old Town, which is, the Association argues, a natural marketing tool for Edinburgh. Only a development that respects and cherishes the Old Town’s unique architectural heritage would suffice.

The Royal Mile acts as a main artery for the city: narrow closes and wynds flow left and right, towering buildings rise on either side, and slope sharply downhill. This ‘herring bone’ pattern has been established over many centuries, and makes a powerful and lasting impression. This historic scale, pattern, and architecture must be used to set the parameters for development.’

Debate over the Caltongate area is still ongoing.

Another landmark campaign in recent years has been the Save Our Skyline project that in 2009 saw the Association successfully oppose a 17 storey hotel being built in the Haymarket area. The site around 189 Morrison Street would have been markedly altered by a building of immense proportions; so big indeed that it would have reached the height of Edinburgh Castle’s battlements. Members of the association were anxious that allowing a building on this scale to be built in the city centre would set a dangerous precedent for the future. A public enquiry was held and eventually Scottish Ministers refused planning consent for the hotel with the association playing a pivotal role:

The details of the scheme and the reasons the City gave for approval would not   have been tested, or subjected to the truly independent judgment of a Reporter if the Cockburn Association had not participated fully in the Public Local Inquiry.’

Since 1991  the association has organised an annual Doors Open Day in which members of the public get a chance to explore some of Edinburgh’s important and architecturally exciting buildings for free. The process of selecting buildings takes place in May each year. You can find details about this and other events on the Cockburn Association’s website.  They are also on twitter and have a facebook page.

As an independent charity The Cockburn Association relies on private donations, members’ subscriptions and legacies to survive and achieve its goals. It receives no core funding from the City of Edinburgh Council or the Scottish Government or its agencies. With this come both advantages and disadvantages but the association rightly celebrates its autonomous position:

We believe that our truly independent status gives us a unique and unbiased platform to comment on planning, civic amenity, heritage, transport and  environmental matters in Edinburgh and to help raise popular interest and     awareness of these issues.’


Rembrandt, Self-portrait Aged 51, 1657. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

9 Apr

A detailed look at one of my favourite paintings.

Holland in the seventeenth century was a nation divided by religion. The north was largely a protestant community, whilst the south, still under Spanish rule was predominantly Catholic. Northern Dutch painters were increasingly looking to subject matter that moved away from what they saw as grandiose Catholic ideals of beauty; as such, portraiture, landscapes and still life became the dominant genres of painting in the period. Meanwhile, in the south, the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens carried on revelling in an expansive Baroque pomp that drew inspiration from the colour and figure arrangement of Titian and manifested itself in vast Biblical and allegorical epics.

Rembrandt fits somewhere in the middle of this picture; along with the comprehensive autobiography he has left us in over sixty self portraits, numerous portraits of others and an accomplished oeuvre of engravings; a protestant, he is famous for his incisive treatment of certain, perhaps otherwise neglected passages of the Bible. A good example of this is The Reconciliation of David and Absalom which sacrifices a fashionable idealised notion of beauty in favour of a sincere, naturalistic portrayal of the shame of a son in submission to his father.

It is important to point out, although it might seem obvious, that a self-portrait is not subject to the demands of a patron. There was never a space on a wall allocated for this particular representation of the artist.  It would be absurd for a seventeenth century patron to have requested an artist’s self-portrait. These patrons wanted a steady stream of specific historical or biblical scenes, picturesque landscapes or portraits of themselves. This explains the size of this particular picture, which is small, only 53cm by 44cm – size being solely the artists decision. Perhaps Rembrandt painted such a small picture for purely practical reasons, to carry it around and so forth.  One suspects huge canvases would not have been appropriate for his personal project; to study and accurately represent his face – rather than idealise it in fashionable grandeur.

Many of Rembrandt’s self-portraits follow a distinct structure; dark, deep brown backgrounds, understated clothing, any light in the pictures directed on the artist’s face: this produces a dramatic and engaging effect. The Self-portrait Aged 51 thrives on such intimacy. Rembrandt’s upper half emerges from a cloying brown background, devoid of any sensuous extravagance. Very little space surrounds the dominant head, which forces the spectator to meet the artist’s direct gaze. The eyes are a moment of clarity in the artist’s rough, bearded face furrowed with lines. The areas immediately surrounding the eyes and the artist’s forehead  are particularly textural and expressive. Rembrandt’s use of an impasto technique on these areas draws our attention to the surface of the canvas and amplifies the contrast between the artist’s face and the smooth, deep background. Equally important is the focus of light in the painting, which comes from an unknown, unseen source and is directed at the eyes and forehead. These aesthetic decisions serve to draw the spectators eye in to closely studying the facial expression.

In stark contrast to the expressiveness of the artist’s skin, and it’s manifestion in Rembrandt’s course brushwork is the black hat on his head, which, in terms of paint is smooth on the canvas and utilises the visual silkiness of velvet. The Dutch biographer Arnold Houbraken believed that Rembrandt didn’t want his pictures examined closely because when seen up close his ‘bad’ technique would be evident. He remarked that Rembrandt kept people away by telling them that ‘the smell of colour will bother you.’ Rembrandt’s ‘bad’ technique, as he puts it, refers to the way he  describes things with paint rather than by careful line drawing. In Self -portrait Aged 51 there seems to be a synthesis of these two representational styles; while the face emerges in and from the movement of paint, the delicate hat seems a result of measured drawing. This kind of duality illustrates the difficulty of placing Rembrandt within a particular school of painting; he appropriates both the painterly aspects of, say,  Titian and the delicacy of Raphael.

Through a series of contrasts then, Rembrandt invites the spectator to study the visual minutiae of his face. Vitally however, the closer and the deeper one looks, something becomes inverted; no longer does one simply look at the visual minutiae of the artist’s face, one begins to see the innumerable decisions Rembrandt has made, the dabbing, twisting and dragging of paint, the fundamental abstraction of the painted mark.

Taking a step back for a moment, Rembrandt’s direct gaze then becomes particularly significant; it is the gaze of an artist closely studying and creating a subject. Perhaps, the moment we begin to closely study this painting and engage with his gaze we actively participate in much the same process. Rembrandt captures the moment of complicity between a picture and it’s spectator. As we look into his eyes we realise that this moment is a profoundly human experience. We glimpse a moment of character in this self portrait, something precious and fragile which illuminates and is illuminated by Rembrandt’s perpetual gaze.

Rembrandt’s painting style is often associated with a deep, genuine knowledge of that which is human in his subjects, rather than that which is affected or desired by the sitter. E.H Gombrich states in relation to Rembrandt’s portraiture that while ‘other portraits by great artists… are memorable for the way that they sum up a person’s character and role … Rembrandt must have been able to look straight into the human heart.’  He seems to have been able to subject his own image to an equally, if not more thorough character analysis than his portraits of others. Gombrich states that ‘Rembrandt certainly never tried to conceal his ugliness,’ and indeed we are left little to the imagination, his face has it’s imperfections and there seems to be no contrived attempt to conceal them. Equally Rembrandt does not try to conceal his mood. Although the pose is dignified enough, the tone of Self-portrait Aged 51 is distinctly melancholic. There is something remarkably lonely in Rembrandt’s tiny representation of himself.

There are several angles from which one might approach these ideas. From a modern perspective, we might be inclined to suggest that Rembrandt is engaged in an attempt to romanticise the solitary figure of the artist; intensely, even obsessively pursuing representative perfection whilst simultaneously alienating himself from society. This might be one way of looking at Rembrandt, as a forerunner of Romantic constructions of what the artist stands for; however, we might also, I suggest come to a more vital understanding of the tone of this self-portrait if we look at it in terms of the artists personal situation. In the years preceding the painting of this self-portrait Rembrandt’s wife and child died and between 1656 and 1657 Rembrandt went bankrupt. Yet it would be dangerous and trivial to assume that these events provided the direct impetus for Rembrandt to paint a portrait of himself looking melancholic.

It seems absurd however to suggest that he would expurgate the sadness in his demeanour, engendered by the traumatic events in his life, if he aimed to produce a picture that reflected the aesthetic truth of his character. The moment captured seems to betray a pervasive mood of sadness; and this sadness operates through directness of form and technique, it might then seem reasonable to allow a biographical note of interest to colour our interpretation on this particular point. An analysis of an artist’s life and an analysis of his paintings are separate things. In the case of Rembrandt his self portraits tempt us into a reconstruction of his life and work; the enigma of his gaze launches us back into the past in search of an answer. Gombrich’s sentiments reflect this kind of opinion, he reminds us that;

‘Rembrandt did not write down his observations as Leonardo and Durer did; he was no admired genius as Michelangelo was, whose sayings were handed down to posterity; he was no diplomatic letter writer like Rubens, who exchanged ideas with the leading scholars of his age. Yet we feel we know Rembrandt … more intimately … because he left us an amazing record of his life in a series of self portraits ranging from the time of his youth when he was a successful and even fashionable master, to his lonely old age when his face reflected the tragedy of bankruptcy and the unbroken will of a truly great man.’

The way we interpret Rembrandt and his representation of himself in Self Portrait Aged 51 seems to rely not merely on an analysis of the formal elements in the painting and whatever insights we might bring to the painting about Rembrandt’s financial and spiritual condition; we should equally take into account what it means to be a spectator looking at a self-portrait, inhabiting the position of the artist, a concentrated observer of form and physicality. This picture has a marked psychological aspect, hinted at by the focus of light on the artist’s forehead. Rembrandt articulates a type of artistic complicity that is peculiar to self-portraits, particularly his own attempts at self-portraits; the more we gaze at the artist, the more mysterious he becomes and the more we illuminate something in ourselves. Perhaps this is Rembrandt’s greatest gift.  But can we really agree with Gombrich in saying that we know the artist ‘more intimately’ because of this. How well do we really know him? One might ask the question whilst peering into Rembrandt’s eyes, where does Rembrandt – the artist – end and the onlooker begin?


Bomford, David. Art in the Making; Rembrandt. London: National Gallery Publications, 1988.
Clarke, Martin. A Companion Guide to the National Gallery of Scotland. Belgium: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2000.
Gombrich, Ernst. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1995.
Von Sonnenbrg, Hubert. Rembrandt / Not Rembrandt; Aspects of Connoisseurship. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications, 1995.
White, Christopher. Rembrandt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

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The Edinburgh Police Box

8 Apr

 Listed Building, Coffee Shop, Miniature Gallery, Time Machine

On the Royal Mile there is a castle, a cathedral and a courthouse – and down the bottom end somewhere there’s an old palace and a new parliament. There is also a police box. Funny that isn’t it – I never notice it either. There is also one on Princes Street, on the Grassmarket, The Mound, Heriot Row, Rose Street, Lauriston Place, Dean Terrace … you get the picture. So commonplace are these wee blue boxes around the streets of Edinburgh that they seem to trick the viewer into passing them by as one would a bus stop or a row of parking meters, completely unnoticed.

Now this just won’t do. Concealed within those four small walls the Police Boxes of Edinburgh offer us a compelling slice of history. They remind us of a time when every corner of the city had its own beat bobby who worked from a box at the end of your road. And we’re not talking Dixon of Dock Green here – these guys were real policemen with a real job to do. They were the men at the front line, so to speak, between the public and the police stations. The boxes remind us of a time when domestic phones where uncommon and the public needed assurance of prompt help from the authorities.

The first police boxes appeared in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. They were little more than a hexagonal phone-stand with a signal lantern on top to alert officers that they were being hailed by the local station. The telephone had only been invented a decade or so earlier and the police were quick to see the benefits of this revolutionary communication device. Edinburgh’s boxes came a little later on, around 1930.  They were designed especially to complement the city’s neoclassical architecture by the architect Ebenezer James MacRae. Macrae designed many public buildings (housing, schools etc) and was a well known architectural conservationist in the immediate pre-war period.

Inside the boxes police officers had only a little bit of room to work with, enough for a sink, a kettle, a chair or two. On winter nights they might warm up with a one bar electric fire or an old oil heater. On night-shifts, officers carried round a battery hand lamp and the beat keys and reference book which gave them access to properties to check the security and contact the owners if something was amiss. The boxes doubled up as a handy place to lock up unruly drunks found causing trouble after dark. Unfortunately what the boxes didn’t have was a loo. It is said that each policeman was armed with a bottle of bleach and that when it came to it (particularly in residential areas) he had to do his business in the sink. One rather grotesque story I stumbled across was that during the 1970’s when women officers began working from the boxes a rumour began circulating that one unlucky lady had broken the sink! Although if The Sweeney is anything to go by, perhaps this was just a smutty office wisecrack from a macho male copper.

In total 142 boxes were installed in Edinburgh, of which about 75 remain – sadly in various states of disrepair and neglect. They are substantial cast iron structures (in other locations they were made of concrete) and appear to have been made at Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, which was once one of the largest ironworks in Europe. Much like the Police Boxes though, this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now a thing of the past. After 223 years, the company became insolvent in 1982.

As police officers began to be issued with personal radios in the 1970’s the Police Boxes were eventually phased out. This happened across the UK. From being an omnipresent sight on Britain’s streets they promptly disappeared. In London there were almost 700 at one time (so it’s not surprising that a certain timelord chose it as the design for his intergalactic time machine) now there are only a few left, scattered around various museums. One of the most novel things about these miniature police stations is that for each British City there was a different design. Edinburgh is unique in that it kept a large number of its boxes in the spirit of architectural heritage.

It is something of a shame then that many of our Police Boxes are now covered in flyers and graffiti, their paint faded and flaking. This isn’t the case throughout Edinburgh though, particularly in the wealthier areas of town where many of the boxes seem to be very well taken care of, take the Heriot Row box for instance.

Some of the boxes have even been bought up and revitalised by businesspeople and social groups. Many of you will be familiar with the Police Box Coffee Stands dotted around the Edinburgh University area. This is a great little idea (a doff of the cap to the old beat bobby and his cup of tea) and a money-spinner too. What’s more the police box at the corner of Drummond Street and The Pleasance has been turned into a miniature art gallery for exhibitions, performances and installations. ‘The Wee Blue Box’ group organises for artists to come in every few months and redecorate. It’s quite a surprise walking down and seeing it for yourself. I’ll bet many of the festival goers on their way down to the pleasance this year turned their head for a second take. One artist, Malcolm Irving, has actually published a book of photographs of the city’s Police Boxes. The pictures are all taken with an old camera, and film that isn’t made anywhere anymore, playing on the idea of obsoleteness and decay.

So if you’re walking through Edinburgh and you catch a glimpse of one of these little structures (and no doubt you will) spare a thought for the old policeman freezing the night away, cherishing his cup of tea (and of course his bleach bottle) a long long time ago.

Cabinets of Curiosity

3 Apr

The Reopening of The National Museum of Scotland

Perhaps, like myself, you visited The National Museum of Scotland as a child – and gaped upwards in wonder (or terror!) at lions and elephants, Egyptian sarcophagi and the fossilised remains of prehistoric monsters. Or perhaps you once ran in for shelter on a rainy day, and then stayed for an entire afternoon – throwing a few thoughtful pennies into the fishpond on your way out.  Certainly a great many Scots and international visitors alike share cherished memories of this incredible building and its astonishing menagerie of curiosities.  Last year saw the reopening of the 150 year old museum on Chambers Street after a three year, £47.4 million redevelopment project.  I went to have a look around the revitalised museum to see if all of that  childhood curiosity was reignited.

              It goes without saying that each time you turn a corner in Edinburgh’s city centre you are greeted with buildings of quality, both historic and modern. But even in a place where so many grand structures are vying for your attention the National Museum is a stand out;  the grand steps, the formidable stone edifice, the gigantic windows make a remarkable impression – and that’s just the outside. As you climb up the steps and enter inside you step into the Grand Gallery, a monumental space, reminiscent of a vast birdcage, which even on dull days is filled with spectral light. As a result of the extensive building renovations visitors can now also enter at street level, down into a cavernous stone entrance hall, six tennis courts wide, which was previously used as a storage facility. The contrast between these two atmospheric spaces is fascinating, an exhibit in itself, and the work put into realise the new and improved design truly staggering. During the renovation of the lower level of the museum around one million items were moved from Chambers Street to the National Museum’s collection centre in Granton – which gives some idea of the scale of the task.


What is apparent when you look at the figures – 16 new galleries, 13,000 square metres of new public space, £47.4 million spent – is that this really is a once in a lifetime transformation: the most significant redevelopment to the museum in over a century.

The Grade A listed building has enjoyed a rich and varied history. It was designed by visionary engineer Captain Francis Fowke, architect of the Royal Albert Hall, and local architect Robert Matheson in the aftermath of the Scottish Enlightenment. Originally established as the Industrial Museum of Scotland in 1854, it was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition.

The foundation stone was laid 150 years ago, in 1861, and the east wing was opened in 1866 by Prince Alfred, by which time it had become the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. By the building’s jubilee in 1904 it had become the Royal Scottish Museum. And in 1998 the building was extended, to tell the country’s history from earliest times to the present day. This latest development creates a newly integrated and international National Museum of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh – a pivotal step in a long tradition of evolution.

One notable casualty of the new development that I have to mention though is the museum’s beloved fish pond, which has been removed to utilise the central space in the grand gallery.  But don’t be alarmed: I have been assured that no fish were harmed (or, indeed, pan fried) during the project; they were all safely whisked away to a new home in England.

While some old moaners (like me) may bemoan the disappearance of the fishpond, new visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the ‘Window on the World’, an eighteen metre tall installation that spans from the bottom of building right up to the rooftops. This is now the largest single museum installation in the UK. The ‘Window on the World’ is essentially an enormous cabinet that showcases extraordinary objects from across the collections of the National Museums of Scotland. The idea relates to the 19th century and the gentlemanly pursuit of a assembling a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. In their country houses, men of wealth and taste would put together collections of rare and exotic objects from all corners of the world for the pleasure of themselves and their guests. Riffing on this idea of miscellany and assortment the museum curators have fashioned an opportunity to illustrate in fantastic, iconic style what a diverse collection they have at their disposal; something in the region of four million objects. Thus we look up and find a 1930s gyrocopter, a girder from the Tay Bridge and the enormous jaws of a sperm whale inscribed with ornate ‘scrimshaw’ artwork sitting quirkily side by side.

Moving down from the ‘Window on The World’ the eye catches the Grand Gallery floor, which is a masterpiece of gravitas and understatement. Just five or six objects stand in the huge space  including a lighthouse lens by David Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis), a statue of James Watt which used to be in Westminster Abbey and the 3 metre-high skeleton of a prehistoric deer.

Other highlights include the Discoveries gallery in the centre of the building – another major architectural feature – which provides a dramatic new home for one of the Museum’s most popular exhibits, the Millennium Clock. Opening up long-forgotten archways, this space draws visitors through to the exhibitions and an expanded three-storey Learning Centre, which features new studios, event spaces and an upgraded auditorium. A series of balconies, walkways and escalators improve visitor circulation and provide dramatic views, both of the architecture and the displays. Here you will be able to find the world’s oldest surviving colour television, developed by John Logie Baird and a fossilised tree slice collected by John Muir from the Petrified Forest National Park.

The extensive vision of this development is breathtaking, and like all of the world’s great museums it would take many many visits to take it all in. Plenty then to reawaken those childhood memories. Kids and adults alike will do well not to be spellbound by it all.

The £47.4 million redevelopment, has been jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£17.8 million), and the Scottish Government (£16 million), with a further £13.6 million from private sources.