Ahead of our Old Master, British and European Art auction on 23 June, Jennie Fisher, Head of Dreweatts' Fine Art department, takes a look at Sir James Guthrie and the tradition of society portrait painting at the turn of the 20th century.
Guthrie was born in Greenock in Scotland where he lived for most of his life. Although today he is recognised for his contribution to Scottish realist painting, in his lifetime he was equally known for his portraiture.
Alongside his contemporary Sir John Lavery, he was a member of the Glasgow Art Club and closely associated with the group of painters known as the Glasgow Boys. The group was formed in the 1880s and 1890s in and around the city of Glasgow and drew on the work of artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
The group was bound by a passion for realism and naturalism within the framework of impressionist and post-impressionist art. They also shared a distaste for what they saw as an overly oppressive Edinburgh art scene, seeing their Glasgow base as a rival artistic base to the formalism of Edinburgh. The group was deeply influenced by the travels of their respective members, although Guthrie himself was less well travelled, with only brief stints in London and Paris, preferring to base himself in Scotland.
As with Sir John Lavery, most of the Glasgow Boys took to portraiture once their careers were established and were highly successful in winning lucrative commissions, both public and private.
The present portrait, painted in 1899, depicting Guthrie’s cousin, Miss Isabella Gardiner, is to be included in our Old Master, British and European Art auction. Guthrie painted several portraits of the family which are amongst some his most personal works.
The present painting has also been described as being one of the most overtly Whistlerian in style:
"Of what may be called his Whistlerian pictures...probably the most personal and the most vitally expressive is the three-quarter length of his cousin, Miss Isabella Gardiner, seated at a piano. A scheme of cool yet not cold greys and dusky browns, flushing in the head and hands into pearly tints...It is at the same time the basis of a singularly attractive interpretation of character...creates very quietly an impression of singularly sympathetic and intelligent personality and gives the picture its exceptionally haunting appeal." (J.L. Caw, Sir James Guthrie, Macmillan, London, 1932, p. 87).
Whilst distinctive in their style, Guthrie’s portraits also fall firmly within the tradition of portrait painting of the time. With Whistler as the dominant primary influence, portraiture of the early part of the 20th century owes much to French impressionism with artists such as Ambrose McEvoy and Sir John Lavery all drawing their inspiration not only from their domestic tradtions but also from artistic traditions across the Channel. This included perhaps the greatest and most successful society portraitist of the period, John Singer Sargent.
Tuesday 23 June | 10.30am
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
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