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“Ross Sinclair versus Sir Edwin Landseer – Situating Scottishness”

Following my AHRC speculative research programme which paired Victorian painter Sir Edwin
Landseer (1802-1873) and the contemporary Scottish artist Ross Sinclair (b.1966) (and including
the commissioning new work alongside curatorial recontextualisation of works from the Victorian
period which conflates their separate acts of representing Scotland) this paper considers a series
of documented „interventions‟ by Sinclair addressing specific Landseer‟ works within their present
environments, such as Aberdeen Art Gallery, as an articulation of contemporary Scottish cultural
identity.

Sir Edwin Landseer was fundamental to the Victorian vision and fascination with Scottish history
and landscape of the Highlands. His early diptych “High Life / Low Life” (1829) typifies the
contrast between Scotland and England as “one of character. The deerhound in “High Life”
reflects the chivalric and aristocratic world of the past. In “Low Life” the battle scarred terrier,
representing the tough, plebeian, urban values of “John Bull.” (Ormond, Richard. Sir Edwin
Landseer, p. 99,Thames and Hudson, 1981). In the increasingly contentious discussions around
identities of Scottish art since the formation of a devolved Assembly, it must be stressed that
Landseer‟s paintings are more complex than some of their subjects might suggest.

Landseer‟s monumental “Flood in the Highlands” (1860) shows a psychologically despondent
scene: “figures appear to be sitting on the turf roof of an outhouse... seated on a chair in the
centre of the composition is a terrified and desperate-looking mother clutching her beautiful son.
The presence of a Highland shield, two dirks, and a handle of a broadsword wrapped in a scarf
seems to be reminiscent of the 1745 rebellion, when Highlanders hid their arms after the defeat of
Bonnie Prince Charlie. The animals, in their terror, gather near the people... Storm clouds streak
across the sky; trees are bent over the buildings … the flood itself is barely shown.” (Ormond, R.
ibid p. 202).

Similarly Sinclair‟s practice repeatedly returns to the mythology of Scotland and its place within
the formation of national identity. Sharing Landseer‟s aesthetic concerns Sinclair‟s exhibition
“Real Life Rocky Mountain” (Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 1996) presented a fake
waterfall and trees on a fibreglass mountainside covered in stuffed indigenous animals „oblivious‟
to Sinclair‟s presence on the mountainside, singing popular songs drawn from three periods of
Scottish history and tradition. Songs by Lady Nairne and Robert Burns, politically motivated with a
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focus on the Jacobite Rebellions of 1745; the Scottish music hall tradition of the late 19 /early
20th century including the kitsch „tartanry‟ of Harry Lauder; and music from Edwin Collins in the
late 20th century. This presented the heritage tradition as self-consciously false yet powerful
when reflected back by its subjects. It resolutely was not an image of Scottish culture full of
misfortune, disorientated and at the physical mercy of the landscape but signals the problems of
absorbing historical mythologies in which a people, for economic reasons or otherwise, begin to
manage their past as if it were a Museum.
Introduction

This paper arises out of a broad programme of research into Scottish Art since 1960, the year
in which the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art opened, followed seven years later by a
devolved Scottish Arts Council. Although researching the curatorial and critical achievements
and debates of the period, my research also encompasses an engagement with the
production of visual art in Scotland which allows for embedded reinterpretations of the
subject. [SLIDE 1]

Although its timescale is understandable, such a concertedly „national‟ focus for this research
is contentious. There was, for example, for many years an artists self-imposed resistance
against a survey of Scottish art of my generation, a refusal to have a „Scottish Art Show‟,
which came to an end with the exhibition of forty such artists in 2001 in „Here and Now‟ at
Dundee Contemporary Arts and other venues. Movements towards a self-recognition of
Scottish art embedded within the practices of Scottish artists are increasingly evident
although hesitant, however one should not underestimate the challenge that defining a
practice as predicated upon a „Scottish art‟ represents for Scottish artists of my generation.

In the context of this conference I would argue that a sense of regional belonging is different
from the belonging conferred by nationhood; my “nation” might be your “region”. And
inasmuch as I would welcome any attempt to define Scottishness, Irishness, Welshness or
Englishness, the argument against defining a „national art‟ is widespread. Donald Kuspit‟s
essay “The Night Mind” (1982), restated the pitfalls of the “idea of nationalism, ambiguously
defined though it may be”. He argued “it is hard to isolate a national trait without reducing
one‟s sense of the nation. […] A nationalist revival is not unlike a religious one; it is a way of
sublimating otherwise potentially destructive subjective forces – of creating out of a dubious,
insecure sense of personal individuality a rabid sense of identity.” [1]

Scottish art critics are less harsh when they write of Scottish art and are on record as to the
importance of making statements in advocacy of Scottish art. I hesitate when hearing Kuspit‟s
words, which have a sensible ring to them, thoughtful, but ultimately condemnatory. The
„reasoned‟ suggestion to the nationalist is to be less insecure of one‟s personal individuality!
Kuspit‟s condemnatory tone reminds me of an 1990 untitled work by Roderick Buchanan in
the exhibition „Self Conscious State‟ which included the mocking use of following text on a
corridor wall “Ancient glories are a frail protection to a degenerate people albeit they rekindle
the imagination and are a mighty incentive to an imitative heroism when the true heroic heart
is vanished” which exhibition visitors read before an encounter with a room filled with plaster
cast thistles repeated grid of saltires over a blue painted wall. [2]


The Project

The impetus for this curatorial research arose through my own personal response to both
artist‟s Ross Sinclair and Edwin Landseer‟s work, both have advocated and sustained
characteristics of Scottishness in Scottish art. On viewing Landseer‟s “Flood in the Highlands”
(1860) for the first time in September 2001 this rekindled memories of seeing Ross Sinclair‟s
“Real Life Rocky Mountain” (Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 1996) and an intuitive
leap was made between two separate viewing experiences. Monographs on Landseer are
surprisingly limited My preparatory research for this project included visits to some of sites
holding Landseer‟s works [SLIDES 2 + 3] and Richard Ormond‟s second publication on
Landseer, “Monarch of The Glen: Landseer in the Highlands” (2005) appeared during this
preliminary period, accompanying the exhibition in Edinburgh. [3]

The subsequent curatorial framework included seeking a contemporary relevance for the
meaning of Landseer‟s specifically „Scottish‟ works and then to extending this exploration to
sites at which Landseer defines nationhood and includes performance, video, photography,
neon, sculptures, music made by Ross Sinclair. Sinclair periodically employs methods
designed to escape the instrumentality of the gallery, interventions so far underway which
involve a direct „address‟ to Landseer‟s works include the incorporation of utilitarian objects,
such as a Land-Rover vehicle.
Sinclair is unusual in his generation of Scottish artists in frequently deploying or addressing
abiding historical clichés and character inaccuracy in exemplars of an increasingly definable
Scottish art. One needn‟t be of Scottish origin to present this; Scottish art has a porous
membrane dividing it from England, Europe and the world, the country‟s boundaries have
encouraged innovatory depictions of the place in the past. There is much to be retrieved and
to be gained through artist‟s depicting their own cultural inheritance and identity using the
wealth of easily available axioms set by outsiders, towards understanding how these become
enmeshed in the national psyche.

The humorous title of this project “Ross Sinclair versus Sir Edwin Landseer” is an impossible
bout, no qualitative comparison is sought, rather an entangled dialogue or an attempt at some
kind of address to a legacy of meanings. Understanding the implications for incorporating
transitory interruptions Museum practices are also a curatorial interest. Briefly, an art of
embedded re-interpretation is curatorial approach concerning developing methodologies in
contemporary art, which address the formal, contextual and historical concerns of preceding
artists. [4] Landseer‟s works are complex, and my project is not retrospective arts criticism but
more a manipulation of continuous parallels; understanding contemporary Scottish art and its
historic precedents.

History is a regular concern for the nationally minded Landseer. Empire, its struggle for dignity
in defeat as well as its heroism, and the battle for life, is so regularly depicted in Landseer and
none more so than in his Scottish subjects. Yet his subjects are sometimes viewed from lofty
heights, pictured at odd perspectives, and at worst he has a tendency, to make Scots
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mascots. Landseer patronises and glorifies the Scots. In 21 Century Great Britain, which
seems to be dissolving as a unified entity, Sinclair, while adding humorous associations to
this state, adds grace to the dissolution. His work collectively imagines pasts and meanings of
Scotland, which he describes as a “small, damp Northern European Nation which perhaps
has yet to come into existence”. [5]



Why Sir Edwin Landseer?

It‟s undoubtedly true that Edwin Landseer‟s works have become irretrievably linked to a
mawkish sentimental vision of Scotland and are critically lambasted for supposedly how
effective they are at this task. [SLIDES 4 + 5] As the images from the opening of Monarch of
the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands” (The National Galleries of Scotland, 2005) suggest, they
inspire an excitable immersion in the reification of colonial myths, heralded here by a Pipe
band on the exhibition steps. Although the exhibition was a commercial failure the sense that
this might be real art and real culture collide, and was deeply palpable during the opening
event. However, as Scotland‟s historiographer royal T.C. Smout recently reminded us
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Landseer “influenced many other landscape artists of the 19 Century […] Although “Theirs‟
is the image of Scotland that is perpetuated on innumerable tourist brochures and biscuit tins”
[My underlining]. [6]

The nuances in Landseer‟s approaches to a peopled landscape are worth reconsidering for a
moment. The work‟s showing Scottish history and geography are sometimes distinguished.
Again T.C. Smout noted that “Victorians praised Landseer for his realism in portraying people,
beast and place, yet his mountains are bathed in a wonderful unreality, scenes that we might
aspire to see but never will…” [My underlining] and he continues, “Moderns blame him for
ignoring the bitter truths of Highland life, and glamorising the wild and empty, yet his paintings
of people are not so unrelated to historical context as generally supposed.” Crucially Smout
concluded “His art was […] rooted in an experienced mood and place”. [7] Smout the
historian does not regard Landseer‟s work as far too anchored to the history of their subject
but Smout the Art Historian recognised their truth involved an imaginary, but honestly
imagined, distillation.

Landseer‟s monumental and despondent depiction of the aftermath of a deluge, “Flood in the
Highlands” (1860) is easily the best example of such a distillation. As Richard Ormond
described “figures appear to be sitting on the turf roof of an outhouse... seated on a chair in
the centre of the composition is a terrified and desperate-looking mother clutching her
beautiful son. The presence of a Highland shield, two dirks, and a handle of a broadsword
wrapped in a scarf seems to be reminiscent of the 1745 rebellion, […] In the lower left-hand
corner a black ox is about to be sucked down by the waters... Storm clouds streak across the
sky […] the impact of the scene is all the greater because the flood itself is barely shown.” [8]


Why Ross Sinclair?

Ross Sinclair, when invited by the journalist Moira Jeffrey to respond to the values in the
iconic painting “Monarch of the Glen” on the eve of the opening of The National Galleries of
Scotland‟s “Landseer in the Highlands” (2005), said “It‟s an enduring fascination, how this
English Victorian animal painter serving up this kind of rubbish became such a strong part of
our self-image.” [9] It is undoubtedly true that the contemporary recognition of these and
other paintings is that Scotland was a kind Victorian theme park. However there is
knowingness at work in contemporaneous usage of more well-known themes to which Walter
Scott and Edwin Landseer are associated, which is not easily dismissed as campy irony.
Although these are themes which are ripe for commercial adaptation, whisky, tartan tourism
etc. or more frequently now seen in very mainstream television programmes, (such as the
horrible concatenation of B.B.C.‟s „Hamish MacBeath‟ and „Monarch of the Glen‟, and its
horrible Scottish Shangri-la „Glenbogle‟ House), there is a need to reinvent some of these
mythic stereotypes to the national advantage, beyond the economic necessities of such
economic-cultural recycling.

Sharing an aesthetic similarity to “Flood in The Highlands” Ross Sinclair‟s exhibition “Real Life
Rocky Mountain” [SLIDE 6] (Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 1996) presented a fake
waterfall and trees on a fibreglass mountainside covered in stuffed indigenous animals
„oblivious‟ to Sinclair‟s presence on the mountainside, singing popular songs drawn from three
periods of Scottish history and tradition. This presented the heritage tradition as self-
consciously false yet powerful when reflected back by its subjects. It resolutely was not an
image of Scottish culture full of misfortune, disorientated and at the physical mercy of the
landscape. Sinclair‟s practice repeatedly returns to the mythology of Scotland and its place in
the links of the chain forming national identity. He asks almost unanswerable questions, such
as “how can we begin to understand our dependant relationship with this system of History
and Geography, Economics and Culture, Politics and Persuasion, which makes us who we
are locally, globally, in public, and in private, the social fabric that connects us to the
institutional pillars of our modern world”. [10]

Sinclair has found the high definition of this curatorial construction assertive within his own
very active and fluid working processes, which, with many artists, involves an intensity of self-
purpose - even reckless abandon - to the direction the work seems to wish to take the artist.
At times he works by a kind of extrication from self-created wreckage, recent studio shots
[SLIDES 7 + 8] of working processes (leading up to a decision over what forms and direct
references he might use in the planned site interventions) demonstrate this to some degree.

“We Love Real Life Scotland”

During this period of research Sinclair has also dramatically invoked the mythic negative
stereotypes of Scotland. His 2005 work “WE LOVE REAL LIFE SCOTLAND” which is centred
around a large neon sign and twelve smaller signs, on Glasgow‟s most important public
building, The City Chambers. [SLIDES 9 + 10] A familiar approach in Scotland‟s recent visual
arts practices has been to question political power and official truth, although the most notable
examples follow developments within the city‟s promulgation of a post-City of Culture rhetoric
which does not reflect the serious social issues at large. Sinclair has previously contributed to
this debate and proposes that this work is a commentary on the reified myths of history,

“This large neon sign “flashing on and off, […] as if forever looks more Las Vegas than Loch
Lomond but is no less sincere for that (perhaps a nod of inspiration from Glasgow‟s own piece
of Las Vegas, the neon sign on the Barrowland Ballroom) […] around this central beating
heart are a dozen or so satellite neon signs, written in an old fashioned hand drawn script, a
collective psycho-geographic journey through the last 700 years of Scotland‟s formation: …
Robert Burns … Queen Victoria… Alcohol… They describe an odd kind of recipe for the dish
of Scotland which is still in the oven … The Highland Clearance… Bannockburn…
Parsimony… They appear almost as thoughts, fleeting, disembodied, and echoing around this
„official‟ space… … [Culloden]… Bonnie Prince Charlie…The Bay City Rollers … Some
would say they constitute the mechanics of a national identity, others would argue they are
merely the misguided signposts that have been sending us in the wrong direction […]
Whichever is true, its up to the viewer to choose the selection which suits their palette…
Walter Scott… Harry Lauder… Edwin Landseer…” [11]


Ross Sinclair versus Sir Edwin Landseer

And the current works which are underway, including the installation which opens in The
Macdonald Rooms at Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum for the launch of The Year of The
Highlands in January 2007 which will be comprised of a Landrover covered in paraphernalia
[11] locating this work within a Scottish cultural and musical history. This work will be placed
right in the heart of the Victorian collection and will include a projected film of Sinclair singing
to Landseer “Flood in the Highlands”. [SLIDES 12+ 13]

What particular traits in the lived Scottish experience are referenced in Sinclair‟s decision to
interrupt the silent flow of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum with his composition of folk
music? Sinclair‟s need to sing in the space is one of a series of recent compositions, but also
this seems to suggest he‟s making a decision which enlivens the space of heritage, an
ecology on par with the growth of farmer‟s markets, that is a desire for a rustic authenticity,
(although imbued with a metropolitan sensibility). And, when Sinclair first told me of his desire
to sing his own composed folk music and film it within Aberdeen using a professional crew, I
was immediately reminded by the regionalism earnest and „authentic‟ meaning of regional
television programming: „Regional Variations‟ (but advertised only in the smallest possible
type at the bottom of the television listings.) Perhaps this is the role of Regionalism,
consigned to the small print it provides a necessary interruption of the spectacular and easily
marketed? The bigger question then is that creative practitioner‟s may have a self-aversion to
the aesthetic appreciation of cultural products of their place of evocative affiliation, be it the
place of their upbringing, their homeland, or place of settlement. I know I do. Ultimately the
values of Regionalism in the arts may be one which cannot be fully appreciated, and may
even be coercively discouraged, within the prevalent practise of nomad-ism and
Internationalism in the visual arts.


[AHRC LOGO]

[1]
Kuspit, D., The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, 1993, New York, p.49)

[2]
 „Self Conscious State‟
The Third Eye Centre, (Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow) Glasgow, 1990
Buchanan cannot now locate the quotation but its similarity to lines in Gibbons “Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire” is notable. It appeared in a book of similar quotations, which as
Buchanan described to me “This quote was not unusual, always grand, always moral.” (e-mail
correspondence 24 October 2006)

[3]
“The Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands”
National Galleries of Scotland
Royal Scottish Academy Building
14 April – 10 July 2005
[4]
The curatorial aim is to enhance my knowledge of the history and contemporary practice of
Scottish art and then to present this within relevant civic spaces. Articulating a version of
Scottish cultural identity for regular and new audiences, this interpretation will establish novel
methodologies questioning the subject-position of artist/curators within the disciplines of
contemporary art and art history. Within a Scottish context I hope to inform the future
definition and subsequent curation, or commissioning of a specifically Scottish contemporary
art. A more ambitious aim, and much more long-term, is the analysis of Museums, heritage
sites and art-works with a Scottish subject, providing contemporary insights and address to
their historic aspects in the formation of Scottish cultural identity.

[5]
Sinclair, R.
Unpublished text, 2005

[6]
Sount, T.C.,
“Landseer‟s Highlands”
in
“The Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands”
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2005, p.13

[7]
ibid, p. 17

[8]
Ormond, R.
“Sir Edwin Landseer”
Thames and Hudson, 1981, p. 202

[9]
Sinclair, R
Quoted in
 “The Death of the Monarch?” Jeffrey, M.
April 2, 2005
The Glasgow Herald

[10]
Sinclair, R.
Unpublished text, 2003

[11]
Sinclair, R.
Unpublished text, 2005

[12]
“Ross Sinclair versus Sir Edwin Landseer”
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum
                 th
13th January - 7 April, 2007

				
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