A Delicate Vision of Fragrant Roses and Femininity: Alison Watt at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Alison Watt, 'Centifolia', oil on canvas
Alison Watt, 'Centifolia', oil on canvas

Alison Watt - A Portrait Without Likeness

Thu - Sat 10:00 - 17:00

From: 17 Jul 2021

To: 9 Jan 2022

1 Queen Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Alison Watt standing beside Ramsay's portrait and her own paintings of roses
Alison Watt standing beside Ramsay’s portrait and her own paintings of roses

‘As a genre, still life can be very intimate. It reflects us. It is in effect, a portrait without likeness’ – Alison Watt

While still a student at the Glasgow School of Art, Alison Watt won the John Player Portrait Award 1987 with a commission to paint the Queen Mother and in 2000 became the youngest artist to be offered a solo show, entitled Shift at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

As well as the Old Masters, Zurbarán, Ingres, Chardin, Liotard, et al. she is inspired by Allan Ramsay’s portraits of women, in particular his two wives, Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick. As part of an extensive research project, Watt has studied these in meticulous detail to recreate a series of accessories, props and possessions such as antique lace, ribbon and flowers. 

Imaginatively curated by Julie Lawson, this exhibition showcases Alison Watt’s personal, artistic response to Ramsay’s portraits, complemented by a few of his drawings and sketchbooks from the National Galleries of Scotland archive. 

Allan Ramsay, 'Anne Bayne', oil on canvas
Allan Ramsay, ‘Anne Bayne’, oil on canvas

Allan Ramsay and Anne Bayne married in 1739 but tragically she died four years later giving birth to their third child. This portrait Anne Bayne was most likely painted during their engagement, presenting a rather formal posture and serious, almost shy expression. Her lace-trimmed buttercream silk gown, modestly buttoned up to the neck, and her bonnet are decorated with pink ribbons. 

Alison Watt, 'Anne', oil on canvas
Alison Watt, ‘Anne’, oil on canvas

To capture an element of this period fashion and restrained femininity, Alison Watt has illustrated a neatly-tied little bow Anne, a choker necklace of ribbon, the soft silky material glistening in the light. 

Allan Ramsay, 'Margaret Lindsay of Evelick', oil on canvas
Allan Ramsay, ‘Margaret Lindsay of Evelick’, oil on canvas

In Margaret Lindsay of Evelick the artist’s wife is in a homely setting as she arranges flowers in a vase, half turning to look directly at the viewer. Her face has such a youthful, fresh, blushed complexion with such tactile fabrics, a lace shawl and lilac satin gown. The rose in her hand droops over with a bent or broken stem. 

Allan Ramsay, 'A Lady's left hand holding a Rose', red and white chalk on buff paper
Allan Ramsay, ‘A Lady’s left hand holding a Rose’, red and white chalk on buff paper

Here too is Ramsay’s study for the portrait, A lady’s left hand, holding a rose, in which her folded fingers are so slender and fragile.

Alison Watt, 'Lindsay', oil on canvas
Alison Watt, ‘Lindsay’, oil on canvas

With botanical artistry, Watt depicts several bouquets and single roses such as Lindsay, with petals of the palest pink hue and shiny green leaves. The grey backdrop accentuates the fine clarity of the flower with a faint shadowy light behind the small bud. A classic symbol of romantic love. 

Alison Watt, 'Centifolia', oil on canvas
Alison Watt, ‘Centifolia’, oil on canvas

Another exquisite solitary rose is Centifolia featuring a sharp thorn on the stem, almost floating in the empty pink cloudy space. Centifolia is also known as the Provence Cabbage or May rose, a hybrid with an abundance of petals, developed by the Dutch around the 17th century.

Alison Watt, 'Bayne', oil on canvas
Alison Watt, ‘Bayne’, oil on canvas

To reflect the detailed quality of Margaret’s gown, Bayne is a vintage linen handkerchief embroidered with lace. As if freshly laundered with the crease of a flat iron, this gives an extraordinary 3D effect, as if you could pick it off the canvas.  

Alison Watt, 'A Lady', oil on canvas§
Alison Watt, ‘A Lady’, oil on canvas

A Lady is a quill pen with superb textures of the hard stem and soft white down and around the walls are also Watt’s evocative images of well-thumbed books with sun-damaged covers.

Allan Ramsay, 'A Lady's left hand resting on a book', black and white chalk on blue paper
Allan Ramsay, ‘A Lady’s right hand resting on a book’, black and white chalk on blue paper

In a display case is Ramsay’s sketch, A Lady’s right hand resting on a book, a study for Anne Dalrymple and Study of hands of a lady, the left holding a piece of cloth. These remarkable drawings give valuable background to the artist’s working method as he planned and prepared each richly decorated composition.  

Allan Ramsay, 'Frances Boscawen', oil on canvas
Allan Ramsay, ‘Frances Boscawen’, oil on canvas

Amidst the flowers and feathers, a rather incongruous subject is a cabbage – Boscawen shows the skeletal pattern of white veins across a crisp green leaf. This is a witty response to the portrait of Frances Boscawen who holds a cabbage leaf with berries or nuts, to describe her passion for gardens.  

Through her sensitive exploration of the 18th century portraits, Alison Watt has re-imagined a collection of intimate, feminine motifs in a minimalist manner. With cool, contemporary vision, they capture the elegant style, domestic lives and romantic narrative of Ramsay’s women. 

A beautifully-illustrated hardback book features interviews and essays on the inspirational background to the exhibition – a perfect gift for any art lover. Admission is free. The exhibition will be showing at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery 29th January – 2nd April 2022.

All images courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland, whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged. With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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