RSA painting rescued from a sorry end

Posted on 14 August 2018

At the RSA collections department we receive many enquiries, sometimes more than we can deal with as quickly as we’d like. Enquiries range from requests for information on RSA artists and exhibitions to more in-depth research enquiries – we do get a bit of everything and enquiries can lead to new angles for research and in other cases the discovery of work by our members in new, and sometimes strange places…

This is just what happened early last month when we received an enquiry from a gentleman who had rescued two paintings from his local tip, one of which he was sure had RSA inscribed after the signature.

On examining the images Robin and I delved into our collective memories to see if we could recognise the signature, there was something familiar to me about the strong angular strokes of the first letters, but I couldn’t quite place it. Having considered the images we had available we drafted the following response to the enquirer:

There’s something vaguely familiar (or suggestively familiar) about the rather severe backwards slant that reminds us of John MacLauchlan Milne, but that doesn’t tie comfortably with what appears to be C Mi…………, and his election as Associate was 1937 which strikes us as too late for the style of the picture.

Mackie tends to sign CHMackie in a more generous rounded signature, and I agree the signature is quite unlike anything I have previously seen signed by him.

Having gone through the list of Academicians with the initials CM (or at a pinch GM), we are hard pressed to find a match, and feel that the RSA is in a different hand to the signature (most of which has been rubbed)– so may have been added later to potentially increase interest/price? It’s a competent enough piece of landscape painting.

The pencil inscription on the stretcher bottom bar is no easier to make out from the image the enquirer has supplied – perhaps that might throw more light if he can get some better images to us (perhaps in raking light and certainly with the camera flash hitting the stretcher other than directly over the inscription).

Without seeing the object in the flesh you often need multiple images from multiple angles to try and glean the best data you can to help with identification. Fortunately the enquirer was able to capture further photographs of the pencil inscription on the reverse of the stretcher as we suggested and as it happened this solved the mystery…

We could now clearly make out the first letters ‘G’ and ‘W’ and the surname ‘Johnstone’ (well at least ‘John’ and inside knowledge did the rest). It turns out the work is a painting by one of our past members George Whitton Johnstone RSA (1849-1901), an Edinburgh based artist born in Glamis, who painted especially in the north east and highlands of Scotland. He was the father of the painter Dorothy Johnstone and is buried in Edinburgh’s Morningside Cemetery. The small scale of the painting, 10″ x 14″, and it’s loose unfinished feel, suggest it may have been painted outdoors on the spot as a study for a larger finished painting – the title and date of the work however remain a mystery.

The characteristic form of the signature appears similarly, but vaguely, in our Diploma Work by Johnstone that was featured recently in the Victorian Hang of our Ages of Wonder exhibition, hence the memory of his signature being rather fresh in our memories!

However there is another work, Largo, that shows the signature near identical, which suggests it may date from around the same period. Although one can never be sure of a painting’s authorship without seeing it in the flesh, we are quite confident that this work is indeed by Johnstone.

It is a fabulous find and we hope the gentleman can have it conserved and enjoys it, having fortuitously rescued it from certain oblivion.

Sandy Wood

RSA Collections Curator