Collecting the best of Scotland’s 20th century printmaking

Posted on 08 May 2020

Scotland holds an enviable position in 20th Century British Printmaking, boasting a strong field of printmakers who enjoyed not only local but in many instances international fame.

This was especially true of the group of etchers who were active from the 1890s through to the collapse of the print trade boom in the early 1930s, coinciding with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. During this time the thirst amongst collectors was such that prices of Scottish etchings were on a par with that for Old Master examples by artists such as Rembrandt.


Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn (1606-69), Self Portrait Wearing a Scarf and Cap, etching, 1633. RSA collections (Gifted by Miss Anne Stirling, 1941)


Of this group; with David Young Cameron (1865-1945), Muirhead Bone (1876-1953), James McBey (1883-1959), and Ernest Stephen Lumsden (1883-1948) in the older generation, and William Wilson (1905-72), Ian Fleming (1906-94) and James McIntosh Patrick (1907-98) in the younger, only McBey did not become a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, and Bone was only ever an Honorary member.

The remainder, although establishing their artistic careers on the strength of the work they produced with the burin, were all elected to Associate and subsequently full Academician Rank in the category of Painter; and they are represented in the core Diploma Collection, of the Royal Scottish Academy, by paintings.


Ernest Stephen Lumsden RSA (1883-1948), Portrait of Professor A P Lawrie DSc, Professor of Chemistry to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, oil on canvas, 1930. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1933


The Academy’s collections include a very strong, and expanding, holding of Scottish Printmaking from the 18th century to the present. This was handsomely recognised in the recent major exhibition Ages of Wonder where two lower level galleries were devoted to aspects of the Academy’s print collection.

This aspect of the exhibition also provided a first public showing of a number of complementary 20th century Scottish prints. A significant number of these, including examples by Fleming, Lumsden, Wilson, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Beth Fisher, were gifted through a Living Legacy initiative. Others, including Will McLean’s important suite of ten etchings A Night of Islands were the result of a selective purchasing strategy, which continues to drive the Academy to seek quality examples of Scottish graphic art to further enhance this part of the collection.


Ernest Stephen Lumsden RSA (1883-1948), Lawnmarket Tenements, etching on paper, 1930, RSA collections (Living Legacy Deposit, 2017)


Since Ages of Wonder, the Academy has secured a pencil drawing by William Wilson RSA as well as fine examples of etched work by Adam Bruce Thomson RSA, Sir David Young Cameron RSA, and James McIntosh Patrick RSA.

Wilson’s drawing was made en plein air in 1929 on his first overseas travels which took him to the famed hill-town of San Gimignano, in Italy. What makes it exciting however, is that amongst the collection of 18 of Wilson’s copper printing plates which the Academy acquired in 2017, is the original printing plate for Wilson’s San Gimignano; the line engraving for which the present drawing is the original sketch.


William Wilson RSA (1905-72), San Gimignano, pencil on paper, 1929. RSA collections (Purchased, 2020)


At the time, both of his travel, and of the exhibition of his San Gimignano print, Wilson was employed by the Edinburgh firm of stained glass artists, James Ballantine and Son, but had commenced attending evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art. There he came under the tutelage of Adam Bruce Thomson RSA who recognised Wilson’s outstanding draughtsmanship and gave him every encouragement.

Thomson was amongst the earliest group of students to graduate from the newly opened Edinburgh College of Art where he studied during 1907-1909 receiving Diplomas for both Painting and for Architectural Studies, which latter had been his original choice of study.

Thomson spent much of the following year (1910) travelling in Europe on various scholarships, which took him to Paris, Holland and Spain. Around 1912 he joined the teaching staff of his alma mater. Active Service with the Royal Engineers during the First World War interrupted his new employment, but on demobilization in 1918 he resumed his position, being given amongst other responsibilities, charge of teaching etching in the Drawing and Painting section. This included teaching evening classes, which is where he first met the young student William Wilson, who was to become a close friend.

Thomson in turn introduced Wilson to his near contemporary, the Glasgow-born Ian Fleming (1906-94). Fleming studied at Glasgow School of Art under Charles Murray (1894-1954). Indeed Murray himself produced an engraved view of San Gimignano, dominated by its high towers, whilst on his Prix de Rome studies c.1922-25 and which Wilson may have known. It was first exhibited at the RSA Annual Exhibition in the spring of 1929; the very year Wilson travelled to the same spot and made the present drawing.

The small etching by Adam Bruce Thomson fills a major gap in the Academy’s present collections.


Adam Bruce Thomson OBE RSA (1885-1976), Craiglleith Quarry, etching, about 1907-09. RSA collections (Purchased 2020)


The print shows the workings of Craigleith Quarry to the NW of Edinburgh city centre. Famed for its white sandstone, the quarry which was active from 1615 until 1942 produced much of the building stone of which Edinburgh new Town was constructed. Between 1942 and 1993 the site served as the city’s principal landfill dump, and is now covered by the Craigleith Retail Park.

Although his early exhibits at the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibitions included examples of his printmaking in the form of etchings, engravings, and lithographs, the present work cannot be identified from amongst these, but probably dates from Thomson’s student days at ECA.

The subject matter of rocky outcrops finds echo in a number of the subjects of the printing plates in the RSA Collections by William Wilson, thus providing a particularly apt cross-over of sources and influences.


William Wilson RSA (1905-72), Loch Scavaig, Skye, copper etching plate, 1935. RSA collections (Gifted by Mrs Christine Wood (from the estate of Roy Wood), 2017)


Thomson was elected ARSA in 1937 and full Academician in 1946; Wilson followed suit in 1939 and 1949 respectively. Both men were also awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for their services to Art in Scotland. Thomson served as Treasurer to the RSA between 1949 and 1956, whilst Wilson served as its Librarian from 1948 to 1965.

Ben Ledi, an etching and drypoint of 1911, has long been regarded as one of Sir D Y Cameron’s finest plates. Portrait format, it is exquisitely rich in the velvety black of its fore and middle grounds. These apparently dense blocks on closer inspection reveal a wealth of detail of field and hedges, cornstooks and farm buildings in the best manner of the Dutch landscapes which so inspired him. At least one contemporary collector is known to have mounted his impression of this print between two sheets of glass, back lit to expose the detail.


Sir David Young Cameron RA RSA RWS RSW RE (1865-1945), Ben Ledi, etching and drypoint, 1911. RSA collections (Purchased, 2019)


Dominating the centre of the picture is the sunlit peak of the mountain which gives the print its title. Ben Ledi is one of the highest points in the Trossachs to the north-west of Stirling. It was a peak which Cameron came to know and love during his residency in the village of Kippen, to which he and his wife moved in 1899 and where they lived for the rest of their lives, and from which spectacular views of the Ben and surrounding Carse were visible.

Cameron’s early etched work, were largely of architectural subjects. Frank Rinder in his important D Y Cameron An Illustrated Catalogue of His Etched Work with Introductory Essay & Descriptive Notes on Each Plate, 1912, wrote; “As an etcher of landscape, Cameron’s achievements are certainly not less, indeed as I think they are more, considerable than in architecture. In the landscapes there may with greater surety be traced the way in which linear organization, design, emphasis of mass, and the whole technical equipment have ceased to be exploited as ends in themselves, but instead have increasingly been used as means towards the shaping of fundamentally expressive images.” 

Later in the same volume, speaking directly of Ben Ledi, Rinder continued; “Studying this etching, we remember that all great art partakes of the substantiality of sculpture, that it penetrates through the surface towards the depths. Here the design, the forms, are as though wrought of the substance of nature.

The final print, also takes as its inspiration a mountain range intimately tied to Scotland and her history, both natural and modern. It also, in its tonal massing, makes a fascinating foil to Cameron’s Ben Ledi. This is The Three Sisters, Glencoe, an etching of 1928 by James McIntosh Patrick. Though later celebrated for his huge output of watercolour and oil paintings meticulously recording the changing face of Scottish agricultural and rural life over seven decades, it was as a precocious printmaking talent that Patrick first achieved national recognition.


James McIntosh Patrick RSA RSW (1907-98), Glencoe, The Three Sisters, etching and drypoint, 1928. RSA collections (Purchased, 2019)


Whilst still a student at Glasgow School of Art, Patrick showed some of his etchings to a Dundee picture dealer who agreed to send them to his contacts in London. The present print is one of those published by one of these contacts, Harold Dickins, in London. By the age of 22 Patrick was already represented by his printmaking in the collections of The British Museum.

A contemporary review of Patrick’s prints by Max Judge in one of the 1930 editions of the influential publication the Print Collector’s Quarterly, singled out the “strangeness” in the etchings which he put down to Patrick attempting to redefine the importance of perspective; “by using perspective as a recession instead of a projection; in this way perspective is given a new function of taking the eye through the picture to lose itself in it. Instead of attempting to bring all depth to one plane, the painter’s own eye has become like the lens of a microscope that is without any depth of focus, so that each plane must be observed in turn. Pictorial design becomes multi-planar and free from illusion.

The etched view was reversed and treated in oil by Patrick a few years later (collection Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas). The painting was rejected by the Royal Academy for its Summer Exhibition in 1934. Harold Dickins took it to the Fine Art Society who were so impressed that they put it in their window.

There it attracted the attention not only of the press (one reviewer hailed it as “a painting which must be one of the great modern works of art,”) and the etcher Frederick L Griggs, who had already proclaimed his admiration for Patrick’s etched work, wrote him to say he was recommending the painting for purchase by the Chantrey Trustees for the Tate. The picture was purchased by a private individual before the Trustees could meet, but its success propelled Patrick into the stable of the Fine Art Society, which was to last his lifetime.

Glencoe also set the path for Patrick’s future career as a painter, so the etching which acted as the catalyst is of double significance and importance.


Glencoe, The Three Sisters (detail showing signature to lower left)


Both Cameron and Patrick were long-standing Members of the Royal Scottish Academy. As Bill Smith records in his 1992 monograph D Y Cameron: The Vision of the Hills, it took Cameron six attempts from 1893 before he was finally elected an Associate in 1904.

His elevation to full Academician followed in 1918 and following the resignation of Sir James Guthrie as President in 1919, Cameron was singled out as the obvious choice to succeed him. He declined the honour fearing that his commitments south of the border would leave him bereft of the time and energies to devote to such a prestigious and important office.

Patrick, although never an office-bearer and never a Presidential nominee, enjoyed an equally meteoric rise moving from Associate in 1949 to Academician a mere 8 years later, in 1957. Like Cameron he secured a powerful reputation not only in his native Scotland but further afield. Both men enjoyed membership of a wide range of artistic bodies, and were bestowed with honours in recognition of their abilities and contributions as artists.


William Wilson RSA (1905-72), Loch Scavaig, contemporary etching pull by Leena Nammari from Wilson plate, 2019. RSA collections (Commissioned as part of the Ages of Wonder Art of Etching Project, 2019)


The importance of the Scottish Highlands in the development of the national school of landscape in particular, is a story informed by many members, past and current, of the Royal Scottish Academy and has provided the focus for several Academy-led exhibitions and publications. Indeed the significant role played by the Scottish landscape, in its wider sense, as a key source of influence for Scottish Art, was a feature singled out by Lord Pentland in his speech at the formal opening of the refurbished RSA Building in May 1911, the very year that Cameron etched ‘Ben Ledi’.

Given their physical, symbolic, and cultural associations the acquisition of these four works is of major significance to the Collections of the Royal Scottish Academy and continues to strengthen the holdings of twentieth century printmaking. In the future it is hoped that these holdings can be made as strong as their nineteenth century predecessors.


RSA Collections Team

The works were purchased from Ewan Mundy Fine Art and The Scottish Gallery both of whom offered generous discounts for which the Academy is most obliged. The Academy also gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Fund for Acquisitions, administered by the National Museum of Scotland, which awarded grants covering 50% of the purchase prices of all 4 works.