David Octavius Hill RSA, his View from a Bridge in Perth

Posted on 20 May 2020

On 22 May 2014 the auctioneer’s hammer fell to a final bid of £5000 on Lot 17 of a Scottish Paintings and Sculpture sale in the Edinburgh saleroom of Lyon & Turnbull.

This was a large oil painting on canvas traditionally titled; PERTH, SUNSET, THE CELEBRATIONS FOR THE VISIT OF QUEEN VICTORIA 1842. It was painted by David Octavius Hill, RSA (1802-70) and was the largest and most important work by him to come on the open market in over twenty years. The purchaser was the Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture; whose then President, Arthur Watson, was in the room to bid on the Academy’s behalf.

The sale was held exactly 212 years and two days after Hill was born in Perth, the lot number matched the date in May 1870 when Hill had died, and Lyon & Turnbull was founded in 1826, the very same year as the academy; the omens had aligned favourably for a successful outcome.

 

D O Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848), David Octavius Hill seated with a book

 

The Academy’s interest in the work was primarily that it was seeking to redress a wrong. Hill, the then recently elected Secretary of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, was one of those who submitted his Diploma Collection deposit in October 1831 amongst the first tranche of members to so comply with the directive of Council which Hill himself, as Secretary, had issued.

It was an oil painting of a rocky highland river. Sadly the painting was already in a physically poor state by the time Hill resigned as Secretary after serving an unprecedented, and never equaled, thirty-nine years, on the grounds of ill-health in 1869. It was withdrawn from public display shortly after he died the following year, and was last recorded in the late 1950s languishing in a store. It is believed to have been finally disposed of in the early 1970s during the Presidency of Sir Robin Philipson.

Following from the major Collections Rationalisation review carried out as part of a broader review of all aspects of the Academy’s operations, the absence of a Diploma work by Hill was noted as a significant gap to be filled. When the opportunity to acquire the present work arose it was agreed that this would be a most fitting candidate.

 

 

EXHIBITION HISTORY & PROVENANCE

According to the catalogue of The Centenary Exhibition of the Works of D O Hill and Robert Adamson which included the painting (cat 64) the painting was acquired by Dr John Brown and remained in private hands by descent. The painting’s only other known public display was in 2002 for the Bi-Centenary exhibition held by Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

The provenance of the painting to Dr John Brown is of interest. Brown was a physician whose love of art led him to take up critical reviews. Famously his series of essays on art appeared between 1856 and 1861 under the collective title Horae Subsrecivae (Leisure Hours). He was a champion of Hill’s landscapes and is commemorated in a double portrait taken by Hill and Alexander McGlashan, which was titled Horae Subsrecivae, and won Hill a medal at the 1862 Annual Exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland.

 

 

THE 1842 STATE VISIT

The painting has been associated, since at least 1970, as depicting an incident during the first State Visit to Scotland by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842.

Queen Victoria and the fledgling Royal Scottish Academy enjoyed a close relationship; on 13 August 1838 the Royal Charter of Incorporation was signed by her in favour of the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1841 the RSA’s President, William Allan was appointed Limner to Her Majesty for Scotland, on the death of Sir David Wilkie and in respect of that position he was honoured with a knighthood in 1842. At a reception held at Dalkeith by Queen Victoria on 5th September Allan presented the Loyal and Dutiful Addresses of Welcome to Queen Victoria on behalf of the Academy.

The following day the Royal party arrived in Perth. Three members of the RSA (D O Hill, Thomas Duncan and J M Barclay) were in Perth to record the occasion. The three were lifelong friends and had all come through Perth Academy before heading to the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh. They were present as the Royal party entered Perth via the Edinburgh Road, being welcomed at a triumphal arch erected at the end of Princess Street by the Lord Provost who proffered the keys of the city to Her Majesty.

 

 

It was believed that the scene depicted celebratory bonfires with crowds assembled on Perth’s North Inch. The view is taken from the old Perth bridge erected in 1772 and shows decorations hung from the walls of the villas on the east bank of the river at Bridgend, and a larger than usual number of craft on the river. The large flag on one of the barges was believed to be the Royal Standard.

 

 

CONTEXTUALIZATION RE HILL’S OUTPUT

Regardless of subject matter, it ranks amongst the larger of Hill’s known pictures and is his most significant oil to appear on the market in over 20 years. It suffers, as many of his paintings do, from the degradation of the bitumen favoured by Hill and his contemporaries for the rich deep shadows and passages of darker tone in their oil paintings. Nonetheless it serves as a particularly interesting work in terms of subject matter and date and stylistically is a representative example of his work in this medium.

 

The Pass of Killiecrankie, from Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire, pub. Thomas Hill, 1821-1823. Purchased 1867

 

Hill was a native of Perth and it was from his father’s bookshop in George Street there that his first artistic endeavour was published. This was an ambitious series of 30 lithographic plates, drawn on the stone by Hill, printed by John Robertson of Edinburgh (plates 1-15) and Charles Joseph Hullmandel of London (plates 16-30) and published by Thomas Hill in 6 parts between October 1821 and the end of 1823. To the left of the painting stands the Georgian splendour of Rose Terrace, the central portion of which housed the Perth Seminaries. Thomas Hill was one of those who subscribed to the fund for the erection of this building in 1807. Both D O Hill and his elder brother Alexander (the Academy’s official colourman and printseller) attended the Perth Academy there.

 

Andrew Wilson (1780-1848), The Ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, near Tivoli, painted on the spot, oil on canvas, 1834. Purchased 1851

 

The painting is also prominent in its depicting of a sunset. This became an increasing concern for Hill in his landscape painting from the 1850’s onwards as evidenced by the number of works exhibited at the annual RSA exhibitions by him which feature the word “sunset” or otherwise evoke a suggestion of a specific time of day in their title. It is something which has however a much longer gestation and which makes his interest in photography all the less radical and of a more natural progression. During his first spell at the Trustees Academy in c.1818, Hill studied under Andrew Wilson. Wilson was an accomplished landscapist with an ability to capture fantastic lighting. Wilson’s influence is evident in such an early work as Hill’s 1826 oil Perth from Boatland (Perth Museum and Art Gallery) as well as in a number of Hill’s pioneering lithographs from the Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire (1821-23) of which Killiecrankie is perhaps the finest example. Hill’s contemporaries “thought highly of his paintings of sunset landscapes.”

 

David Octavius Hill RSA, Sketch of boats on a beach with distant view of Ailsa Craig, black ink on paper. Gifted by Mr Wells, 1951

 

The stronger influence here however is likely to be the great English landscapist JMW Turner. Hill was a fan of his work, no fewer than 6 examples of which were borrowed by the RSA for exhibition between 1847 and 1852, immediately prior to his work being painted. Turner’s significance in capturing the mood of landscape rather than its sterile topographical accuracy had been highlighted in November 1853 by John Ruskin in his famous series of four lectures delivered in the rooms of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society in Queen Street. It is not known whether Hill was present but he would clearly have been aware of the Lecture Series which was covered extensively in the contemporary media and Ruskin’s notes were subsequently published in book form, a copy of which was acquired by the RSA Library.  It would lie with other Royal Scottish Academicians to fully exploit Turner’s influence after Hill’s death. The painting therefore serves as an important marker in advance of the works of for example William McTaggart and Sir W G Gillies.

 

Sir William G Gillies RSA (1898-1973), Temple. View From the Cottage at Dusk, oil on canvas about 1939-60. W G Gillies Bequest 1973

 

SUBSEQUENT RESEARCH

The present picture for long hidden in a private collection received its first public outing since it was painted, in 1970 when it featured in the Hill-Adamson Centenary exhibition curated by Katherine Michaelson and mounted by the Scottish Arts Council (cat.64). There it was catalogued as a depiction of the visit to Perth by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the 6th September 1842 during their first State Visit to Scotland.  The interpretation was not queried when the picture was borrowed as a late addition to the D O Hill Bi-centenary exhibition held in Perth Museum and Art Gallery in 2002.

 

 

It was only on receipt of the painting into the RSA Collections that a full opportunity arose  to conduct a thorough investigation of it. The presence on the skyline of St.Ninian’s Cathedral confirmed that the work must post date the construction of that building which commenced in 1849 to the designs of William Butterfield. An old and original label was also revealed in the reverse of the frame (this had not come to light in 2002 as the picture was lent then in a temporary frame) which suggested the picture to be Hill’s 1855 RSA exhibit (cat.164) View from the bridge of the North Inch and part of Perth, with the River Tay and the distant Grampians; evening, and therefore dating most probably to c.1854.

Despite concerted efforts since by both RSA collections staff, colleagues in the Local Studies Department of the A.K.Bell Library in Perth, and Perth’s most published contemporary historian, Jeremy Duncan, we have not been able to identify any specific event to which the elements of the picture might relate. Links to the competitive regattas held on the Tay, or allusions to Sir Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, for example have been put forward but dismissed on deeper research.

This has led to speculation that the work may evoke sublime memories of the 1842 Royal Visit, but that its primary concern is with a more abstract sense of time and place where painterly concerns surmount ones of a purely faithful topographical or historical nature.

 

The Ages of Wonder Victorian Hang, featuring Hill’s painting, flanked by painting of Hill by Robert Herdman RSA and behind the marble bust of Hill by Samuel Joseph RSA

 

CONCLUSION

Considering the significance of the painting, in a fitting celebration of its acquisition it took prime position in the Victorian Hang of the Ages of Wonder exhibition in 2017. This showing was more significant in that it marked the first major exposition of the collections since the purchase of Hill’s painting launched the Rationalisation Acquisition Fund in 2014. This new fund has allowed the Academy to add many other important works to its collections in the last six years.

A View from the Bridge had not been offered on the open market since its exhibition in 1855 and was the largest and most significant oil painting by Hill to appear on the market in at least 20 years. It provided strong links both to the town of his birth and education.  In its contemporary recording and interest in specific lighting it provided direct links both to his imminent future development of photography as well as to his longer held interest in landscape and lighting. This both harked back to his early days as a student at the Trustees Academy but looked forward also to the influence of Turner.

It was deemed a painting characteristic of his mature style as a painter and one whose addition to the RSA Collections secured the first example of an oil painting by Hill, who was both a founding member, and for almost 40 years served as its influential Secretary.

The splendour of both painting and frame in Ages of Wonder was reached by no mean feats of conservation, and a future blog will look at how conservation brought them from this

 

To this!

 

To find out more about David Octavius Hill, his art and his life, head over to the website of our good friends Perth Museum and Gallery:

Hill – David Octavius Hill RSA (1802-70)