Masterpieces of Mount Stuart

Mount Stuart on Bute, the home of the Marquesses of Bute, is a massive Gothic revival mansion built on a site long associated with the Stuart family.  The Masterpieces of Mount Stuart (running until 2 December 2012) in the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound features nineteen of Mount Stuart’s paintings, mainly Dutch and Flemish works of the 16thand 17thcenturies.
The collection was primarily formed by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute.  John Stuart was himself a character of some note.  Educated at Eton and the University of Leyden in Holland, he was George III’s Prime Minister for a brief 317 days in 1762-63 and is known in history as the last British Prime Minister to have been appointed as the King’s favourite.  The judgement of William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, speaks volumes: “Lord Bute is a very unfit man to be Prime Minister of England.  First he is a Scotchman; second he is the King’s friend; and thirdly he is an honest man.”

His Dutch education undoubtedly made him aware of the quality of Dutch art.  For a selection from a grand aristocratic collection, what is perhaps surprising is the small scale and everyday content of much of this fine selection.  Peter de Hooch’s A Disputed Reckoning (1675), illustrating de Hooch’s fascination with perspective and light, Adriaen van Ostade’sA Lawyer in his Study (1677) and Gabriel Metsu’sAn Old Lady Feeding a Dog(c 1654-57) are all typically bourgeois domestic scenes and utterly rewarding by virtue of their meticulous concern with the fine detail of the daily and the ordinary.

GerritAdriaenszBerckheyde’sThe ‘Grote Markt’ and the Church of St Baro in Haarlem, an illustration of Berckheyde’s specific skill in topographically accurate architectural art and a display of civic pride in his home town of Haarlem, would have been entirely appreciated by the affluent merchant class in that then prosperous city.

Portraits include Joose van Cleeve’s small-scale Portrait of a Lady (c 1530), a relaxed, informal work which hints at depth of character behind the richly dressed sitter’s surface appearance.

Among the few works which engage with a more presumptuous world view is Willem van Haecht’s Art Cabinet with Anthony van Dyck’s ‘Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’.  The painting purports to illustrate a gallery complete with artists and an art collection.  Although most of the works illustrated have been identified, the collection as a whole is an imaginary one and, perhaps alone in the collection, this work jars with the contemporary eye.

There are several landscapes.  Jacob Isaacksz von Ruisdael’s Mountain Landscape with Waterfall (c 1665-70) is noted on the frame as ‘View of Norway’, although there is no evidence that the artist visited Scandinavia.  A forceful torrent pours through a dramatic landscape with three minute human forms, two shepherds and a woman, visible but entirely secondary to the surrounding scene.  A member of the Mennonite sect, von Ruisdael died in poverty in the Haarlem almshouse, and, despite his austere Mennonite faith, painted lush and imagined landscapes which were subsequently seen as an inspiration for the romantic painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

On a smaller scale is Aert van der Neer’s Frozen River Landscape (c 1655-60), a densely populated ice-scape, complete with walkers, sledgers,skaters, carts, and windmills.  This superbly lit composition, illustrating life in 17th century Holland, rewards detailed examination.  The sky is overwhelmingly grey but in the gap in the winter clouds a translucent pale blue lights the scene in which skaters cavort on the ice and a game of what appears remarkably like golf is being played.  Although by an artist who lived and died in relative obscurity, this single piece crowns a superb exhibition.  It is regrettable that this is the first time in over 60 years that these works have been on public display but exhilarating to see them in this splendid setting.

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