On 11 December, as part of our specialist Scottish Paintings & Sculpture auction, we will be offering a number of pieces by the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone. Our Scottish Paintings specialist, Charlotte Riordan takes a closer look at the work of this intriguing artist.
History is full of exceptional artists with incongruously low profiles. What, for example, is widely known about Muirhead Bone – one of the most commercially successful artists of his generation? Certainly that he was foremost an etcher of uncommon talent and a master of the topographical view, perhaps also that he was a Glaswegian by birth and an architect by training. Most famous of all, is the fact that Bone was the first official war artist, a position he assumed during both World Wars.
Research a little further however and one quickly finds this description omits much; his remarkable technical ability as an artist possibly distracting from the achievements of the man on a personal level. By all accounts a gentle, intellectual sort of soul, Bone had an extraordinary social ability and was the trusted friend and counsel of many - indeed most - of the key figures in the British art establishment at the time, from D. S. MacColl, Keeper of the Tate, to ‘Bloomsbury set’ critic Roger Fry and even author D. H. Lawrence. Beyond his art and the illustrious company he kept, his greatest legacy must surely be his enthusiastic championing of the young Modernists of the day including Jacob Epstein, C. R. W. Nevinson and Percy Wyndam Lewis, whose work – though so different from his own - Bone commissioned, collected and sought tirelessly to promote.
Bone escaped the “mildness” of the turn-of-the-century Scottish art scene , striking out for London in 1902. By 1910 he was already considered a success with representation by some of London's most prestigious galleries, his work hanging alongside the likes of Orpen, Sickert, Rodin, Beardsley and Beerbohm. He began taking on "daunting subjects and viewpoints" , consistently favoring the depiction of famous historical buildings and views; re-capturing them amidst the bustling realism of the modern day.
Early in his career Bone had developed the theory that to be a great etcher, an artist must be temperamentally suited to the medium. The facilities called upon to draw were, he felt, quite different, and he praised Whistler's masterful etchings over his "uncertain" drawings . Bone himself was extremely adept in both mediums, as the works offered here for sale attest. Though his prints ran in relatively large numbers of reproductions, his drawings - particularly on the large scale shown in two of the examples here -remain fairly scarce.
The drawings he made on his frequent travels to Europe and beyond are widely regarded as the best he produced. Italy was his first stop, where he admitted to first being daunted by the celebrity of the architecture, feeling that “too many other artists had licked the platter clean” . He soon found his voice however, and the scene shown here of Venice is certainly a fresh take on the subject matter: the lagoon by night from the deck of a vast cruise liner.
Spain was of particular importance to Bone and it was here that he produced some of his most extraordinary and critically regarded drawings. Visiting for whole summers between 1924 and ‘28, he collaborated with his wife Gertrude on a text called Old Spain for which she provided the prose and he the illustrations. The Rock Tomb of Pelayo Covadonga was one of his finest studies for the project - the artist’s imagination clearly stimulated by his wife’s representation of Pelayo as a kind of Spanish Robert the Bruce, fighting to overthrow Ottoman rule.
A trip to New York for three months in 1923 was also fruitful and Bone’s sketches of the towering skyline and teeming street life of Manhattan have a palpable vivacity that demonstrates an energised engagement with his subject. Each time, the sketches were sent home and exhibited. The reviews rolled in with the critic for The Morning Post remarking that, “…thought stops. One merely stands in front of (his) drawings with dumb amazement”.
Whether you were familiar with Bone’s work before opening this magazine or not, it must surely be agreed that his sketches have lost little of their effect on the viewer. In addition we hope to have painted a fuller picture, or indeed etched a clearer account of the career of one of the Britain’s finest draughtsmen.
Muirhead Bone: Artist and Patron, by Sylvester Bone, Bayham Publishing London, 2009
Charlotte Riordan | 0131 557 8844 | firstname.lastname@example.org