On 24th February 2021, we were delighted to present to auction an unusual and highly important album of sketches by the amateur gentleman artist, Sir James Skene of Rubislaw. The album comprises 420 sketches, the vast majority by Skene, and appears to have strong links to the artist’s close friendship with Sir Walter Scott. In private hands and out of public view for decades, it is now possible to examine the album closely and investigate the artistic partnership between the author and the artist.
James Skene was born on 7th March 1775 and inherited the estate of Rubislaw at the age of 16, following the untimely death of his brother. Skene was sent to university in Germany and a sketch of his lodgings whilst in Hanau can be seen as one of the earliest sketches in the album.
By profession, Skene was a lawyer, being admitted to the Scottish bar in 1797, however he was also a keen and talented amateur artist. Around the time of his admittance to the bar, Skene formed a close friendship with Sir Walter Scott, with Skene volunteering for Scott's Light Horse Regiment. Amongst his oeuvre, Skene produced A Series of Sketches of the existing Localities alluded to in the Waverley Novels, illustrating Scott's works. Scott valued Skene as a friend, dedicating the fourth canton of Marmion to him in 1808:
Eleven years we now may tell,/ Since we have known each other well;/ Since riding side by side, our hand first drew the voluntary brand;/ and sure, through many a varied scene, unkindness never came between...
Scott then refers to Skene:
The Shepherd, who in summer sun,/ Had something of our envy won, / as thou with pencil and, I with pen,/ The features trace of hill and glen.
Skene also wrote of Scott:
...as Sir Walter's pursuits and my own led us so much in the same course that for a good many years we were seldom separated...and when even in the summer recess, either at Ashestiel or engaged in frequent border excursions...on horseback.
Scott turned to Skene for support when struggling through illness in 1819 and the album appears to contain the sketch then requested by Scott of what was to be his final resting place thirteen years later. Skene recounts Scott’s request in his Memories of Sir Walter Scott:
If you promise not to laugh at me, I have a favour to ask. Do you know I have taken a childish desire to see the place where I am to be laid when I go home, which there is some probability may not now be long delayed. Now, as I cannot go to Dryburgh Abbey …it would give me much pleasure if you would take a ride down, and bring me a drawing of that spot.
Skene adds that Scott "described…the exact spot from which he wished the drawing to be made..’ and that the sketch was afterwards ‘…engraved as a frontispiece to an account of the Family of Halliburton, of which he [Scott] was a descendent by the female line."
This album of Skene's sketches includes at least twenty-eight studies for Skene's etchings in A Series of Sketches of the existing Localities alluded to in the Waverley Novels, a publication encouraged by Scott, and at least four sketches, so far identified, were later used as the basis for other Scott illustrators. These sketches include those of Lagg Castle, Coldingham Priory, Manor Glen and Links of Eyemouth.
The friendship between Skene and Scott seems to have been a creative collaboration and Scott used many of Skene's illustrations as inspiration and aide memoires for his descriptions of landscape and scenery. Scott’s Journal entry of 4 January 1826 describes Skene and his wife, then his guests at Abbotsford, as "…excellent friends…" and Skene as "…distinguished for his attainments as a draughtsman…"
It is also likely that many of the sketches were taken during Scott and Skene's riding excursions to ruins, castles and sites of antiquarian importance. In his Series of Sketches Skene wrote that "many of the real localities of the Waverley Novels were connected with my collection of drawings, of which a part had been taken at his [Scott’s] suggestion, many during the the various excursions we had made together." The album certainly contains
drawings from a fox chase the pair followed in around 1804, when they met Tod Willie (Guy Mannering's Tod Gabbie), referred to in Skene's Memories of Sir Walter Scott : "At Sir Walter’s request, I made a drawing of this scene.." The Memories also refer to Smailholm and Skene's visit with Sir Walter Scott, when Scott realised it would be his last visit to his grandfather's former home, due to failing health. Two drawings of Smailholm Tower in the album can be correlated with this trip, Skene writing that Scott "made me take drawings of the scene from different points."
Of their country rides, Skene wrote:
The beauty of the scenery gave full employment to my pencil, with the free and frequent exercise of which he [Scott] never seemed to feel impatient, for he was ready and willing at all times to alight where any scene attracted our notice...
From examining Skene's Memories, these and several other drawings in the album can be accurately traced to Scott's and Skene's excursions together. A letter written by Scott to Skene, dated Easter Monday 1830, also refers to Skene's sketches of Fast Castle, found in the album:
I am glad you have taken of Fast Castle. If I could get to Lord Napier's he would let me have some curious matter for illustration...
The album also contains at least 15 sketches made by Skene on his tour to Dumfries and Galloway in early July 1829 as preparation for his Series of Sketches. Entries in Scott’s Journal and in his letters to Skene, evidence their close collaboration in selecting the subjects to be sketched.
In 1831, JMW Turner, described by Scott as "the first draughtsman of the period" was expressing reluctance to travel to Scotland to illustrate a new edition of Scott’s Poetical Works. Scott’s proposed solution was to send Skene’s sketches to Turner for working up into finished water-colours. Scott wrote in his Journal that Turner "could derive his subjects from good accurate drawings so with Skene’s assistance we can equip him." In fact, Turner was persuaded to journey to Scotland and Skene’s services and collection of sketches were not required. Skene had previously worked with Turner when, in 1824, he had provided the sketch of the Bell Rock Lighthouse used by Turner to paint the lighthouse for the frontispiece of Robert Stevenson’s account of its construction.
Skene in his introduction to Series of Sketches made clear that he was content that his collection of drawings with "subjects applicable to the whole series of Novels" was available for future use "…or if not, they shall be permitted to continue their repose in obscurity and undisturbed, having already, as private reminiscences, answered all the ends originally intended in collecting them."
Although some sketches in the album appear to have been utilised after 1831, the vast majority have continued their repose, undisturbed for nearly 200 years. The existence of the album itself it little known and it does not seem to have featured in any exhibitions or research papers relating to Scott or Skene to date. A wealth of research could yet be conducted into the links between Skene's drawings and the illustrations for Scott's works, alongside comparisons with Skene's Memories and Scott's letters, tying the album into the pair's friendship. It is surely a remarkable collection of illustrations which capture the sights and experiences encountered by one of Scotland's greatest and most influential writers, and his close friend.
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