Monday, August 23, 2010

John Pettie - The Chieftain's Candlesticks



Price Realized £199,150
Estimate £70,000 - £100,000

signed 'J Pettie' (lower left) and signed and inscribed 'The Chieftian's Candlesticks/J Pettie RA/27d St John Avenue/NW' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
63½ x 43¼ in. (161.3 x 109.9 cm.)

London, Royal Academy, 1886, no. 97.
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1888, no. 188.
Edinburgh, Scottish National Exhibition, 1908.

When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886, it was accompanied by the following text in the catalogue:

An English baron once boasted to the Highland chieftain Keppoch of his valuable silver candlesticks. When the baron visited Keppoch's home in Lochaber, Keppoch stood between his two highlanders, saying, 'These are my priceless candlesticks, which all the wealth of England could never buy.

As Duncan Macmillan has observed, Pettie takes his subject from Sir Walter Scott, who described such an encounter between Englishmen and a Highland chieftain in Chapter 4 of A Legend of Montrose:

The two English strangers....were first ushered into the hall, where an unexpected display awaited them. The large oaken table was spread with substantial joints of meat, and seats were placed in order for the guests. Behind every seat stood a gigantic Highlander, completely dressed and armed after the fashion of his country, holding in his right hand his drawn sword with the point turned downwards, and in the left a blazing torch made of the bog-pine. This wood, found in the morasses, is so full of turpentine that when split and dried, it is frequently used in the Highlands instead of candles. The unexpected and somewhat startling apparition was seen by the red glare of the torches, which displayed the wild features, unusual dress, and glittering arms of those who bore them, while the smoke, eddying up to the roof of the hall, over-canopied them with a volume of vapour. Ere the strangers had recovered from their surprise, Allan stept forward, and, pointing with his sheathed broadsword to the torch-bearers, said, in a deep and stern tone of voice, 'Behold, gentlemen cavaliers, the chandeliers of my brother's house, the ancient fashion of our ancient name. Not one of these men knows any law but their Chief's command. Would you dare to compare to THEM in value the richest ore that ever was dug out of the mine? How say you, cavaliers? is your wager won or lost?'

The chieftain here is not called Keppoch, but Macmillan points out that Scott later made the connection in his Chronicles of Canongate. Discussing the sources of his earlier story, he wrote: 'The wager about the candlesticks, whose place was supplied by Highland torch-bearers, was laid and won by one of the MacDonalds of Keppoch.'

The picture is one of Pettie's masterpieces, a magnificent exercise in Scottish romanticism but redeemed from any artistic limitations this might imply by a rigorous respect for abstract values. It was much acclaimed when shown at the RA. The Art Journal thought it 'one of the most powerful and impressive pictures this artist has given us for some time.' For the Times, it was:

a formidable and rather brilliant scene of old Highland life: two sturdy clansmen, red-haired and red-tartaned, standing on either side of the chieftain's empty chair and holding up torches with their brawny arms. It is as a study of colour that the work will be judged, and as such it is certainly...the most effective...that we have had from Mr Pettie for some years past. He is fond of red, and this picture of ruddy tartans is a bold experiment, which may fairly claim to have succeeded.

F.G. Stephens took much the same line in the Athenaeum. 'Gallery II', he wrote,

is distinguished by the large and immensely effective melodrama of Mr Pettie, which represents two stalwart Highlanders clad in red tartans, armed, and holding blazing torches over their heads...There is no lack of energy in this picture, which, if not a work one would desire to live with, is full of force and spirit of design, and is extremely telling in colour, light, shadow, and expression. It is called The Chieftain's Candlesticks with reference to the well-known boast of a Highland chief.

The Victorians knew their Scott better than we do today.

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