Friday, September 17, 2010

John MacWhirter - The Track of the Hurricane

Price Realized £14,340

signed 'MacW' (lower left)
oil on canvas
60 x 84½ in. (152.4 x 214.7 cm.)

London, Royal Academy, 1885, no. 662.
Manchester, Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887, no. 175.

The sober mood of this picture, with its ravaged landscape and sense of the powerfully destructive forces of nature, is in contrast to the tranquil scenes typical of MacWhirter's oeuvre. In 1885, the critic for the Art Journal singled out The Path of the Hurricane as his one entry to the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy that merited attention, 'the 'Track of a Hurricane' (662) is the only one which marks out any fresh departure of his Art, representing the head of a ravine strewn with uprooted trees and broken branches, the lately swollen torrent now quietly flowing among the trembled rocks and debris. Overhead the sky is clear and soft, and across the smiling landscape one can only guess that devastation has so recently swept.' This surprising description of the landscape as 'smiling' was also used by the Illustrated London News, 'the head of a rocky defile strewn with broken boughs and uprooted trees, once the scene of a giant strife, but now all peaceful and smiling.'

There was a tendency in the late nineteenth century to see nature as bleak and inhospitable, not inviting and pleasant as it had been painted by earlier artists such as Frederick Lee (see lot 47). Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and Herbert Spencer's philosophy of 'survival of the fittest' gave a new concept of nature to a younger generation of landscape painters. In MacWhirter's picture the few surviving trees and the herd of startled deer on the distant hilltop are not inhabitants of a universe running to some abiding divine structure but survivors of the natural and inevitable processes of the environment. However, although MacWhirter's picture could have been inspired by the scientific developments of the late nineteenth century, it also has its artistic precedents in the earlier works of Turner such as Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons of circa 1810 (Tate Gallery). There is also an affinity with the more romantic side of Dutch seventeenth-century landscapes, to the rugged and desolate expanses by Hercules Segher and Jakob Ruisdael's trees, felled and eroded by time.

MacWhirter won favour with Ruskin in 1870 for some minutely detailed botanical studies which Ruskin compared to those of Dürer, buying twenty-five for use in his teaching at Oxford. MacWhirter was a lifelong follower of Ruskin's theories on Contemplative Landscape, as defined in Modern Painters and exemplified by Turner, and they were applied throughout his work. MacWhirter travelled a great deal and the lists of his exhibited pictures reveal that he went as far afield as Turkey and North America, as well as all over Europe. According to Konody in the Dictionary of National Biography, MacWhirter 'owed his popularity largely to the tinge of sentiment which invested his otherwise naturalistic landscapes with a certain literary significance, and which is reflected in the fanciful titles he gave to his landscapes and studies of trees.' There is a quasi-anthropomorphic character to the central tree in The Path of a Hurricane, torn at the root, its boughs outspread like arms in a gesture of helplessness. It was a device that MacWhirter employed in several landscapes, notably The Lady of the Wood, The Lord of the Glen and The Three Witches. In his short book of instruction published in 1900 entitled Landscape Painting in Water-Colour , MacWhirter chose Turner and Millais for his highest praise in their treatment of landscape, 'You cannot study these painters too much. Turner, for light and atmosphere, and the drawing of mountains and clouds; Millais, for everything. All his work is healthy and loveable.'

MacWhirter was born at Slatesford, near Edinburgh. His father died when MacWhirter was thirteen and he had to leave his school in Peebles and go to work. He was apprenticed to a bookseller in Edinburgh but after six months he gave up, determined to become an artist. Barely fifteen, MacWhirter became one of the youngest people to exhibit at the Royal Scottish Academy when his Old Cottage at Braid was shown there in 1854. He was then accepted at the Trustees' Academy and trained under Robert Scott Lauder, along with John Pettie and William Quiller Orchardson and after considerable early success in Scotland he settled in London in 1869. In 1865 he made his debut at the Royal Academy with a small work entitled Temple of Vesta, Rome and became a member of the Royal Academy in 1897. During his career, he exhibited one hundred and fifty-three pictures at the Royal Academy's annual exhibition, all of them landscapes. Although his individual saleroom prices were never high, MacWhirter was so consistently popular that he was able to build himself a Renaissance palace at 1 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, an impressive monument to his taste and income.

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