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Issue 97 - Roddy Martine's View

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018

 

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Roddy Martine's View

Every portrait tells a story

One of my newer hobbies, which I picked up as I grew older, is to attempt to track down oil paintings of some of my more remote ancestors who in their lives might have become prosperous enough to have had their portraits painted. Most families that have weathered the passing of generations possess at least a dozen sepia or black and white photographs of great-grandparents dating from the 20th Century, and nowadays almost everyone has colour digital prints of christenings, weddings, birthdays, and everything in between! Whether those will last into the future or not is anybody’s guess. However, what I am thinking of is further back than that, to an age when having your portrait painted by an artist was a once-in-alifetime achievement announcing that you were a person of substance and that you had arrived.

Fame and fortune, alas, are cruelly fickle things and to me there is nothing more sad than seeing an auction catalogue carrying the words ‘portrait of an unknown lady’ or ‘portrait of an unknown gentleman’. Poor, forgotten people! Their melancholy eyes gaze out from the canvases in search of loved ones who have either moved away and abandoned them (usually for money) or died out.

While public collections of art in Scotland generally embrace landscapes and still life, there is a genuine reluctance to feature portraits unless they are celebrated works by Sir Henry Raeburn or Allan Ramsay or, more recently, Sir Francis Grant and Sir John Lavery. Nevertheless, Scotland has produced an enviable portfolio of talent since the Renaissance. For example, I can claim kinship with Archibald Skirving (1749-1819), born at Athelstaneford, and whose pastel portraits of the middle class great and good are as fine as those of his contemporary Raeburn, whom he also painted. I am always pleased when I see his work on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, but I also have a couple of other less celebrated painters in the family: Thomas Carfrae (b.1798) and Thomas Martine Ronaldson (1881-1942). But these are the painters themselves. It is the sitters that I so often find intriguing and behind every picture, named or not, there lies a story.

At home I have a copy of a painting that depicts a grizzly old man, with one eye and wearing a periwig, who glowers out of the darkness of the frame. He is my great-great-great grandfather Captain John Carfrae, painted by his grandson Thomas. I retrieved him through a chance encounter with another remote relative that I did not know I had.

John was a Captain in the King’s Army 5th Regiment of Foot and served in America during the hostilities of 1775, participating in the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. He later joined the 3rd Battalion Lord Breadalbane’s Fencible Regiment in Germany during the Seven Years War, then in Ireland, where he lost his eye. Later, upon his return to Scotland, he inherited the tenancy of the family farm of Cairniehaugh on the Yester estate at Gifford, East Lothian, where he died in 1799.

His grandson Patrick became Minister at Morham Kirk and corresponded with Robert Burns, while Patrick’s grandson became a Major General in the East India Company (Indian Army).

There is a contemporary account of Captain John Carfrae that I rather like. A Gifford carrier was on its way to Carniehaugh with a large cask of whisky in his cart. A gentleman in passing remarked that it would surely serve the Captain a long time. ‘Lang time!", the carrier replied.

"It’ll no serve him a month!"

That makes me rather proud of the grim looking old man in the painting. I would have liked to have known him. Old family papers reveal that travellers, gypsies and beggars were always sure of a supper and night’s quarters at Carniehaugh when the old boy was in residence. I am glad to have him watching over me.

So, the next time you notice an unidentified portrait painting in an antique auction sale or junk shop, take a closer look. You could be more connected to the sitter than you know.