The lost secrets of Classical Art: Joseph Farquharson landscapes

The lost secrets of Classical Art: Joseph Farquharson landscapes

by Charles Harris
article from Thursday 27, April, 2017

DEAR READER, in the recent article about Raeburn, I described the best Scottish Portrait Painter.  This time I wish to discuss our best Scottish landscape painter, Joseph Farquharson.   As a painter he will be familiar to many of you as his works were seen and chosen regularly by the public at large for Christmas cards.  I am sure you will recall with pleasure those white snowscapes, with cold white sheep, and burgundy red winter sunrises, or sunsets.  I do recall they were to be seen everywhere in my youth, but perhaps not so much so today. 

Joseph Farquharson was a Senior Royal Academician in 1922.  He exhibited at the Royal College of Art and the Tate Gallery and the renowned artist-critic, Sickert, wrote a wonderful essay regarding Farquharson and compared him with that giant French Realist Painter Gustave Courbet

So in traditional terms and for today’s fanatical modernists it may come as an unpleasant surprise to discover that our best Scottish landscape painter was alive and working well in a conventional, classical, traditional manner at the same time as ridiculous conceptual art was claiming credit for stupidity.  In particular I refer to an idiot who claimed to apparently be staging an exhibition, by chain and padlocking the door of an empty room, whilst dishonestly claiming there was an exhibition inside, which no one could get in and see.  This came along with other foolish people in this same period, with their canned human excrement and other ridiculous new modernist conceptual ideas for today’s modern art.  All at the same time that our best Scottish Landscape Painter was producing these gorgeous, human, natural, works.  

Let us return straightaway, however, to this charming and convincing painting entitled ‘Old Women Returning Home Carrying A Faggot of Wood’.  A faggot was in old English a branch or twig, or bundle of the same. 

So looking at the painting and recalling the same traditional methods, values and skill’s we saw in Raeburn, let us now look afresh at this landscape.  We see here a woodland scene with a path and an old lady making her way with a large bundle, faggot of wood on her shoulders.  We also see that she is walking into darkness, along a lonely path, beside a tall forest of trees, which tower over her, adding strong emotional content to this cold winter scene.  This is our landscape too, our Scottish landscape, and here we are privileged to accompany her on her journey home.  It is quite charming and happily we can see that home is not too far away, tucked shelteringly ahead in the trees.

The wood creates a triangle on the left and the snow creates a corresponding triangle on the right.  In the distance we see the trademark Farquharson red setting sun and the same way I described the classical tonal structure, in Raeburn’s work. There are three tonal values – the dark of the woodland, the grey value, the grey of the shrubs, light cast on tree trunks, the light value in this picture which is the fading sunlight on the edge of the cloud as well as the snow, finally the turquoise blue sky and white of the snow. 

Technically in this painting, the composition is practically designed in terms of tall horizontals and long verticals.  The slushy path, the snow on the ground under the trees, the bank of the snow, and the ground on the right hand side with, the distant town, are all on the horizontal plain; as is the bottom of the grey-purple cloud.  While vertically we see from left to right, tall mature trees, the suggestion of ancient Firs, and on the other side of the composition we see tall, spindly, young trees. 

Again, returning to those conventional values of skill and the traditions of classical art, we can see here three tonal values as normal and three temperature values as normal.  So, where are they I ask?                   

Okay.  Let us begin with the coldest value first which is the grey-blue shadow in the snow, the second coldest value appears to be the green-blue in the Fir trees, and the third coldest temperature value we see in a cold turquoise blue sky.  

While regarding hot values, obviously the hottest temperature occurs with a vivid red sunset, and secondly the red of the old lady’s coat and bonnet.   There is also the red ochre and burnt sienna browns, gleaming softly in the trees and in the shrubs and in the undergrowth.  Whilst looking at this turquoise sky, one also notices the distinct purple temperature of the clouds.   These are all set within the tonal grey value that I mentioned earlier.  Whilst looking below that cloud, we can see a distant town and a blue path, the elderly lady is painfully trudging along with her heavy load of wood.

Emotionally, it is a very homely scene, full of charm, a classical record of traditional life, although chilly, you can still feel that chill coming from the snow and a lack of heat in the bare winter trees.  We also see a distant town, so far away offering no joy for the walker, and we must suppose it would be a long walk ahead in the dark.  However her house is near, although we also experience the same distant sense of isolation.

So I hope you too have enjoyed this joyous scene. For it is a confirmation of life, real, stimulating, emotional, lonely, wild, convincing and touching in a very human way.  For who among us has not experienced the hardships of a long walk and heavy burdens, which this painting so quietly brings to us? I hope that you will appreciate this week's painting as much as I do. 

Photo by kind permission of Charles Harris. Article copyright of Charles Harris 2017.

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