Art, Ideas and Interdisciplinarity in Scotland

Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee.


Inaugural Lecture. ‘Art, Ideas and Interdisciplinarity in Scotland’

5.15, Wednesday 26 May, 1999.


[Edited with slides and some text, mainly introductory, removed]



Art, ideas and interdisciplinarity are embedded in the educational and civic structure of Dundee and it is important to emphasise this at the outset. I want to illuminate the creative possibilities of this situation by first of all considering how art can be a source of generative thought in an interdisciplinary context. Relevant art practice can be found close at hand. A good example is the work of Will Maclean who is now a Professor in the School of Fine Art. In particular I want to draw attention to a major project carried out in the 1970s which has been an inspiration to younger artists. In this work, The Ring Net, in Will Maclean created a visual document of a particular way of life, that of the ring-net fishermen of Loch Fyne. It is now in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and its relevance to my theme this evening is clear for it is a work of visual thinking which has immediate resonance with other disciplines, not least history and geography.


Indeed the classic commentary on this aspect of the history of the fishing industry in the Highlands, The Ring-Net Fishermen[1]by Angus Martin, finds its origin in Will Maclean’s work. What better example of art, ideas and interdisciplinarity could one have than the recognition that the key work on the social, cultural, technical and economic history of a Highland way of life has its origins in the research of an artist.


We sometimes find this relationship between historical or theoretical research and visual art unfamiliar, not because we do not understand it as human beings, but because the practice of art and the writing of papers and books are routinely defined as independent activities in the curriculum. [2]But we should bear in mind that our specialisms and our expertise can create blindspots, and it is only by virtue of recognising that these blindspots exist in ourselves, that interdisciplinarity becomes possible, and indeed is seen to be desirable.[3]


A consideration of a work such as Will Maclean’s Ring Netillustrates how an artist’s experience can provide the starting point for further research into what Patrick Geddes would have called questions of Folk, Work and Place and this moves me to consider an artist from Geddes’s own time whose work can be seen as a social, historical and geographical exploration comparable with that of Will Maclean a century later. In The Storm, painted in 1890, William McTaggart created a spectacular image which at first sight reminds one of Impressionism or even Expressionism, but is better understood as an experiment in social realism. Inherent to it is an understanding of the consequences of weather for a coastal community of men, women and children. For McTaggart’s the sea was not just a source of optical effects, it was the source of life and death in his community of origin for he was born into a Gaelic-speaking crofting and fishing community in Kintyre. He thus integrated his Highland background into his work, very much as Maclean has done, making a continuum between his modern self as an artist and the working traditions of his people. Such social and historical engagement emerges again in the The Coming of St. Columba(1895) which shows Columba arriving in Kintyre in the sixth century prior to his settlement in Iona, a symbolic moment in the establishment of Gaelic culture in the West of Scotland.


McTaggart’s engagement with his subject matter is at its height in a series of Emigrant Shippaintings in which he draws directly on his own youthful memories of the Highland Clearances.[4]Some protection of land rights for those living in the Highlands was afforded by the passing of the Crofter’s Act in 1886, and this illustrates the immediate nature of the issues that McTaggart was addressing. The fact that these issues are still current a century later, and will shortly be debated by the reconvened Scottish parliament, is reflected by the fact thatWill Maclean has drawn on the imagery of the earlier artist in his own Emigrant Ship– however different it may appear at first sight. Maclean’s use of elements of McTaggart’s visual language introduces another aspect of art and ideas which I want to illustrate here, namely the way in which artists separated by centuries, or indeed millennia, adapt and use the ideas of other artists.


Such intellectual involvement with the ideas of other times is a characteristic of the art of most periods and most nations but it has been a particularly distinctive and conscious feature of twentieth century European art, not least in Scotland. This involvement has taken in the whole history and indeed prehistory of visual art. For example the work of the early Bronze Age sculptors who made cup and ring marks on rock surfaces throughout Scotland, finds its echo in work such as Jake Harvey’s Cup Stonesfrom 1993. Indeed, such prehistoric markings – which are as close in time to the end of Ice Age as they are to the foundation of an identifiable Scottish state – begin to call to mind the kind of questions about abstraction, representation and spiritual significance, which accompany the experience of so much twentieth-century art.[5]


A valuable overview of this psychological linkage between the earliest art and that of the second half of the twentieth century can be found in Lucy Lippard’s 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. Cup and ring marks are mentioned, as are stone circles such as the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, and also objects of carved stone from about 2500 BC, one of the finest of which was found at Towie in Abderdeenshire.[6]Thus when we look at the Scottish art of today, or indeed art from elsewhere, we are frequently drawn back to the earliest art available to us, and to fail to recognise this is to do both contemporary artists and those of prehistory a disservice.


Such exploration of the conceptual alternatives offered by the artists of prehistory was illuminated in 1995 in an exhibition organised by An Lanntair Gallery in Stornoway. This took as its starting point the standing stones of Calanais in Lewis and it attracted an international field of painters, sculptors and photographers, which included both Will Maclean and Jake Harvey. The catalogue has since taken its place alongside Lippard’s book as key text in this field.


In a similar way artists have engaged with art of the early historic period, such as the wonderful Pictish cross slab outside the village church at Glamis. This dates from the mid-eighth century while one side shows a cross carved in interlace, on the other are incised Pictish symbols. These designs are of notable aesthetic worth and like prehistoric work, have been conceptually revisited by artists working today, for example Kate Whiteford, who has echoed the form of the Pictish salmon in her work. Whiteford used this symbol in a major installation on Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1987 and the point should be made that she not only uses Celtic symbolism but she unites Celtic and classical references, for the concentric arcs which make up part of this work are deliberate references to the form of the classical amphitheatre, while the spiral is common to both classical and celtic cultures. This unity of classical and celtic elements has been a commonplace of Scottish art from the late eighteenth century onwards when, as we see here, Alexander Runciman developed a classicised vision of the Celtic bard, Ossian, in reponse to James Macpherson’s retellings of Gaelic legend. From the same period as the Pictish cross slabs and part of a closely related visual culture come the books and crosses of the Celtic Church. This Highland, Island and Irish continuum of Gaelic speaking clergy literate in Latin led to the creation in the late-eighth century of the Kildalton Cross on Islay and a few years later of the Book of Kells most probably on Iona.[7]


This symbolic and decorative art has, like the work of the Picts, inspired much later artists, for example those of the late-nineteenth century Celtic Revival.[8]This movement was given energy by Patrick Geddes in Edinburgh and Dundee and also by Geddes’s friends Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald in Glasgow.[9]A notable but little recognised contribution to this Celtic Revival aspect of the Glasgow style was that of Mackintosh’s friend Talwin Morris, for example his book cover for the Blackie edition of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medicipublished in 1905, which combines the form of a Celtic cross with a restrained vision of Art Nouveau linearity. It bears interesting comparison with a title page decoration for the centenary edition of James Macpherson’s Ossiancarried out by one of Patrick Geddes’s artist colleagues. Published in 1896 this is most probably the work of Helen Hay who was one of a still under-researched group of women artists active in Edinburgh and Dundee in the 1890s. She was an outstanding graphic artist and closely associated with the Dundee artist John Duncan, who was among Patrick Geddes’s closest collaborators.


John Duncan provides a further example of this Celtic influence, but in his work it is united with an interest in the early Italian renaissance. He derived this latter interest in large measure from his older contemporary, Phoebe Anna Traquair, who was one of the outstanding artist-craftworkers of the nineteenth century. For example her illustrations to Dante are informed both by her own visits to Italy and by the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. The same can be said for John Duncan’s Adoration of the Magifrom 1915. At one and the same time it has a clear debt to Italy and yet is unmistakably part of the Celtic Revival, not least through its setting on the island of Iona. But I include it here for a different reason. I want to draw your attention to the fact that the elderly, eastern mage is wearing a Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, for this is not only a very early use of this symbol in Western art, it is also a reminder that the Celtic Revival in Scotland, far from being some sort of inward-looking localised phenomenon was part of a major international movement of traditional revivals in very different parts of the world including India and Japan.


The Edinburgh publisher T N Foulis reflects this wider traditional revivalism through its book list. In 1919 Foulis publised the first European edition of Okakura’s Book of Tea, the key statement in English of the principles of the Japanese cultural revival. A simlarly important text with respect to the Indian subcontinent was Andanda Coomaraswamy’s Art of India and Ceylonwhich was published by Foulis in 1913. Coomaraswamy was a good friend of Patrick Geddes, as was that other leader of Indian cultural independence, Rabindranath Tagore. This intense commitment to the local which led naturally to internationalism on the part of Geddes on the one hand and on the part of Coomaraswamy and Tagore on the the other, was characterised by Geddes’s student, the American theorist of cities Lewis Mumford when he said of Geddes that his ‘Scotland embraced Europe and his Europe embraced the world’. This statement, as well being inspiring in its own right, seems to reflect the response of Scottish artists of today to the work of earlier and/or geographically distinct cultures.


Just as I have drawn attention to the way in which artists explore ideas in the work of other artists, I want also to draw attention to the way in which they explore ideas which derive from other disciplines, and perhaps from philosophy and literature in particular. For example, consider a garden of classical reference and natural wilderness created from the mid 1960s to the present by Ian Hamilton Finlay.This garden is sited on the slope of the Pentland Hills overlooking Dunsyre in Lanarkshire and it is underpinned by its name: Finlay calls it Little Sparta. This is, of course, a precise aphoristic challenge to Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, that neoclassical city of the Enlightenment, a mere twenty miles to the north-east. From this dialectic between Sparta and Athens there emerges in Finlay’s garden a visual discourse on the history of art and ideas, much of it influenced by painters such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, both active in seventeenth century Rome, and influential not only on the Ian Hamilton Finlay of Little Sparta but also on the painters and architects of the eighteenth century Athens of the North such as Robert Adam, Jacob More and Alexander Nasmyth.


Finlay was first known as a poet rather than an artist and  from the outset he has recognised the printed or carved word as visual art in its own right. Thus his art is not merely of word and image it is of word and image as object within a wider, potentially wild but in fact controlled natural environment. An Elegaic Inscriptionby the upper pool at Little Sparta has carved in stone the words See Poussin Hear Lorrain, and in this work Finlay deftly distinguishes the hard edged geometry of the paintings of Nicolas Poussin from the gentler poetical space of his contemporary Claude Lorrain, and at the same time offers to the passer by the tension between wild and tended nature.  Finlay’s philosophical commitment is clear wherever one looks, but the philosophy is given a dimension not normally present by being encoded in a three dimensional object. Thus rather than reflecting on word and image alone, we find ourselves reflecting on on word, image, object and often journey, for we pass the work in reading it, and perhaps only appreciate it fully having journeyed further into garden. For example on crossing from Finlay’s classical garden to his wild garden further up the hill, one encounters this. A fence post. On one side is written Thesis/fence Antithesis/gate. Then one crosses the fence and on the other side, which one can only read on turning back towards the classical garden, is written Synthesis/stile.


This is more than simply a constructed expression of Hegelian philosophy, it is a witty commentary on the relationship between thought and action, for just as one must indeed move on metaphorically and reflect to make progress in one’s thinking, here one must move on literally too. As a further example of such commitment by contemporary Scottish artists to philosophical ideas consider the work of Alan Johnston. As with Ian Hamilton Finlay, one finds a commitment to the European philosophical tradition, not least in David Hume’s views on the nature of abstraction. Hume’s thoughts on this topic, as expressed in his Treatise of Human Nature, can be read almost as a manifesto for the formal aspect of twentieth century minimal art. Many of you will know the passage in which Hume compares a cube of white marble, a cube of black marble, a sphere of white marble and a sphere of black marble, in order to make the point that one cannot experience shape without colour, and nor can one experience colour without shape. Thus for Hume, our knowledge of shape and colour depends on an act abstraction carried out by the mind.


At the same time Alan Johnston has been inspired by the Zen Buddhist philosophy of Japan, in particular the exploration of form and void in the painting and garden design of the fifteenth-century artist Sesshu. The novelist Neil Gunn wrote of Sesshu: ‘Suddenly I realised that what made the picture was the unpainted surface, the empty air’. In these words Gunn might have been writing of Alan Johnston’s approach. Thus in his work Johnston brings together not only art and ideas, but also – although in a very different way from John Duncan three quarters of a century earlier – the philosophical traditions of East and West.


The Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim once called visual art the homeground of visual thinking, and I hope I have introduced in that spirit. I now want to change pace and explore visual thinking side by side with the notion of interdisciplinarity. Not only by noting in passing the obvious point that visual thinking is a technique common to both art and to other disiplines such as mathematics, biology, geography, physics, engineering, etc., but by adressing the less obvious point that an interest in the visual has inherent to it the potential of the development of a more interdisciplinary approach, simply because a visual approach tends to be more holistic.


To lead into the interdisciplinary heart of my theme I’d like to quote from the classical scholar John Burnet[10]who was, a century ago, Professor of Greek at St. Andrews University. What Burnet said was this:


‘The most important side of any department of knowledge is the side on which it comes into contact with every other department.’


I derive this quote, not directly from Burnet’s work, but from the work of the philosopher and historian of ideas George Davie who has found in Burnet’s work an inspiration for his own. In the context of this evening’s lecture it can be noted that George Davie was born in Dundee in 1912 and in 1972 he presented a distinguished Dow Lecture to this university, taking as his title ‘The Social Significance of the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense’. But he is best known for his 1961 book, The Democratic Intellect. In The Democratic Intellect, Davie examines the changes in Scottish nineteenth-century university education in terms of the encroachment of specialisation on a generalist tradition. The rationale for defending this generalism was that, as a matter of course, one area of thought or expertise should be considered to benefit from illumination by another and vice versa. By extension, any aspect of knowledge, culture, society, or whatever, benefits from the illumination of other aspects. The task of education was, therefore, to facilitate such processes of mutual illumination between areas of thought.[11]This approach to knowledge implies that different, and perhaps incommensurable, disciplines should be juxtaposed for mutual illumination, rather than, as Hugh MacDiarmid put it, kept in water tight compartments. The publication of The Democratic Intellectreawakened an interest in the generalist tradition of education in Scotland, and indeed elsewhere, at a time of increasing specisalisation.


In any consideration of interdisciplinarity in Scotland it is hard not to find ourselves back in the company of Patrick Geddes for he is very much part of this generalist culture. Thus to complement the ideas of Burnet and Davie I want to introduce another, this time visual, call to interdisciplinarity. It is a symbolic image of three doves which Patrick Geddes used as a visual signature of his work from the 1890s onwards. These three doves represent three attitudes of mind which Geddes saw as fundamental to effective work and effective life. The first dove stands for sympathy, that is to say emotional engagement with the views of others, the second dove stands for synthesis, the bringing together intellectually of different perspectives, different sources of information, and the third dove stands for synergy, the co-operation between people and/or institutions which enables any project to realise its full potential. Geddes’s doves are thus much more than a trademark or logo, they are in fact a visual manifesto for effective interdisciplinary working symbolising emotional engagement, intellectual engagement and societal engagement.


Geddes’s use of his symbol of three doves was just one aspect of a broad commitment to visual thinking on his part, which ranged from his advocacy of art, to support for cartographical projects including the mapping of the distribution of the flora of Scotland, and the delineating of the uncharted coast of the Antarctic continent. He also brought visual thinking to his pioneering work in two developing fields, ecology on the one hand and town planning on the other. In the latter area Geddes’s thinking included a theory of urban development recorded in his influential work Cities in Evolution, first published in 1915. Not to be outdone as a visual thinker, Geddes’s fellow professor, D’Arcy Thompson, published that classic text of visual thinking as applied to biological morphogenesis, On Growth and Form, two years later. This Geddes/Thompson period extended for over thirty years, during which time University College Dundee has to be considered a world leader in applied visual thinking. I look forward to that being the case again.


It is important to realise that such commitment to the visual can be seen as inherent to generalism, for, as I have noted, there is a holism – a pattern which connects – in a visual approach which is less evident in more linear methods of notation. For example, in The Democratic IntellectGeorge Davie makes the point that the generalist view of education in Scotland can be directly linked to the Scottish mathematical tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which resisted an algebraic approach in favour of a philosophically rich version of Euclidean geometry.[12]


We can bear this in mind next time we walk around this city, for such commitment to geometry is echoed in the very fabric of the place. Euclid Crescent in the centre of Dundee was named in the 1820s and such geometrical thinking is of course closely associated with a classical approach to architecture. But I want to note its wider ramifications, not least with respect to engineering. One can perhaps symbolise this in the person of James Carmichael[13]the nineteenth-century Dundee engineer whose statue by John Hutchison[14]stands close to Euclid Crescent. Carmichael was not averse to expressing his enthusiasm for geometry in general and the conic sections in particular in verses reminiscent in structure if not in quality of those of Robert Burns. One can note here that when Carmichael was still a teenager Burns himself was writing on the same topic.


What Burns wrote was this: ‘Whenever I feel inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet on the one side, and my fiddle-case on the other, and placing my hat between my legs, I can, by means of its brim, or rather brims, go through the whole doctrine of the conic sections.’


Typically of Burns these lines are both a parody of the cultural generalism of the Scottish Enlightenment and a strong expression of commitment to it.[15]I want to consider Burns’s work in more depth here for, both in its own right and through those artists who have responded to it, it can illuminate my theme of art, ideas and interdisciplinarity.


In Dundee, the statue of Burns by Sir John Steell stands, like that of James Carmichael, close to Euclid Crescent. In 1880 when 25000 people from all walks of life turned out for the unveiling of that statue, while they were certainly turning out in memory of the author of poems such as Tam o Shanterand songs such as Ye Banks and Braes, they were also turning out for a generalist thinker well capable of commenting on mathematics and philosophy. Consider Burns’s Epistle to James Tennant. The subject of the poem is the loan by the poet of several philosophy books to his friend. He writes of Adam Smith, he writes of Thomas Reid, or as he puts it ‘Smith wi his sympathetic feeling/ an Reid to common sense appealing’ and for all that he pokes fun at the abstruse concerns of both philosophers, he goes on to insist on the early return of the books in language worthy of a diligent librarian: ‘But hark ye frien! I charge you strictly/ peruse them, and return them quickly’.[16]The crucial thing to be aware of here is that Burns is taking philosophy for granted as a subject of everyday communication.


So Robert Burns, the icon of what can be an uncritical view of Scotland, can become for us Robert Burns the icon of a critical Scottish interdisciplinarity, and it is of course the depth of Burns’s intelligence that in fact underpins even the most uncritical use of his image. Much of the credit for enabling us to appreciate the generalist aspect of Burns must again go to George Davie, particularly the chapter in the The Democratic Intellectentitled, ‘The Vernacular Basis of Scottish Humanism’.


It has often been lamented that Sir Henry Raeburn never painted Robert Burns, and one need only look at the quality of his portraits of the philosopher Adam Ferguson and the musician Neil Gow from the 1790s to accept the extent of that loss. The more so because Burns knew both Gow and Ferguson, indeed it was at Ferguson’s house in Edinburgh that the celebrated meeting between the poet and young Walter Scott took place. Neil Gow[17]is as interesting a figure as the philosopher, indeed his compositions are still a part of the standard fiddle repertoire today. Michael Marra voices the sentiments of generations of Scottish musicians when he sings: ‘I sit beneath the fiddle tree with the ghost of Neil Gow next to me, listen Neil, the apprentice has begun.’ Perhaps even Burns regarded himself as something of an apprentice to Neil Gow. Certainly he could not have failed to benefit from the older man’s knowledge of folk song when he visited him in 1787. Thus Burns’s own portrait would have been a most appropriate part of Raeburn’s series and had it been painted it would have nicely illustrated this interdisciplinary milieu.


On the other hand if Raeburn had painted Burns this would probably be the version by which we would know the poet’s face today, and we might have sidelined the image which has made his features famous the world over, and which, as we will see, bears on my theme of interdisciplinarity. This was painted by Burns’s friend Alexander Nasmyth in 1787 and has been the source of countless versions including the wonderful red chalk drawing based on it by Archibald Skirving, and made soon after the poet’s death. While Nasmyth may not have been the portrait painter that Raeburn – or indeed Skirving – was, he makes up for any lack of skill by his absolute commitment to the character of his friend.


If Burns is the great generalist poet of the Enlightenment then the great generalist artist is certainly Alexander Nasmyth and it is to a consideration of Nasmyth’s interdisciplinary activities that I now turn. As an artist, Nasmyth was described by David Wilkie as the father of Scottish landscape, and in a painting such as the Windings of the Forthone can appreciate Wilkie’s sentiment in making this comment, for Nasmyth begins to fully unite the codifed insights of Claude Lorrain with the realities of Scottish landscape. But his skills extended much further, for in the late 1780s he helped to draw up the plans for the world’s first steamboat – it was also the world’s first iron-hulled boat – for Patrick Miller. On its first voyage on Dalswinton Loch in 1788, among the passengers were not only Nasmyth himself but also, possihly,  Robert Burns.[18]


Nasmyth was thus strongly interested in engineering and well capable of drawing with a technical aim in view. He went on to create memorable images which reflect on architecture as a civic process, such asThe Building of the Royal Institution in Edinburghwhich dates from 1825. This work is a visual meditation on the utopian classicism of the nascent New Town of Edinburgh, juxtaposed with the medieval and Renaissance Old Town, against the overtly geological setting of Arthur Seat, at a time when James Hutton’s radicial reassement of the age of the earth was still recent. Nasmyth had himself helped to build aspects of this new town, for example his Claudian temple of St Bernards Well, built by the Water of Leith in 1789.[19]


Alexander Nasmyth fathered a family which included both artists and engineers, one of the most distinguished of whom was his son James who made a major contribution to the development of heavy industry with his invention of the Steam Hammer. It is to James’ autobiography that we owe much of our insight into Alexander and indeed into Robert Burns. Just as Alexander was an artist keen to involve himself in engineering and architecual projects, James was an engineer of the highest standing who also continued the family tradition of painting.[20]


The interplay of art and engineering deserves more research, not just on a family level as with the Nasmyths, but on a societal level. For example it is hard to believe that the aesthetic of Glasgow shipbuilding has no relevance to the the art and design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his colleagues (and we see here another work by Talwin Morris), and yet there has been little research in this intriguing interdisciplinary area. Shipbuilding did not simply provide a commercial climate that made money and patronage available. Nor is it simply a question of Glasgow School of Art meeting the need for highly skilled practitioners of arts and crafts needed in the fitting out of ships. Above all it is a question of the aesthetics of marine architecture.


These artists and designers had their childhood in the heyday of the Clyde-built tea clippers that are still a standard of beauty in ship design. Cutty Sarkwas launched from Dumbarton in 1869 and Sir Lancelot, which we see here, from Greenock in 1865. Both Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh were born that same decade and as they reached adulthood, elegant and technologically pioneering ships were being built, for example the transatlantic liner, City of New York, which was launched from Clydebank in 1887. Since Le Corbusier published Towards an Architecturein 1923 the inspirational effect of the transatlantic liner on European designers of the 1920s has been taken for granted. The effect of living in the city at the heart of the world’s shipbuilding industry should, in my view, be given equal consideration with respect to the artists of the Glasgow Style a generation earlier.


Thus taking Alexander Nasmyth as a starting point for a consideration of art and engineering we are quickly led into a wider consideration of the relationships between art and industry. When we look at Nasmyth’s famous portrait of his friend Burns, in whatever version, we must recognise in this image not only the features of the poet but the hand on the paintbrush of Alexander Nasmyth, the inderdisciplinary visual thinker.


When we see Burns from this wider point of view the interest shown in his work by artists in the two centuries since his death, far from being merely the reinforcement of a stereotype, begins to emerge as a series of richly expressive variations on a theme. For example David Wilkie had a life-long visual encounter with Burns’s works, expressed in paintings such as The Cottar’s Saturday Nightwhich dates from 1837, towards the end of the artist’s career. Such works were very much part of Wilkie’s project to make an intellectual art worthy of Scotland, to paraphrase his own words. Another extraordinary visual tribute to the poet from the same period was made by David Octavius Hill who we here see in a portrait bust by his wife, the notable sculptor Amelia Paton. Hill made over fifty paintings which were engraved for The Land of Burns, a major volume of essays and images published in 1840. The Land of Burnsis an interdisciplinary project of great interest. Unlike a similar project today which might only credit the artist as an illustrator, in The Land of Burnsthe visual thinking of D.O. Hill is given equal billing with the verbal thinking of John Wilson and Robert Chambers.


However Hill’s reputation today is based almost exclusively on another remarkable interdisciplinary project, namely the pioneering photographic work which he carried out in conjunction with the chemist Robert Adamson at the suggestion of the physicist Sir David Brewster.[21]That project could have been the central topic of this evening’s lecture with very little change to the title, but as it is I mention it only in passing, and I illustrate this passing reference with portraits by Hill and Adamson of Sir David Brewster himself, and of James Nasymth, who needs no further introduction here.


But taking Hill’s career as a whole the established printing technology of engraving was as significant to him as the new printing technology of photography. His Land of Burnsillustrations range from the extraordinary fantasy image The Poet’s Dreamwhich is a kind of visual compendium of Burns poems, to the simple complementarity of a Celtic bard and a classicised Scottish landscape in Scene on the Lugar. Here I want to remind you that this is yet another example of the complementarity of Celtic and classical in Scottish art which I noted earlier, both with respect to Runiciman working in the 1770s, and to Kate Whiteford working in the late 1980s.


Burns’s ideas have also been of strong interest to artists of the present day. An example is George Wyllie who over the last decade in particular has deconstructed the stereotype of the poet, not least by reappropriating the shortbread tin version of Nasmyth’s portrait by adding a quote from Burns himself, ‘for a that’. For indeed, for all that Burns has been stereotyped the force of his work remains. Elsewhere Wyllie has explored the notion of a cultural export by making analogy between shortbread tins and shipping containers. The deeper export comes in Wyllie’s use of a passage from one of Burns’s letters which encapsulates his social philosophy and should, in my view, be carved above the entrance of the Scottish Parliament:


‘Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.’


Such reassessment of Burns by contemporary artists is part of the wider process of revaluation of the poet of which, as I pointed out earlier, George Davie’s work is an important part. It is therefore all the more appropriate that a work by Nasmyth, Edinburgh from Calton Hill, appears on the cover of this year’s reprint of the Democratic Intellect. [22]And at the visual and conceptual heart of Nasmyth’s painting is Robert Adam’s memorial to David Hume. Thus the public remembering of a philosopher is the pivot of the artist’s composition. Nasmyth’s image and George Davie’s book together encapsulate the theme of art, ideas and interdisciplinarity, which I have endeavoured to explore this evening.


I conclude by linking such ideas again with Patrick Geddes’s three dove manifesto; the first dove symbolising the emotional engagement of sympathy, the second the intellectual engagement of synthesis, and the third the co-operative engagement of synergy. And with that visual exhortation to interdisciplinary practice, a message from the early days of University College Dundee, I thank you all for coming, I thank you all for listening and I thank you all for looking.



[1]first published in 1981

[2]This inappropriate assumption of separateness is not exactly a new problem. In the fifteenth century Leonardo da Vinci challenged his critics in the following terms: ‘Since I am not a man of letters, I know that certain presumptuous persons will feel justified in censuring me, alleging that I am ignorant of writing – fools! they do not know that I could reply, as did Marius to the Roman Nobles, “They who adorn themselves with the labours of others will not concede to me my own.” They will hold that because of my lack of literary training I cannot properly set forth the subjects I wish to treat. They do not know that my subjects require for their expression not the words of theory but experience, the mistress of all who write well.’[Codex Atlanticus 119v-a. Quoted in C. Zammattio et al., Leonardo the Scientist, London, 1980, 131.] A trenchant defence by Leonardo of the role of the artist. While I don’t think anyone would censure Leonardo today for not being a man of letters, it is, nevertheless, all to easy for us to censure those from other disciplines, or dare I say it, from within our own disciplines, simply because we do not understand what they are doing

[3]It is worth recalling here that the nineteenth century St. Andrews philosopher, James Frederick Ferrier, who coined the word ‘epistemology’ to refer to theory of knowledge, also put forward a theory of ignorance, ‘agnoiology’. Perhaps Ferrier’s insight that a theory of knowledge is not enough on its own can help us to remember that by virtue of knowing one thing, we inevitably leave ourselves ignorant of something else.

[4]A remarkable aspect of these paintings is that they reflect on a crisis in Highland culture in a way wholly linked to McTaggart’s reflection of the early years of the Gaels in Scotland as symbolised by the coming of Columba. TheEmigrant Shipseries thus complements his Columbapaintings as part of a personal commentary on the history of the Gael.

[5]Such interest is again found in drawings by Alan Davie from the 1960s So much so that Davie’s work was selected for the cover of Richard Feacham’s classic book on Prehistoric Scotlandin 1963London, 1963.

[6]It has been suggested that they also have a mathematical significance related to solid geometry. This idea may or may not be correct but it does gain credence in the light of the established mathematical precision of stone circles, for those circles are roughly contemporary with these carved, hand held, objects.

[7]From the perspective of art and ideas or visual thinking one has to note that the Book of Kells is not only beautiful, it is an expression of the central Chirtisn concept of the the word incarnate, the word made flesh, the word made physical.

[8]To extend perception of this Celtic revival, consider a mid-twentieth century unity of word and image by the artist George Bain and the poet Douglas Young. The work is a memorial to the Perth poet William Soutar, one of the key figures of the Scots Literary Renaissance. It is interesting to note that this was first published in Scottish Art and Lettersa magazine of which the colourist painter J.D.Fergusson was art editor. There one can find the at first sight surprising juxtaposition of this type of Celtic Revival work with the Paris-inspired, colourist modernism which Fergusson had pioneered in Scotland.

[9]One can note here that  one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s earliest designs is a Celtic cross grave stone in the Necropolis in Glasgow. Mackintosh and Macdonald linked Celtic influences with those of European Art Nouveau, as one can see in the dense symbolist decoration for example in Margaret Macdonald’s Opera of the Seasfrom 1915.


[11]For further consideration of this point see Murdo Macdonald (ed.), Edinburgh Review, ‘Democracy and Curriculum’ Issue, No 90, 1993.

[12]Sir William Hamilton, quoted by George Davie in The Democratic Intellect, Edinburgh University Press, 1961, 127.

In this regard Davie quotes the views of the Edinburgh philosopher Sir William Hamilton in 1838: ‘The mathematical process in the symbolical method [i.e. the algebraic] is like running a rail-road through a tunnelled mountain; that in the ostensive [i.e. the geometrical] like crossing the mountain on foot. The former carries us, by a short and easy transit, to our destined point, but in miasma, darkness and torpidity, whereas the latter allows us to reach it only after time and trouble, but feasting us at each turn with glances of the earth and heavens, while we inhale health with the pleasant breeze, and gather new strength at every effort we put forth.’‘Miasma, darkness and torpidity’ may a little unfair to algebra, but the point I want to draw attention to here is Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the visual method. Davie comments that ‘what Hamilton meant … was that geometry, at least if taught in the Greek spirit, connected up with the other principal disciplines in a way that the more specialised techniques of algebra did not; and he then went on to argue that, in view of the broad, general approach, characteristic of Scottish education, this prediliction for Greek geometry was both reasonable and natural.’ This is the context that led Geddes himself to comment that geometry was the educational influence of all.’George Davie, The Democratic Intellect, 127-128.



[15]Burns writing under the name Johnny Faa to Charles Sharpe in 1791. The Work of Robert Burns, Vol. V, Edinburgh, William Paterson, 1879, 367.

[16]The key excerpt is as follows:
“I’ve sent you here, by Johnnie Simson / Twa sage philosophers to glimpse on! / Smith, wi his sympathetic feeling, / An Reid, to common sense appealing. / Philosophers have fought and wrangled, / An meikle Greek an Latin mangled, / Till wi their logic-jargon tired, / An in the depth of science mired, / To common sense they now appeal, / What wives and wabsters see an feel. / But hark ye, frien! I charge you strictly, / Peruse them and return them quickly, / …..”


[18]Although Bunrs may not have been present, the interdisciplinary point remains.

[19]This integration of temple and landscape finds a twentieth century echo in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, an impression reinforced by the choice of title for a recent book of essays on Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work, Wood Notes Wild, for this is the motto of Robert Burns.

[20]Sometimes to illustratre an engineering achievement such as the steam hammer, but often also exploring his own imaginary world of antiquaiansin and astrology. His remarkable intlelect also extended to speculation on the meaning of cuneform script, observations of sun spots and suggestions as to how the lunar surface gained its geological features.

[21]As an artist he is mostly remembered for his record of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. Much of the continued interest in that picture stems from the fact that, at the prompting of Sir David Brewster, Hill recognised that the new art of photography was the only way to record the features of the multitude of ministers who had seceded from the church before they were dispersed round the country, and thus began his interest in that medium.

[22]This painting of Edinburgh from Calton Hilldates from the 1820s, well within the period of the flourishing of Scots geometry to which I have referred this evening.