I read two interesting articles in this weekend’s newspapers: in the Financial Times there was a review of the exhibition of JD Fergusson’s paintings at Chichester’s fantastic Pallant House Gallery, and in the Guardian there was a recollection by Penelope Jardine of her life in Italy with novelist Muriel Spark, written to coincide with a new collection of essays by Spark (The Golden Fleece), edited by Jardine. Reading these in tandem, in an Edinburgh made even more beautiful than usual by uncharacteristic unbroken sunshine, brought home to me the very particular character of a city that I have only called home for three years, but which is increasingly opening up its reticent personality to me in the manner of a slowly developing friendship.
When I first arrived in town, the lush paintings of the colourists and Spark’s celebrated anti-heroine Jean Brodie had provided a rather lazy shorthand for me, useful for articulating the positive and negative reputation which the city carries before it. The combination of a sort of ‘douce’ (to use a local term) Southside complacency and a sharp sense of cultural superiority were the traits that pretty pictures of New Town drawing room still-lives, and quaint rallies to the ‘crème de la crème’ by a Morningside School teacher fascinated by fascism, suggested to my mind whenever Edinburgh’s artistic and literary legacy were raised in conversation.
Jackie Wullschlager rightly contests any sense of cosy parochialism in her assessment of Fergusson’s work: ‘ “Ecossais”, Fergusson always insisted on writing after his name at exhibitions in Paris, where he made his home from 1907. Scottishness defined his identity in pre-war Montparnasse bohemia: “a solid, sandy, steady-eyed Scotchman”, observed American novelist Theodore Dreiser. Yet transpose Fergusson from Edinburgh – where this exhibition began – to the breezy south coast and the Scottish strain fades. Barely known works unearthed from private collections here place Fergusson in an avant-garde Parisian milieu in ways unmatched by any of the other colourists.’ Similarly Jardine debunks the status of Brodie as a champion for Edinburgh’s petit-bourgeois pretentions: ‘she gets sick of people “going on and on” about Brodie, the teacher… from the novel that Spark based on her own years at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls: “Muriel used to say it was her milch cow, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles was to Hardy.”
As a boy born and bred in England’s west country, Tess is another middle-brow story with great resonance that brings place, past and personality into close alignment for me. But I’m wary of joining the debunkers just yet. As the sun throws its clear light across the Forth to Arthur’s Seat and bathes my study in a dappled glow I am loathe to let go of comforting local narratives.