Duncan MacMillan in his excellent ‘Old and Plain: Music and Song in Scottish Art’ in Edward J. Cowan The People’s Past (Edinburgh, 1980) wrote that “Raeburn made his masterpiece the portrait of Neil (sic) Gow playing his fiddle” (p.131) and suggested that “…the real potential of the conjunction of painting and the traditions of folk music was declared… in a single picture by… Raeburn in his portrait of Neil Gow.” (p.137) He went on:
This was painted in 1806. As a portrait the only rivals it has from its own time are in the work of Goya and David. It shows the fiddler seated, dressed in his customary check trews and absorbed in music. The strength, simplicity and directness of the image, and the painting of it, are not only a just comment on the man, but also on his music. Here there are no Italian tricks, and in place of artificiality, which was the dominant characteristic of contemporary portraiture elsewhere, the image is utterly concrete. Its dignity derives from the artist’s respect for the individuality of his sitter. Through Neil Gow, Raeburn has given visible form to the qualities in the popular tradition from which Fergusson and Burns drew strength. Beside this portrait his nearly contemporary portrait of Scott seems strangely ambivalent. (137)
Elsewhere MacMillan wrote of the painting:
…it derives its strength as an image first of all from its simplicity. The musician is quite alone against a plain background. His costume is simple and there is nothing demonstrative in pose or gesture. His expression is withdrawn as he is absorbed in his music. It is a natural portrait of an unselfconscious artist, but the qualities of natural simplicity and strength apply to the music as well as to the man. He becomes therefore a personification of popular music as it is presented in Allan’s pictures at much the same time – Gow’s portrait was probably painted no later than 1793.” (Duncan MacMillan Painting in Scotland. The Golden Age. (Oxford 1986), p. 74.)
There are a number of version of the portrait (perhaps as many as eight) and it was also the subject of an engraving (1809) and a mezzotint (1816) (see below) that saw it hung widely on the walls of Scots both at home and abroad. There is one version in the collection of Perth and Kinross Council (Accession number: 4/188) and, of course, one at Blair Castle.
In the nineteenth century, multiple versions in imitation of original oil paintings were produced (by oleograph or some other means) and sold for the popular market. I suspect these appeared after the painting was acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1886 and were offered in Edinburgh and at Dunkeld. Many of these inexpensive reproductions survive and my favourite is this charming, folksy one which may be either an original painting or an oleograph over painted:
The Portrait Gallery painting was cleaned (in the 1990s?) when its appearance was “dramatically changed” (Duncan Thomson, Raeburn, (Edinburgh, 1997), p. 106.) and curators have ensured it has been given prominence in gallery re-hangings ever since. It is available to take home on postcards and notebooks from the gallery shop. This re-engagement with the portrait coincided with the modern revival of interest in Scottish fiddle tradition and musicians have managed to make visual as well as musical links to Gow through photographs used on record sleeves and in film.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the First Minister should choose, or be persuaded to agree, to have the Gow painting as the backdrop of the recent portrait by Gerard M. Burns. In doing so she sends a clear message designed to link her back to the culture of the Scottish people and its historical and artistic past. For me, there is a strange contrast in the pose and attitude in the two figures in the painting and there appears to be some strange work in the lower parts of the Raeburn that are really quite dark in the original . That said, I wonder what our art real commentators will have to say.
It is interesting to note that after the National Galleries of Scotland version left the hands of Raeburn’s son Henry in 1861, it was acquired by a Mr Salmond of Glasgow.