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Floating Heads by Sophie Cave, Kelvingrove
Floating Heads by Sophie Cave, Kelvingrove

Scottish Art can be taken as visual or three dimensional art produced within the modern area of Scotland since earliest times, or by Scots abroad. Parts of it form a distinctive tradition within wider British or European art, with particular contributions being made in the field of architecture: but on the whole, Scotland's distinctive contribution to European art has had a little less impact than its distinctive contribution to European literature.

Furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh Furniture
Early Christian Carved Cross, Iona
Early Christian Carved Cross, Iona
Viking Chess Piece, Found on Lewis
Viking Chess Piece, Found on Lewis

The history of art in Scotland dates back to at least 3100BC. The residents of Skara Brae on Orkney didn't just settle and build homes, they also carved abstract decoration into some of the stones in the walls of those homes and made, or at least used, decorated pottery. Similar examples of decorated stones have been found elsewhere in Scotland. Perhaps more widespread are the "cup and ring" marks carved into rocks and stones over large parts of Scotland from around the same era. Their purpose is unknown and they are usually classified as examples of "megalithic art".

The Romans spent several periods of time between AD 80 and AD 209 occupying parts of the southern half of Scotland, and left artistic evidence of their passing in the form of carvings, inscriptions, decorated pottery, coins and more: but while this might qualify within the literal definition of "Scottish Art" set out above, it's hardly within the spirit of it, so we'll pass swiftly by.

The period from AD 500 to 1000 saw two separate lines of artistic development which during the second half of the period merged together. The first of these was the enormous collection of Pictish art to be found across large parts of Scotland. Much of it is carved on stones, though some is also found on metalwork and jewellery.

Quite separately, Celtic religious art started to spread across Scotland, along with the faith it represented, from its initial points of arrival at Whithorn and Iona. This took the form of elaborate carvings, especially on crosses and grave slabs, and later made a contribution to the preparation of some of the great manuscripts of the era like the Irish Book of Kells. The two strands began to merge as the Picts were increasingly converted to Christianity, this merger being exemplified by Pictish cross-slabs: stones carved with Christian motifs.

The supplanting of the Celtic Church across Scotland by the Roman Church, in the years before 1100, coupled with the increasing influence of the Norman English, left Scotland with little indigenous artistic tradition to speak of. This did not stop a huge wave of church and abbey building over the following few centuries. The results were magnificent, if generally using the recognised international styles of the day. The exception to this was in the west and north of Scotland, areas which increasingly from AD 800 came under the influence and control of the Vikings. Viking art that has survived is often in the form of elaborate decoration of objects with stylised or mythical creatures.

The Renaissance arrived fairly late in Scotland, and left less of a mark on the country than it did on most of Europe. Nonetheless the middle Stewart Scottish Kings, James III, IV and V fully appreciated the power of grand architecture: and the royal palaces at Linlithgow, Stirling, Falkland and Holyrood reflect what they considered to be the best of contemporary French architecture.

Perhaps the low point in the history of Scottish Art came in the years after 1560. The Reformation in Scotland introduced an especially radical brand of Presbyterian Protestantism, whose first imperative was to sweep away - in many cases literally destroy - 500 years of religious art, and usually the churches and abbeys that housed it as well.

The exodus of the Scottish court to London on the coat-tails of James VI/I in 1603 did not have as much of an impact on the nation's cultural life as might have been expected. During this period the portrait painter George Jamesone, who lived from 1590 to 1644, became the first Scottish-born artist to emerge as a named individual. Moving forward another century, the Scottish Enlightenment of the second half of the 1700s marked a major blossoming of the artistic life of the nation. Scottish artists and, especially, architects, started to make an increasing mark on the international scene. The buildings of men like Charles Cameron, James Gibbs, William Adam and Robert Adam became increasingly well known. Meanwhile painters like David Allan, Allan Ramsay, Gavin Hamilton and Sir Henry Raeburn became widely respected.

The 1800s was a period of dramatic growth in the population, wealth and level of industrialisation of central Scotland and the period produced some notable architects like Alexander "Greek" Thompson. Meanwhile, the Royal Scottish Academy of Art was founded in 1826, and painters like Sir David Wilkie and William McTaggart came to prominence.

Another notable arrival on the Scottish arts scene was the Glasgow School of Art, founded in 1845. In the final years of the century this was to have a truly dramatic influence in the form of the various factions of the Glasgow School. During this period The Glasgow Boys, a loose group of male painters, added their spin to Impressionism and the Post-Impressionist world. At around the same time the group of female graduates of the Glasgow School of Art known as The Glasgow Girls also started to make their mark. Among them were sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald, who are perhaps better remembered as the female members of The Four, which formed when they teamed up with Margaret's husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his colleague Herbert MacNair. What emerged became known internationally as the Glasgow Style and went on to become a key inspiration for Art Nouveau.

The 1920s saw the arrival of the Scottish Colourists, who formed part of a wider Modernist movement known as the Scottish Renaissance. Post war Scotland has benefitted from a thriving arts scene, in part down to the positive influence of the Edinburgh Festival, which began in 1947. Important Scottish artists over the past few decades have included Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Douglas Gordon, Lucy McKenzie, Christopher Orr and Jack Vettriano.

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