William Daniell's journeys around Skye, Raasay and the Moray Coast in 1815
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(Formatted as in the original publication)
William Daniell's Isle of Skye and Raasay
An Artist's Journey in 1815
By John Garvey
Reviewed by Dr. Ian D MacLeod, CMS Australia
Published by Matador, 2009
ISBN 978 1848761 070
This beautiful book was my bed time companion for several weeks as I read it from cover to cover. I can commend reading both the Foreword and Preface first as they set the context of what was a moving journey of discovery of this most remarkable artist. The author made this elusive Royal Academician come alive after nearly 200 years. A couple of years ago when the full Voyage Round Great Britain of William Daniell was offered by Birlinn Books I thought I could not indulge my passion and get away with an expensive purchase. However my desire for the island images has been satisfied through the book bought from Dunvegan Castle gift shop, on the advice of curator Maureen Byers. It only costs £20, which is great value as it provides a unique insight into island life long ago; through the magnificent sketches and aquatints produced by the artist when he travelled in Skye and Raasay.
John Garvey uses quotes from Daniell in addition to his own observations and comments in a seamless fashion that enables the reader to quickly pick up on the huge depth of knowledge and research that has gone into the production of this book. Partly to prove the skill of the painter and to show how gifted he was, Garvey uses photographs of the views from the same spots used by the artist. This enables the reader to see something of the techniques used by the artist to capture the powerful effects of the mountains and the lochs, the people, boats and houses. Blow up images of the fine prints of people and scenery illustrate the quite remarkable technical skill that William Daniell possessed. The artist did his own plates and aqua tinting which makes the end products "speak" with ultimate purity of artistic purpose. It also means that nobody else's hands were involved in the production of the works back in the early 19th century.
Daniell's journey through the Inner Hebrides followed the traditional routes of Dr Johnson and Boswell and other eminent personages such as Pennant and Sir Walter Scott. The pictures of Skye and Raasay provide an enticing snapshot of the full volume. The book by Garvey has 17 of the published 308 prints of the full volume but the technical quality and the hauntingly beautiful way in which Daniell captured the essence of these two magical MacLeod islands is sublime and makes this collection really special!
William Daniell's struggles for his well deserved recognition are captured in the first two chapters. His desire was to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts so that he could have the longed for post- nominal of R.A. These two letters would enable the bearer to command higher prices for his works and to be accepted as one of the chosen artists whose skills had been tested and tried and found to be excellent. The reader discovers the particular skills that Daniell had developed in the production of the coloured images which all began life as a series of steps of working up the images on copper plates. The drawings were then treated with very careful and selective etching that resulted in a very fine pattern of lowered areas that would take the dyes and inks, light coloured tones being developed in minutes and the deepest hues taking an hour of etching in aqua fortis (nitric acid). Highlights were obtained as a series of fine white dots through the images by using rozin attached to the copper plate which resisted the effects of the acid etch. Whilst this may appear to be very technical, it provides the necessary understanding of what was involved in the production of these aquatints. Each plate that was prepared would take at least one day of careful working. If one made the slightest mistake and parent copper metal was lost where it should have been retained, the artist would have to start from scratch again. Aqua tints are characterized by soft tones and lack of hard lines which are hallmarks of normal prints from acid etched copper plates.
The chapter Arrival in Skye, Armadale and Isle Ornsay sets the scene for the rest of the chapters on Skye and Raasay. Carefully chosen sections from Daniell’s original diary notes make it as if the reader is actually with the artist in the journeys around the countryside. The author reveals what skill and talent was needed by Daniell to produce the accurate, sensitive and glowing evocative images of the Scur of Eig and of the Isle of Rum. Garvey has wrought his magical touch of bringing to life the work, the words and observations of a man dead for nigh on 175 years. This section tells of how the years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion lead to the collapse of the Clan system. This is best reflected through the fate and fortunes of the MacDonald chiefs and the way in which Duntulm castle was gradually allowed to go to rack and ruin while they built the new residence of Armadale Castle. Although still under construction when Daniell visited, the artist used architectural drawings to "finish off” the picture of the seat of the Lord of the Isles.
Kyleakin to Portree covers a very familiar route for members of the Clan MacLeod who take the easy path by car and paved roads. Daniell records the journey that involved the ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin and then by horseback to Portree, the capital of Skye. The view of the ruins of castle Maol on the Skye shoreline were powerfully captured by Daniell as was the turbulent nature of the water which carried large and small sailing craft and their associated passengers through the narrow strait while the brooding mass of Beinn na Caillich watched over the travellers. The accommodation available at Broadford is discussed and it is here the author and Daniell give us time travel without any jet lag. The sketches looking towards Portree from near Sconsor are even more magical than the present day photographs. Daniell was brilliant in capturing the details of the local seabirds and the small watercraft that the crofters used for their local inter-island transport across the inner sound. There are two full aquatints and one more sketch of Portree itself and they take away your breath by being able to see at a glance how the town has developed since 1815. There is exquisite detail of the artist shown in the "blow up" of the MacNab Inn and it leaves one breathless to see such evidence of a superbly steady hand, brilliant control of the etching and colouring process and all executed with gentleness and creative flair.
Portree to Duntulm and Dunvegan carries along the next step of the journey. The story of Monkstadt House which sheltered the fleeing Prince Charles under the guise of the maid to Flora MacDonald provides direct Jacobean linkages. Daniell’s print of Duntulm Isle of Skye has the softest and most subtle of hues. Details subtly show a shepherd and dog tending some sheep while capturing distant images of the hills of Harris and the Shiant Islands. His detailed sketch of Duntulm show how the roofless ruins hovered at the edge of a massive cliff that would have rendered it impregnable from seaward attack. Finally the reader arrives in Dunvegan and its magical stories. An image of the castle shows the woods and the view of the Fairy Tower, the curtain wall and the laundry cottage on the other side of the loch. The most fascinating item for me was the detail of the drawbridge that was the main access way from the present car park and driveway over the great gulf which is now the tunnel under the path leading up to the front door. The second aquatint shows the close up view of the castle as it then stood and the original gabled roof over the main hall and family rooms is very clearly extant. What a shame that Victorian rebuilding lead to the flat roof and all the subsequent problems that beset the late Chief John. A total of three sketches capture the castle from all angles and incorporates boats and people which shows the place was a natural haven of activity and locale of cultural pursuits. How pleased the past and present chiefs must be to have in their possession some of these superb artworks.
Dunvegan to Broadford illustrates detailed documentation of the compelling geology of the region. While the chief of MacLeod sent provisions and tents towards loch Scavaig to await Daniell, the artist journeyed through MacLeod of Talisker country and recorded the features of Preshal Beg. Here the craggy columnar basalt crystals provide compelling evidence of powerful ancient forces that wrought the landscape. The distant mountains of Rum across the sound and the scudding clouds provide an atmosphere of almost brooding intent. The scale of the columns is made all that more powerful by the tiny size of the party on foot and on horseback. Arriving by boat via the Sound of Soay, the artist's party stepped ashore at Loch Scavaig and the grandeur of the black Cuillin is richly conveyed in the aquatint of the area. Sublime use of differential etching has enabled Daniell to have lightness and warm deep rich colours that allow the viewer to sense a light breeze filling the sails of the boat and the sea birds timelessly ascending towards the giddy heights of the brooding and awe inspiring mountains. It is very hard not to agree with Garvey's statement that Daniell's finest image is in fact that of Loch Coruisq near Loch Scavig. The chapter concludes with another superb view of the brooding mountains in The Coolin taken from Loch Slapin. The detailed image of the boats under oar and under a lateen sail are breathtaking.
The Isle of Raasay was really special for me since my ancestors left the island in 1854, one generation after Daniell was there to record Raasay House sitting high above the bay and looking out to the Red Cuillin. His sketch of the house from the front shows the stable block in the best possible view delineates the relative proportions of the two fine buildings in the southern end of the island. The most compelling image is that of Brochel Castle which even in its ruinous state in 1815 shows up so much more of what was once a fine and well defended dwelling place of the head of the family. Again, our author does the artist and the reader good service with his carefully chosen texts and photographic images of the present day scenes which show how much more damage has been wrought by nearly 200 years of storms and rain with additional local quarrying activity to utilise a good supply of dressed stones. A pocket history of the island and its people is included in the chapter and this helps us understand the comments of the artist who did not seem to have a very high opinion of the people.
Farewell to Skye sees Daniell conclude his commentary on the two islands by noting that although there would seem to be a rather large number of images produced from these two locations, it was in direct proportion to the beauty and the grandeur of the environment. He then went on to other Hebridean islands and for that we can only give thanks and wait in hope that John Garvey will write another book. Art is pure and not sullied by historical bias of victorious parties. This book gives a fresh insight into the life and times on our much loved islands. It would be a wonderful gift or anniversary present.