‘A View of Abbotsford from across the Tweed’

‘A View of Abbotsford from across the Tweed’

Contributor: Kirsty Archer-Thompson FSA Scot

Location: Abbotsford, the Home of Sir Walter Scott, Melrose

Description: This small and relatively unassuming painting of Abbotsford reads like a picturesque painting by numbers, with the long shadows and repoussoir tree in the foreground, an ethereal light falling on the house in the middle distance, and the receding outlines of the Eildon hills beyond, enveloped in cloud. Three figures are visible in the foreground: one astride a horse, another intently sketching or reading on the riverbank and the other casting for a fish in the Tweed. They are a curiously disconnected group of people, with the two that face the house very much ensconced in their inner worlds. On the opposite side of the riverbank, a flock of sheep complete the pastoral idyll, congregated around the Italianate stable block with its pitched roof. Above that, the house rises out of a crop of well-established shrubbery and tree cover. The building itself is executed remarkably accurately in its architecture and scale.

However, all is not quite as it seems. All the evidence suggests that this startlingly accurate painting predates the completion of the house’s east extension. What you are looking at is not so much documentation as something that is, or at least became, a very powerful piece of Romantic propaganda.

The artist, Elizabeth Wemyss Nasmyth, became Mrs Elizabeth Terry in June 1815 on her marriage to the theatre impresario, Scott’s friend Daniel Terry. Deep in Scott’s fold, Terry had previous training as a draughtsman and became a primary aide in the design and furnishing of Abbotsford. By virtue of geography and affinity in taste, he acted as Scott’s primary conduit to the architect William Atkinson and sculptor George Bullock, and was privy to many of their early concepts and proposals for the development of Scott’s home. The Terrys as a unit had a real stake in the creation and promotion of Abbotsford as a work of art.

Promotion is the key word here because all the evidence suggests that this startlingly accurate painting predates the completion of the house’s east extension. Key to this assertion is the following, excerpted from Scott’s letters: “The house is completely roofed, &c., and looks worthy of Mrs. Terry’s painting. I never saw anything handsomer than the grouping of towers, chimneys, &c. upon the roof, when seen at a proper distance.” (November 10th 1822)

The ‘proper distance’ in question can only really be attained from the opposite side of the river from the house as Mrs Terry well knew, the opposite direction taking you up into the foothills. Scott has clearly taken the opportunity to stand and survey the house on the exact spot that we now occupy as viewers of the painting. The semantics are slippery and to be ‘worthy of’ painting could merely suggest that there would now be merit in painting Abbotsford. But there is more concrete proof that Elizabeth Terry cannot have had this luxury…

Despite hailing from an illustrious and prolific family of artists, Elizabeth herself was not a regular exhibitor, suffering regular disturbances in her health. However, in March 1822, this painting was shown in Edinburgh by the Institution for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in their Exhibition of Paintings by Modern Artists. At this point in time life did not imitate art, and at Abbotsford itself the old farm cottage – that had been living on borrowed time for some time – had recently been razed to the ground. Building work had not yet started on its replacement structure. With the knowledge that about 60% of the building visible in this painting was no more than a ‘castle in the air’ and a sheet of paper on Atkinson’s desk in early 1822, this little painting is transformed into something far more visionary. From the lofty towers to the remarkably established planting enveloping the building (in its infancy at this time), Terry’s image shows Abbotsford as it would become. Contemporary exhibition commentators such as The Newcastle Magazine, described Terry’s painting as having a ‘pleasing prospect’. There could not be a more apt phrase loaded with both spatial and a temporal meaning for a painting that looks so overtly to the future prospects of a place.

These promotional tactics worked a little too well and by the mid-1820s, unsolicited guests were a common occurrence. Despite this, Terry’s image of Abbostford would go on to hold a special place in the history of promoting the house, estate and pleasure gardens as Scott’s Romantic masterwork. After she fell on hard times after the untimely death of her husband in 1829, Scott seized upon the idea of using her painting to raise funds for the widow and her family in a dual act of charity and canny marketing (by this point, the house and estate that Scott built had a cultural capital all of its own). William Gauci produced an exquisite lithograph after Terry’s work that was engraved by Waller’s of Fleet Street. These collectable images were overly advertised in periodicals and magazines such as The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction and The Literary Gazette as the perfect size for a print room, or an affordable option for those who wanted to own a piece of their favourite literary shrine.

Terry’s Abbotsford would even go on to inspire the composition of J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour Abbotsford from the Northern Bank of the Tweed engraved for the second edition of John Gibson Lockhart’s Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott. Engravings of Abbotsford, often from the opposite river-bank, were amongst the staple stock of print sellers across Britain and Europe, so much so that a bookshop owner in Frankfurt attempted to sell Scott an image of his own home in 1832. There is every chance that this could have been the offspring of Terry’s promotional painting of 1822. If so, the painting as a piece of Romantic propaganda had come right back home, promoted to Scott himself. Years after Scott’s death, her painting was again engraved by William Miller for the lavish illustrated editions of the Waverley Novels, published between 1842-1847, the series named, fittingly enough, the ‘Abbotsford editions’.

The status of Abbotsford as a Romantic endeavour and a shrine to creativity recognised across the breadth of Europe was cemented with the help of this little painting – a two-dimensional prototype for a three-dimensional phenomenon.

Creator: Elizabeth Terry

Date: 1821-22

Subject: Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford

Media rights: The Abbotsford Trust

Object type: artwork

Format: oil on canvas

Publisher: The Abbotsford Trust

Catalogue number: T.AT.3370