Thursday, October 24, 2013

The mystery of the Traquair painting

by Bob Cowan

You don't need an excuse to visit Traquair House, near Innerleithen, as 'Scotland's Oldest Inhabited House' is full of treasures, see here. There's also something at Traquair which is of fundamental interest and importance to the history of curling!

My puzzled expression is real, as I study a painting just inside the main door of the house. In fact I have returned to Traquair many times over some forty years, not just to look at this painting of course, but it has always been one reason to visit. You see, the painting shows the sport of curling, but the mystery is, who painted it, and when and where is the action taking place?

Back in 1981 David B Smith included a black and white image of the painting in his book Curling: an illustrated history. He described it as 'primitive, but accurately observed' and said, 'The landscape looks Scottish enough although the bridge does not.'

You now have the opportunity to form your own opinion of the painting. It has been put on the BBC's Your Paintings website, and is now available for everyone to look at and study. You will find it here:
Click on the image to bring it to full size on your screen.

The Your Paintings website simply calls it 'Curling', and attributes it to the Dutch School, painted around 1700. It is oil on panel and measures 55.7 x 97.9 cm.

The artist is not known, nor is it known when the painting came to Traquair. Perhaps one day the house archives might reveal this information.

The Traquair archives do reveal one eighteenth century reference to the sport. Mary Ravenscroft, the wife of Charles Stuart, 7th Earl of Traquair, has an entry in her diary, written around 1783. She says, "Lord Traquair about 12 o’clock went to the Curling at Grieston Loch came home about 4 o’clock." Grieston Tower is just to the north west of Traquair House, near Howford. Some ninety years later curling was still being played at Howford - Howford Pond is marked on the Historical Curling Places map, a match between Innerleithen and Traquair being reported in the Scotsman, on February 13, 1873.

But there is no suggestion that the painting is a representation of the game being played at Traquair, or nearby. It is not certain that the scene is really Scottish. You see, there has always been a bit of an argument whether the sport of curling actually originated in Scotland or in the Low Countries of Europe. No 'old curling stones' have been uncovered to my knowledge in the Low Countries, although there is certainly evidence that some form of target ice sport was played in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium.

Such evidence comes from four sixteenth century paintings and one engraving from the early seventeenth century which show a game being played on European ice. These are:

(1) 'Hunters in the snow' by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1565. The original can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna, online here. But there are lot of images of this painting online, see here.

(2) 'A winter landscape with skaters and a bird trap' is also by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and also painted in 1565. An original is in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, see it online here. But a version of the painting can be seen in Scotland, at the National Trust of Scotland property, Hill of Tarvit.

(3) 'Winter' by Jacob Grimmer. There is what looks like a curling game in progress in the rear of this painting, see here. Some thirty years ago this painting was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest - a colleague visited the museum and brought me back a poster print! Grimmer lived c1526–1590, and lived in Antwerp, which is thought to be the location shown in 'Winter'. W H Murray included this painting among the illustrations in his book, The Curling Companion, published in 1981.

(4) 'The Flight into Egypt' by Gillis Mostaert (the elder). Mostaert was a landscape painter, and a colleague of Jacob Grimmer. He lived c1534-1598 and, like Grimmer, also worked in Antwerp. This painting then also dates from the sixteenth century. It was exhibited for sale in a London gallery in 1972. It is not known if it was purchased then, and its location now is also not known. It is oil on canvas, and quite large (123 x 145 cm). I can find no image of this painting online. Note that there are other paintings with similar titles by the same artist, and by others, none of which show a 'curling' scene. But the painting exhibited for sale in 1972 showed six figures engaged in a game on a frozen canal where objects are being thrown over the ice. These objects are flat, with handles sticking almost straight up, the scene not unlike that in (2) above.

(5) David B Smith included a most revealing image in his book Curling: an illustrated history. He credits the discovery of this image to A M Meyerman, then the director of the Historisch Museum, Rotterdam. It is described as 'an engraving by C van Wieringen (1580-1635), called 'Hyems' (Winter) after a painting by C. van Baudous'. I looked in vain for any mention of this engraving online, or indeed for any mention of a van Baudous painting. I eventually concluded that the information in David's book is incorrect, and I suspect some mistranscription may have occurred between receiving the information from Rotterdam, and when it was finally included in the book.

I little bit of detective work has revealed the correct attribution for the engraving. The above detail is from an engraving by Robert Willemsz de Baudhous. There are many examples of his work in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, including 'Winter', from which the detail above is taken and which can be seen online here.

The British Museum also has a copy of the print, see here. Robert de Baudous is described on this website as a Dutch engraver and publisher who lived c1574 to 1659. In 1591 he was working in Amsterdam. 'Winter' is one of a series titled, 'The Four Seasons'.

The British Museum describes the print as, 'Riverscape with several figures ice-skating and playing curling on a frozen river at centre, two men carrying a sledge in lower right corner, city-walls beyond, three others trying to fetch a ball from a thawed section of the river in lower left corner, large icebound sailing vessels and other figures in background; after Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen. c.1613-1618.'

There may well be an original painting by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen in a private collection somewhere, on which this engraving is based. Or the original painting may have been lost.

It is interesting that whoever wrote the description for the British Museum had no hesitation in calling the game being played on the ice as 'curling', even though it is most definitely not curling as we know it. The 'stones' are flat discs of wood with handles sticking straight up, not unlike the stocks used in ice stock sport or eisstockschiessen (sometimes called Bavarian curling) and still played today, see video here, or go to the website of the International Federation Icestocksport, here. I was interested to read the Wikipedia entry for ice stock sport (here) which says 'the first proof of ice stock sport being practised stems from a 16th-century painting by Dutch painter Pieter Breughel'!

Note that in the de Baudhous engraving (above) the player on the right is cleaning the bottom of his wooden disc with a broom.

Perhaps a student of sports history in the Netherlands may be able to suggest what this game was called in the early seventeenth century. One suggestion has been that it was called 'krulbollen'. This is a game still played today, see here, and, although it is fascinating to think what might be done with curling stones during the summer months, is not the sport depicted in the engraving!

The Traquair painting, which is probably a hundred years later in date than the de Baudhous engraving, represents the Scottish sport of curling as we might imagine it being played in the eighteenth century. One can say a fair bit about the 'stones' that are depicted, always remembering of course that paintings are not photographs!

I have taken the liberty of clipping and reproducing part of the Traquair painting that catches my attention. Look at the stones. They are NOT regular in size or shape. The one on the left is smaller than that behind it. And the one in the foreground is not even round! But these are certainly stones, not wooden discs. The stones in the painting are 'channel stanes', a step in the evolution of the modern stones which are used in the game today. 

This collection of channel stanes is to be found at Blair Castle in Perthshire. Some are round, others of irregular shape. Channel stanes, as the name suggests, were simply boulders of diverse size and shape found in burns and rivers to which a handle was attached. David Affleck has published an image of a channel stane from East Lothian here. They have been found all over Scotland.

These stones superseded 'loofies' which were the first curling stones, without handles, with just indentations made in the stone for fingers and thumb. 'Channel stanes' were in use in Scotland from, say c1600, up to the end of the eighteenth century at which time the mason began to turn his hand to producing circular stones. So, the stones in the painting would certainly be compatible with a date c1700.

I believe that much more might be learned about the Traquair painting were it to be examined by an art historian, an expert in the 'Dutch School'. Perhaps too an expert in eighteenth century fashion might be able to say something about the dress being worn by the game's participants. Is the dress Scottish, or not?

Is this painting the earliest representation of the sport of curling in Scotland? Currently, the earliest documented painting of a Scottish curling scene is 'Curlers at Canonmills Loch, Edinburgh' which was painted by David Allan. It was reproduced in David B Smith's book, Curling: an illustrated history. Allan lived from 1744 to 1796, and so this painting is from before this latter date. It is owned by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. It is currently stored in a climate controlled environment and is set to undergo some restoration.

Again, the Traquair painting is online here. If anyone can answer the questions I've posed, or add to the debate, please get in touch.

As I indicated at the top of this post, there are lots of reasons to visit Traquair House. But for those interested in the history of curling, a visit to study the Traquair painting in person will be even more rewarding that looking at the online image!

Images by Bob Cowan except as indicated.

1 comment:

Alice said...

I'd guess that painting depicted something between 1650 and 1670. See the description of "cassock coat" at:

The low waist and flared "skirt" are an unusual combination for men's coats in Europe.