Alexander McCall Smith
There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that I find quite haunting. It is called ‘A Portrait Group’, and is by the Scottish artist James Cowie. Cowie painted this picture in 1933 and then reworked it in 1940. He was an art teacher, and often used his pupils as models. In this painting, he didn’t get the models to sit together, but created the painting from separate studies he had made of various sitters.
For me it is about friendship. Here are four young people on the cusp of their adult lives. What lies ahead of them? Will they find friendships as strong as those of these early years? In the background is a Scottish landscape, with wispy low clouds like veils of muslin, so like the clouds I see from the window of my study in Argyll.
In the centre of our drawing-room, I would install the ‘Wilton Diptych’. From the Middle Ages, it shows Richard II being presented to the Virgin and Child. We do not know who painted it, or why, and the mystery is reinforced by Dillian Gordon’s discovery that the orb on the English banner contains a tiny image of a green island set in a silver sea. Shakespeare’s Richard II portrays England as ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’. Would I own a painting Shakespeare saw?
All my favourite paintings are either Dutch or by Constable. The one I love most is Vermeer’s ‘Kitchen Maid’, which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The artist has painted an ordinary young woman into immortality and I find this very moving. I like to look at the milk eternally pouring from the jug, the bread forever fresh on the table — all there since 1658.
The painting I’d most love to own in the world is by Sir Henry Raeburn, ‘The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’ — best known simply as ‘The Skating Minister’. I know the original is in the National Gallery of Scotland, but I have a little copy that I bought in a shop in Mayfair. I just fell in love with it the moment I saw it, the simplicity of the composition, the lone figure. No matter how many times I look at my little copy, I always wonder what the painter decided to leave out of the painting — what can’t we see. I think of it sometimes when I take pictures — what we leave out becomes as important as what we leave in.
If I could own any painting in the world it would be G.P.A. Healy’s 1869 work ‘Abraham Lincoln’. The 16th President of the United States was one of his country’s greatest leaders, who is forever remembered for abolishing slavery in America. It is not an overstatement to say he changed the course of history. As a man he fascinates me. A pioneer of his time, Lincoln’s work helped to shape the world we live in today. Of course he has been immortalised on Mount Rushmore, in books and in film adaptations. But I love this painting in particular because for me it captures his strong sense of self.
I would be happy to own anything by Pierre Bonnard, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be ‘La Table’, which was purchased for the Tate Gallery from a fund set up by the textiles tycoon Samuel Courtauld to enable the gallery to build up its collection of modern art. I love the colours — such a subtle, warm and ingeniously muted palette — and the energy of the seemingly inert dishes on the table, and the enigmatic figure at the top left. This painting is ostensibly a still life, but there’s nothing still about it. The more I look at it, the more brilliant and mysterious I think it is to be able to imbue inanimate objects with such unmistakable life.
Since it’s Christmas, my favourite picture of all time is Botticelli’s Avignon ‘Madonna and Child’ because the Virgin is so exquisite and touching. She can’t be more than 15, and there she is sitting elegantly upright in a heavenly blue robe and fancy headdress, absentmindedly playing with her baby, who, in common with most Renaissance infants, looks like a grumpy grown-up. But he does have the most adorable fat little feet. You long to squeeze his calves and tickle his toes.
The reason I love this picture is because a reproduction of it hung on my bedroom wall when I was a child. My parents had been to Florence just after I was born and, by way of souvenirs, had brought two small-scale Botticelli reproductions, one for me and one for my brother. There was no such thing as tourist tat in the postwar years, but the Florentine skills of painting, woodcarving and framing were alive and well. So instead of a load of Disney junk, we got one serious present. I kept that little reproduction for years, until a burglar mistook it for the real thing and nicked it.
For me, it would have to be Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. One of the supreme religious paintings in the world, painted shortly before Rembrandt died, it expresses the utter unconditional love of the father (God) for his sinful son (all of us in humanity). The tenderness of the face and the embrace of the hands move beyond words. Few have written better about this than Henri Nouwen. This is a painting that can take a lifetime, or an instant, to transform the observer. For me, it is the former.
You never forget the posters in your childhood bedroom. All those interminable nap-times spent sighing and staring at the wall. Luckily for me, mother’s an artist and I had a brilliant selection. I knew from the year dot that Renoir’s mother and child made me queasy and that Gauguin’s riders were my favourite. They seem dreamlike but the whole scene is absolutely real. The horses are perfectly drawn. The riders seem to be waiting for me to join them.
If I could own anything, it would be amazing to have ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ by Caravaggio. The piece itself is more than 400 years old, but it still reaches through the centuries and grips you with a realism and violence that is entirely wound up in Caravaggio’s wild and personal history. It is so brutal, but strangely sensitive at the same time, and to capture that in any image, especially a painting as realistic and beautiful as this, is incredibly powerful. But what I really love about the piece is its reminder to have humility: ‘humilitas occidit superbiam’ — humility kills pride, is abbreviated on the sword David holds in his hand. It’s good for me to remind myself of that daily.
There are better painters than John Martin but few I think with quite the power to transfix you on the spot, mouth agape, as you are sucked into the vortex of his extraordinary, apocalyptic visions. Like Richard Dadd, Martin is a guilty pleasure. He was sneered at by the critics of his day but adored by the public. Epic, kitsch and majestic all at once, he’s like a crazy mash-up of Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Industrial Revolution, 1970s sci-fi art. The picture I think I’d go for is ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, currently wasted on the Tate.
The ‘Mona Lisa’. The most iconic painting in the world. It’s all about the eyes.