Thomas Bunting, 1851-1928

Bunting lived and worked in Aberdeen; the landscapes of Aberdeenshire and Perthshire continued as his main subject matter throughout his working life.

We first encounter Bunting in the mid-1880s, as a member of the Aberdeen Artists’ Society, which had been established in 1827. He showed in 1885, the year the Society was re-launched with the express aim of fostering, ‘a taste for Art in the neighbourhood by instituting an annual Exhibition, to facilitate the intercourse of those connected with Art, and to promote the practical and theoretical study of Art’. The Society exhibited in the newly-built and very grand Aberdeen Art Gallery, designed by local architect, Alexander Mackenzie. This splendid building remains the largest public gallery in the north of Scotland and its scale helps to convey some idea of the ambition of Aberdeen, as a cosmopolitan cultural centre in the north of Scotland in the later 19th century - as now.

Apparently, Bunting received early encouragement from James Winkley, a man who seems to have started out as a house painter, but who was registered as an artist, living in Aberdeen, as early as 1854. We have not been able to find any other details of Bunting’s artistic training; but it must have been vital for his work that the city was, from the 1850s, a centre for artists and collectors who were not only interested in the traditional, romantic, Scottish scenes, but also in some of the most up-to-date adventures of artists from Holland and France.

Reflecting this lively environment, Aberdeen was home to several very significant collectors, including the granite merchant, Alexander Macdonald, who purchased Barbizon and Hague School paintings in the 1860s and, on his death in 1884, bequeathed 200 of his pictures to the Aberdeen Art Gallery - then still being built. Macdonald’s friend, the flour merchant, John Forbes White, was another keen and audacious collector. As a young man in the 1850s, he had become an enthusiastic and prolific photographer. By the 1860s, however, with the advent of business success, he turned his attention to purchasing contemporary Dutch art. Commercial and cultural links between Scotland and the Low Countries were long-established. But it was the Aberdonians, Macdonald and White, who brought into Scotland the first modern paintings from Holland, with their distinctive, Realist subject matter and animated handling. In 1862, White purchased a landscape by Gerrit Alexander Mollinger and, in 1863 he also bought the first works of Jozef Israëls to appear in Scotland, The Departure and The Errand. In pictures such as these – and in the French Realist paintings which followed – ordinary people were depicted in shadowed, domestic interiors or in the softly luminous landscapes characteristic of northern Europe. These unsentimental, genre pictures were executed with a vigorous, lively brush and a subtle, closely-toned, array of colour. To many contemporary academicians, these works appeared unacceptably mundane in subject matter and cursory in handling. Nevertheless, they exerted a powerful influence on younger artists.

Bunting developed as a professional painter in this exciting milieu. Indeed, his fellow Aberdonian, George Reid – who was just a decade older that Bunting and who went on to become President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1891 – was inspired by John Forbes White to travel and study under Mollinger, in Utrecht, in 1862 and later became a good friend of Jozef Israëls. The painterly Realism of these artists clearly exerted an impact on the oils and watercolours produced by Thomas Bunting, for the rest of his career. Effects of light and atmosphere, affectionate depictions of familiar landscapes inhabited by ordinary people, soft and subtle colours, are all central to his work. Perhaps most important of all, however, was Bunting’s manifest confidence in developing his pictures around a simple, formal composition and in calculating the touch of his brush and the range of his colours, to convey an harmonious arrangement. Close study reveals something of the detail of his technique. Bunting’s distinctive pictorial geometry is simple, almost to the point of austere; the character of his paint varies from fluent and liquid passages to staccato notes that are abrupt and dry; his colour gleams with an array of closely-toned hues. The effects for which Bunting was striving were articulated, in 1873, by his colleague, George Reid, when writing about his own work. Reid draws parallels between composing in paint and in music. An artist’s job was to convey not only the objective reality of a scene, but also to communicate his subjective response. To do this, the painter must work like a musician and determine his key, whether major or minor.

‘A picture may be high in tone or low as the artist sees fit and as his subject demands; but high or low, major or minor, this key must be scrupulously adhered to till melody or picture is completed.’[1]

The exploration of a formal relationship between painting and music – or, more specifically, between the act of composing in paint and in music – was not, of course, unique. James McNeill Whistler had started to examine this proposition at about the same time, when he called his paintings ‘Nocturnes’, a theme that was echoed in Debussy’s music; and it was Walter Pater who, in 1877, coined the oft-quoted claim that, ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’[2]. It is clear that Reid and other Scottish artists – surely including Bunting – were in the van of such aesthetic debate.

Bunting exhibited not only in Aberdeen, but also at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, not long removed to its new home in Sauciehall Street. In the 1880s, this had become an established venue for ambitious young artists from Scotland, from the rest of Britain - and from France, the Low Countries and further afield. This was, indeed, one of the main places where the art of the Barbizon painters and the younger French Realists, like Jules Bastien-Lepage, could be seen; and this work had a profound effect on the development of another group of young artists, who gradually attracted attention as the ‘Glasgow Boys’. It quickly became clear that the Glasgow Institute was the place to find some of the most challenging and adventurous art of the day. Conscious that its hegemony was being challenged, Glasgow’s rival, Edinburgh, also began to welcome new art. First established in 1826, from 1855 the Royal Scottish Academy held its shows in rooms adjacent to the newly-formed National Gallery of Scotland. It was there that Bunting again exhibited his work.

As far as we have been able to discover, Bunting himself did not travel and remained attached to Aberdeen, developing a considerable reputation as a painter of the local landscape. But this was most definitely not parochial and it was not the traditional, Scottish landscape. With his affectionate and powerful paintings, he helped to ensure that the romantic ruins, rainbows, cattle and castles of conventional Scottish painting were ousted, for good. They were replaced, in Bunting's work, with compositions that are a spare, subtle and harmonious.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] George Reid, ‘The Arts Exhibition’, Aberdeen Journal, 13 August 1873.

[2] Walter Pater, ‘The School of Giorgione’, Fortnightly Review, 1877.