Robert Herdman, R. S. A.
(1829 - 10 January 1888)
The name of this eminent artist first appears as an exhibitor in the Royal Scottish Academy catalogue for 1850, attached to a subject from Longfellow's "Excelsior." He was a son of the minister of Rattray in Perthshire, and brother of the Rev. Dr Herdman of Melrose, and was at that time studying at the University of St Andrews, with a view to following the profession of his father.
His early liking for art having predominated over that for the ministry, he went to Edinburgh in 1852, in which year he exhibited his first portrait -- that of the daughter of Mr. David Rhind -- and also became a student at the life-class of the Trustees' Academy, which was then under the able direction of Robert Scott Lauder, whose style of work visibly affected that of the pupil. As a student he was as successful as enthusiastic, and after a year's study, gave promise of his future excellence by obtaining a prize for a drawing of "John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness," shown at the Academy exhibition of 1853. The paindng of this in the following year, along with a "Magdalene and a Samson," brought him prominently into notice. The theological studies which he had previously pursued, probably suggested the Scriptural subjects which he then painted. In 1854 his exhibit at the Academy was "Jesus and Martha on their way to Lazarus's Tomb;" and in the same year he was awarded the Keith prize and bronze medal of the Academy. In 1855 he exhibited a portrait of his mother, at which date he went to Italy, and in consequence was not represented at the Academy exhibition of the following year, the only instance which occurred in this respect up till his death. During his stay on the Continent the Academy complimented him by a commission to make a drawing from one of Masaccio's works in Florence, which, along with copies of Tintoretto's "Massacre of the Innocents" and "Meeting of Elizabeth and Mary," "Raphael's Triumph of Galatea," "Perugino's Agony in the Garden," two "Madonnas" by Leonardo da Vinci, and two frescoes by Philippino Lippi, are now the property of the Academy. In addition to these he made a number of other copies from the old masters in the Italian galleries, many in water-colours, in which branch of the art he attained a high degree of excellence.
On his return from Italy, Italian subjects constituted his chief contributions to the Academy, of which he was then elected an Associate, followed four or five years later, in 1863, by his elevation to the full rank of Academician on the death of George Simson. During his comparatively brief career he contributed about two hundred pictures to the exhibitions of the Academy: these included his best works, many of which formed the chief attractions of the exhibitions, and he was often represented by as many as six works at a time. His diploma picture, "La Culla," a very lovely piece of colour, was painted in Italy and shown in Edinburgh in 1857. Among his more prominent works are the "Captive of Lochleven," 1567, exhibited in 1864; "After the Battle, a scene in Covenanting Times" (1871), a magnificent work full of deep pathos, now in the Scottish National Gallery, where it was deposited by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, which had commissioned the picture; the "Interview between Jeanie and Effie Deans" appeared in 1873; and his reputation was very largely increased by his "Conventicle Preacher arrested and brought before a Court of Justice," the largest picture he ever painted, exhibited in 1874. In the Royal Academy exhibition in London (where he had for many years previously been represented by portraits), his "First Conference between Mary Stuart and John Knox at Holyrood" appeared in 1875, was re-exhibited in the Scottish Academy in the following year. His "Charles Edward seeking Shelter in the House of an Adherent" appeared in the Edinburgh exhibition of 1879, along with "Gertrude of Wyoming;" and was shown at the Royal Academy in 1880; and his somewhat less successful "St Columba rescuing a Captive" was exhibited in the Scottish Academy in 1883.
He was particularly happy in his smaller pictures, many of which, consisting of single figures such as his "Hero" (1863), are very remarkable for refinement and delicacy of form and colour. He occasionally drew upon Scottish song for his subjects, such as the "Rowan-Tree" (RSA., 1867), "Lord Ullin's Daughter" (R.S.A. 1879), "Auld Robin Gray" (RA., 1879) while his summers, occasionally spent in the island of Arran, were productive of numerous attractive works, consisting of small rustic figures, and very exquisite water-colour studies of sea-weed and common objects of the sea-shore, which are eagerly sought after by picture collectors.
As a portrait-painter he occupied one of the most prominent positions in Scotland, and a glance at the Royal Scottish and Royal Academy catalogues will testify to the extent of his practice. He was most successfiil in portraits of ladies, among which may be mentioned those of Mrs. Shand and Lady Anna Maria Stirling-Maxwell (1868), Mrs. Bruce-Gardyne (R.A., 1870), Lady Susan Burke (RA,, 1871), and Mrs. J. H. Buchanan, and her sister Miss Anne C Brodie. The defect of his male portraits may be said to consist of a want of strength and solidity, and he was accordingly less successful in his whole-lengths than heads. Among the latter may be mentioned those of Sir George Harvey, P.RS.A. (RA., 1874; RS.A., 1875), Thomas Carlyle (R.A., 1876), Sir J. Noel Paton (R.A., 1880), Dr David Laing, LL.D., and D. O. Hill, R.S.A., now in the Royal Scottish Academy.
He was rendered exceedingly popular by a series of six pictures illustrating Henry Glassford Bell's Queen Mary, which were re-produced in photography by the Glasgow Art Union. Somewhat sketchily painted, they were characterised by his usual qualities of grace and refinement of form and beauty of colour. This class of work, indeed, may be said to have been in accordance with the real inclination of his mind; and it has been truly remarked, that had he been less employed as a portrait-painter, he might have risen to the very highest position as a painter of historic and poetic subjects. Those of the latter class which he executed were almost entirely derived from the literature of his native land. A writer in the Scottish Leader two days after his death remarks: "The technical side of his painting evidenced the same powers and shortcomings as were characteristic of its mental side. Full of knowledge suitable to the purpose in hand, his brush-work was always suave and apparently effortless, which gave the spectator a sense of his never being worried or flurried, but always at his ease. On the other hand, tried by the more scientific standards of the modem French school of painting, his technique would be found wanting in depth, in solidity, and in true rendering of texture and surfaces. Much, of course, of this was due to the school in which he had been trained, with its Scotch traditions. Ultimately the great charm of Mr. Herdman's work was the realisation of his natural and inborn sense of the beautiful, which can negatively be determined in saying that it was impossible for him to produce any work tainted with meanness or vulgarity in spirit, and might be positively determined by the harmonious completeness of those pictures in which he set himself to express this his great tendency."
Personally he was a man of high culture, with great appreciation of the possibilities of his art in Scotland. He occupied the position of vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; was a member of the Hellenic Club; and as president for some years of the Edinburgh Art Club, took much interest in the younger members of his profession. His manner on a first acquaintance had a slight feeling of reserve, which, however, soon wore off, when the true man of genius was evidenced by his modesty, intellect, and open and candid manner.
He died suddenly in his studio, which was attached to his house at 12 Bruntsfield Crescent, from what was supposed to be an affection of the heart, and had presided on the previous evening at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries. His son, Mr Duddingston Herdman, gives promise of success in the profession in which his father was so distinguished.
Art in Scotland: Its Origin and Progress, By Robert Brydall, Master of the St. George's Art School of Glasgow, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1889 [MDCCCLXXXIX]