(Glasgow, 16 July 1841 - 24 Sept. 1904, Lugar, Melbury Road, Kensington, London)
Towards the end of the sixties Colin Hunter took seriously to sea-scape. The first picture he showed at the Royal Academy (1868) was called 'Taking in the Nets'; and by 1872, when he left Edinburgh, where he had had a studio for three or four years, for London, his work as a sea-painter had attracted some attention, while a year later, when 'Trawlers Waiting for Darkness* was seen at Burlington House, the strength and originality of his talent was fully recognised. It is said to have been upon the phenomenal success achieved by that picture that the artist's friend, William Black, modelled the equally sudden, but less-worked-for, acceptance of Lavender, the kid-gloved hero of his most notable story, whose pictures, it may be remembered, were also painted at Tarbert.
To Colin Hunter, more than to any equally eminent contemporary, the sea was a wonderful quivering mirror rather than a mass of moving water with a mission and an apparent life of its own. At least it is with its marvellous flux and change of colour under certain conditions of atmosphere, more than with its subtleties of motion and form, though these are suggested also, that his pictures are chiefly concerned. To some extent this may have been due to want of definite training, for sketching with Donald, while no doubt stimulating his natural taste, meant little in a technical sense; and the few months spent in Leon Bonnat's studio at a later date, though probably doing something for his drawing, left no obvious trace on his style. His actual painting seems the direct and instinctive outcome of personal vision and, taken as a thing in itself, is not to be admired. Somewhat heavy-handed and summary, it lacks flow and flexibility, and his paint quality is apt to be 'stodgy' and smeary. His drawing also, while robust and expressive even in the figure incidents which often enrich and complete his happiest designs, is without delicacy and elegance. On the other hand, he was a master of ensemble and harmony of effect, had a keen perception of certain poetic qualities of light and chiaroscuro, and was a powerful colourist within a rich and low-toned if limited range. Further, deep feeling and original observation make his finer achievements significant and memorable. 'He is as original as Claude Monet,' writes Mr. D. S. McColl, who owns to being no great admirer of Hunter, though he is of Monet; and, as matter of fact, he painted emotional effects of Nature which none had previously attempted. He did not possess that combination of spiritual insight and flexible technique which makes McTaggart's sea-pictures incomparable in their kind, nor had he at command the melting yet decisive touch which is the crowning quality of Hook's marines and gives them their peculiar charm of limpid surface and colour.
Henry Moore excelled him in painting the mad and giddy nod and sway of the open sea heaving under the impulse of a coming or going gale, and Napier Hemy surpassed him in sheer realism of the visual eflfects of which he is such a master. Hunter, however, possessed a quality of his own in which he was without a rival. This was a perception, not so much of the tragic sorrow as of the immemorial sadness of the sea which washes the Celtic fringes and sunset shores of these islands. His west-coast pictures, painted in Scotland or Ireland, are instinct, as perhaps no others have ever been, with that brooding melancholy, half in love with sadness and wholly resigned to fate, which is frequently spoken of as characteristic of Celtic sentiment; a melancholy deeper and more poignant than one finds in the conventional 'sad sea waves' of Peter Graham, in the grey yeasty tumble that foams and frets in Mesdag's Scheveningen pictures, or in the bare and desolate and wind-swept Nordsee of the German and Danish painters. It is in pictures such as 'Trawlers Waiting for Darkness' (1873), 'Their Only Harvest' (1879), one of the few wise purchases of the Chantrey Trustees, and 'Signs of Herring' (1899), where the sentiment of dying light is associated with some incident of sea-toil with its perils and uncertainties, that this pathetic quality Is most marked; but in other pictures of the western sea-lochs, seen under conditions of daylight and atmosphere which appealed to the most sensitive side of his nature, it is present also in rich measure. When he painted a hillside of grey rock and green brae and purple peak, lying under a quiet but rather sullen grey sky, reflected in deeper tones in the still loch across whose unrippled surface sheep were being ferried in a clumsy boat, or a load of bracken, which cast a long quivering shadow of tarnished gold, was being slowly rowed home, a glamour seemed to lie upon the land. One felt the air pregnant with a suggestion of mystery, and knew that the silences were unbroken save by the bleat of sheep, the crying of sea-birds, or the rare pulsation of distant oars.
His rendering of bright daylight and the sea running in crisp curling waves upon the shore is less successful, for there his tendency to dark colouration, his somewhat clumsy drawing in paint, and a want of delicacy in his touch militate against attainment of the impression he sought to convey. Yet the 'Herring Market at Sea' (1884) is a wonderful presentment of the radiance and clarity of early morning light over a great stretch of calm water; and his etchings reveal a certainty and decision of draughtsmanship which, combined with great skill in arranging darks to suggest brilliance of light, make them admirable examples of that difficult art. Elected A.R.A. 1884. He was also a member of the Scottish Water-Colour Society.
[Scottish Painting, Past and Present, 1620-1908, James Lewis Caw 1908.]
Sea-painter, born at Glasgow on 16 July 1841, was youngest child in the family of three sons and two daughters of John Hunter and his wife, Anne MacArthur. Owing to failing health the father gave up business in Glasgow about 1844, and removing to Helensburgh, opened a library and bookshop there, and became post-master. Colin Hunter was thus brought up on the coast. On leaving school he spent four years in a shipping-office in Glasgow, and soon made the acquaintance of William Black, the novelist, who became a lifelong friend. From early youth his bias towards art was strong. He devoted all his leisure to sketching from nature, and after a little study at the local school of art he, at twenty, abandoned business to become a landscape-painter. He practically taught himself to paint by working out of doors, frequently in the company of J. Milne Donald, the best-known painter in the west of Scotland, who encouraged him and gave him hints. From the first his work was vigorous, and, for its period, strong and rich in tone. A few months spent in Paris in the studio of M. Leon Bonnat at a later date left no obvious traces on his style.
Many of Hunter's earlier pictures appeared in the Royal Scottish Academy and the Glasgow Institute. For the most part they were closely studied and carefully painted scenes in the neighbourhood of Helensburgh, near the Trossachs or in Glenfalloch. Rustic figures were occasionally introduced. But towards 1870, he took seriously to painting the sea, and thenceforth, although frequently producing admirable inland landscapes, his finest, and certainly his most characteristic, work was inspired by the Firth of Clyde and Arran, or by the sea-fringed and fretted highlands and islands of the west.
Until 1870, he lived principally at Helensburgh, although from 1868 to 1872, he had a studio in Edinburgh. Meanwhile his work commenced to attract attention at the Royal Academy. He had first exhibited there in 1868. Four years later he went to London. After occupying studios in Langham Place and Carlton Hill, he removed in 1877, to Melbury Road, Kensington, where he built a fine house and studio. In 1873, the power and originahty of 'Trawlers waiting for Darkness' had evoked general admiration. His career was thenceforth one of almost unbroken success. His pictures formed for many years one of the features of the Academy exhibitions, where he showed ninety-seven pictures in all. Many were acquired for public collections. The 'Salmon Stake Nets' (1874) went to Sydney and 'Waiting for the Homeward Bound' (1882) to Adelaide. 'Their Only Harvest' (1878), one of the best purchases of the Chantrey trustees, is in the Tate Gallery, London; 'The Herring Market at Sea' (1884) at Manchester, and 'The Pool in the Woods' (1897), a charming landscape, at Liverpool. The Glasgow Gallery contains 'Goodnight to Skye' (1895) and 'Niagara Rapids' (1901), the latter a reminiscence of a visit to America. Preston possesses 'Signs of Herring' (1899), one of his finest works. In 1884 he was elected A.R.A..
Hunter's handling of oil-paint was heavy and lacked flow and flexibility, and his drawing was effective and robust rather than constructive and elegant; but he had an instinctive feeling for ensemble and chiaroscuro, was a powerful, if restricted, colourist, and possessed a poetic apprehension of certain effects of light and atmosphere. He was at his best perhaps in pictures in which some incident of fisher-life or sea-faring was associated with the pathetic sentiment of sunset or dusky after-glow, and his most characteristic pieces are low in tone and somewhat sad in feeling. Occasionally painting in water-colour with vigour and freshness, he was a member of the Royal Scottish Water-Colour Society. As an etcher he also attained some distinction, his plates being effective in arrangement, sparkling in effect, and drawn with vigour and decisiveness..
Some time before his death Colin Hunter's health failed and his right hand was paralysed. He died at Lugar, Melbury Road, on 24 Sept. 1904, and was buried at Helensburgh. He married on 20 Nov. 1873, in Glasgow, Isabella, daughter of John H. Young, surgeon-dentist. His wife, with two sons (the elder of whom, Mr. J. Young Hunter, is an artist) and two daughters, survived him. Mrs. Hunter possesses a portrait of her husband, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878, by John Pettie, R.A.
[Scottish Painters, Sir W. Armstrong, 1887 ; Art Journal, 1891; Scottish Painting, J. L. Caw, 1908; Wemyss Reid's Life of William Black, passim, (refer to cited works); Scotsman, 26 and 29 Sept. 1904; Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, by James Lewis Caw Hunter; Exhibition catalogues.]
View painter's work: Colin Hunter (1841-1904)