Gothic Castles in the Landscape: Sir Walter Scott and the Hudson River School of Painting

Article excerpt

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Sir Walter Scott to the nineteenth-century American reading public. Scott's popularity in the United States was on display on 15 August 1871, the centenary of Scott's birth, when the foundation-stone for the monument to Scott in New York's Central Park was laid. A procession, led by bag-pipers and made up of the Seventy-Ninth Regiment, members of the Caledonia Club and the St Andrew's Society, wound its way through the streets of New York. An article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper describing the event was accompanied by a full-page spread of 'Haunts and Shrines of Sir Walter Scott', including several pictures of Scott's house Abbotsford, his grave in Dryburgh Abbey, two Scott monuments, his town house, and even his bedroom window. These images encircled a picture of Scott himself.1

Like the general public, artists were also attracted to Scott's novels. Decades before the dedication in Central Park, Scott's influence was palpable on the evening of 27 March 1829 when the New York Sketch Club met at the home of the poet James Abraham Hillhouse in New York City. Among those present were Samuel F. B. Morse, first president of the National Academy of Design, and Thomas Cole, the leading artist of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting.2 That year, members of the National Academy of Design had formed the Sketch Club with the purpose of 'mutual intercourse' and 'impromptu sketching'. Meeting regularly, the members of the Sketch Club would sketch or write poetry based on a subject of the host's choosing. That evening Hillhouse had chosen Scott's literature as the theme. Only two sets of drawings from Sketch Club meetings still exist, one depicting Lord Byron's poem 'A Dream', later known as 'Darkness', and the other the thirteenth verse, third canto of Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). In this canto, the Elfin Page has led the young son of Lady Branksome into the forest. Suddenly, his spell is broken, and the page's true form appears, frightening the child. Morse's sketch of the scene is typically figurative, re-telling the narrative visually. Cole's sketch is quite distinct from those by the other artists that evening. In a move that was 'prophetic for the future of the [Hudson River] school', as art historian Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr has described it, Cole took a landscape approach to the subject, choosing to foreground a blasted, uprooted tree trunk, with the page and boy diminutively placed in the distant background well beyond the tree's natural arch. This drawing is an early example of how the Hudson River School of painters grappled with Scott's literary work, which is the subject of this essay. The challenge for Cole that evening was to incorporate Scott's narrative into his landscape vision, which led him to create diminutive figures dwarfed by nature. The Scott-inspired images that followed Cole's Sketch Club drawing most often featured medieval castles and abbeys, a common setting for narrative action in Scott's historical romances. Although scholars have examined paintings of castles - many of them inspired by Scott's novels - these studies have most often been in the context of studies of single artists, especially Cole. In contrast, this study will look at a number of landscape painters and how their reading of Scott, coupled with their own travel experiences, resulted in paintings of castles, real and imaginary.3

For the most part, scholars have focused on the influence of Scott on the culture of the South in the nineteenth-century United States, following the lead of Mark Twain. In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Twain famously lamented the intermingling of Southern culture with 'the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization', a trend he referred to as 'the Sir Walter Scott disease'. While Scott's influence in the ante-bellum American South ran deep and has therefore sparked the interest of cultural historians, a fascination with Scott pervaded the Northern consciousness as well. …