William Gow Ferguson

Still Life

1684

Artist
William Gow Ferguson c.1633–1695
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 654 x 540 mm
frame: 838 x 727 x 75 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1955
Reference
T00061

Not on display

Display caption

Ferguson was born in Scotland, but seems to have trained in Holland, where he lived and married. He also travelled in France and Italy. This is typical of his many arrangements of dead game, although he also painted fanciful architectural subjects for overmantels and overdoors. Subjects such as these were admired as craftsmanlike renderings of nature, recalling a good day out hunting. Ferguson is known to have supplied a pair of such pictures specifically for the Duchess of Lauderdale's Private Closet at Ham House in the 1670s, indicating that they were considered particularly suitable as decoration for small, informal spaces.

Gallery label, November 1996

Catalogue entry

William Gow Ferguson c.1633–after 1695

Still Life
1684
Oil paint on canvas
650 x 540 mm
Signed ‘W G Ferguson f. 1684’ bottom right (recorded before 1955, now indistinct)
Purchased (Cleve Fund) 1955
T00061

Ownership history
... ; Mrs H. Oakley, London, whose husband was a collector and dealer; D.G. Martin, from whom purchased by Tate Gallery, 1955.

References
Tate Gallery Annual Report, London 1955–6, p.13.

This still life of dead birds is signed and dated 1684, when Ferguson is presumed to have been working in Amsterdam, then the centre for production for this type of work. He takes as his two main specimens a partridge, on the left, and a magpie, a bird commonly eaten in the seventeenth century. With its distinctive black and white plumage and the long, sweeping curve of its tail, it lends a strong decorative element to the composition. Both birds are suspended from above, their heads resting on a rich, gold-fringed cloth which partially covers a marble ledge. Above them hangs a goldfinch, its wing fanned open catching the light, together with another bird, possibly a robin, included for its decorative colour. Beside them hangs a falcon’s bonnet. Piled up to the left are accoutrements of the hunt: a game bag, a hunting horn and wooden stakes. The latter refer to the method by which the birds were caught: placed in fields with netting strung between them (the netting can be seen, very faintly, just below the magpie’s head) it was a simple way of catching small, ground-feeding birds.1 The falcon’s bonnet and hunting horn, however, would have served no practical function but their inclusion alludes to hunting and the catching of game as a gentlemanly pursuit (hunting with falcons was a pastime restricted to the nobility and the elite).

Although Ferguson is presumed to have been Scottish-born, he pursued his career in the Netherlands, producing work entirely within the conventions of the Dutch gamepiece. Recorded as a painter and citizen of Utrecht in 1648–51, he was in The Hague by 1660, and further references place him there in 1668, 1672 and 1675–6. The rental contract for his house required him to paint a picture a year for the owner.2 By 1681 he had moved to Amsterdam, to a house on the Batavierstraat, where, on 28 June, his betrothal to Sara von Someren of Stockholm was recorded (his given age of 49 is possibly incorrect).3 Although a still life of dead birds, signed and dated 1655 (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 16 June 1976, no.68) has been accepted as his earliest known work, its upright format and composition, similar to Tate’s picture, does not conform stylistically with other early works, and its inscription may have been misread or strengthened incorrectly. Ferguson’s early works of the 1660s, when he was in The Hague, and when the presence there of Cornelis Lelienbergh must have been a considerable influence, are simpler than his later works, employing a horizontal format with specimens lying on a rough stone slab. By the late 1670s and 1680s, however, his compositions had become more elaborate, with birds hung in complicated, vertical arrangements, usually against a niche, and the stone slab of his earlier works usually upgraded to veined marble. The emphasis on decorative effect, dramatic lighting and elegant accessories reflects the unmistakable influence of Willem van Aelst, based in Amsterdam and one of the leading practitioners of the genre at this date.

Ferguson’s works are not as sophisticated as van Aelst’s, but he very capably depicts differences in texture, such as the rich gloss of the magpie’s plumage and the delicate feathers at the partridge’s breast. The monumental composition of Tate’s picture, although executed on a modest scale, is typical of Ferguson’s work of the 1680s, which he seems to have produced in large quantity. The many similar works in other collections and which have appeared on the art market demonstrate that Ferguson must have had a stock of studio patterns which he reused, reversed and altered slightly to produce new works. The National Gallery of Scotland’s Still Life, for example, also dated 1684, was for a while believed to be a pendent to Tate’s work due to its striking similarity to it; and other works, for example Partridge and a Dead Kingfisher on a Marble Ledge 1689 (sold Christie’s, 10 November 1967, no.63) or Still Life with Dead Birds 1683 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux), deploy not only similar formats and compositional groupings, but also almost identical specimens. English and Scottish collectors owned works by Ferguson, and they also appeared at auction. In fact, James Holloway suggests that Ferguson could have painted specifically for auction, eight of his gamepieces having appeared at an auction at the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, in 1693 (for example, no.212: ‘a pidgeon and small birds finelly painted’ by Ferguson).4 In 1726 George Vertue admired two Fergusons in Sir Robert Gayer’s sale (‘fowles & still life ... well painted in a masterly manner’);5 but a year earlier, when noting a 1679 still life, he had commented that in the latter part of his career, ‘to get bread’, Ferguson had ‘painted still life particularly dead fowl hanging against a bord & such other things very natural & very cheap’.6

Until very recently, even by his earliest biographers and including Vertue, Ferguson’s identity has been muddled with that of another artist, Henry Ferguson, who confusingly signs his work ‘W J Ferguson’, in a script almost identical to that of William Gow’s, and who was known in England as ‘Vergazoon’. Henry Ferguson was possibly William Gow’s son or nephew. It is now apparent that it was Henry Ferguson, not William Gow, who was responsible for a particular type of eerily-lit landscape with classical ruins, such as those at Ham House, as well as genre scenes.7 William Gow seems to have specialised almost exclusively in the gamepiece. Technical examination of Tate’s picture has revealed a very dark ground, perhaps revealing the influence of a period spent in Italy, or the experience of artists who had (although Ferguson is said to have been to Italy, given the biographical confusion, it is not certain whether this information refers to him or to Henry Ferguson). Varnish has also darkened the appearance of the picture considerably, which in fact, with its yellow and blue pigments, is a sophisticated and delicate piece of painting. A change of mind in the position of one of the birds’ beak reveals that this is not a completely formulaic painting.

Tabitha Barber
July 2008

Notes

1 Scott A. Sullivan, The Dutch Gamepiece, 1984, p.70.
2 Haagse Schilders in de Gouden Eeuw: Het Hoogsteder Lexicon van alle schilders werkaam in Den Haag, The Hague 1998.
3 A.D. de Vries, Biografische Aanteekeningen, Oud Holland, 1885, p.143. For the query over Ferguson’s age in 1681, and date of birth, see Martin Eidelberg, ‘The Case of the Vanishing Watteau’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, July–August 2001, pp.15–40, p.21.
4 James Holloway, Patrons and Painters: Art in Scotland 1650–1760, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1989, pp.43–5.
5 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks II’, Walpole Society, vol.20, 1931, p.10.
6 George Vertue, ‘Notebooks I’, Walpole Society, vol.18, 1930, p.146.
7 Martin Eidelberg, ‘“Landskips ... dark and gloomy”: Reintroducing Henry Ferguson’, Apollo, September 2000, pp.27–36.

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