Alexander Runciman

Fingal Encounters Carbon Carglass

first printed c.1773

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Alexander Runciman 1736–1785
Etching on paper
Image: 149 × 245 mm
Purchased 1983

Catalogue entry

T03604 FINGAL ENCOUNTERS CARBON CARGLASS first printed c. 1773

Etching 5 7/8 × 9 5/8 (149 × 245) on hand-made wove paper 6 3/8 × 10 (158 × 254)
Etched inscription ‘AR. fecit’ (initials in monogram) within plate lower left
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: ...; Christopher Mendez, from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Lit: J.M. Gray, ‘Notes on the Art Treasures at Penicuik House’, 1889, typescript copy in Department of Prints & Drawings, British Museum; Susan Booth, ‘The Early Career of Alexander Runciman and his Relations with Sir James Clerk of Penicuik’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXXII, 1969, pp.332–43; William Blake in the Art of his Time, exhibition catalogue, Santa Barbara 1969, pp.64–5; David and Francina Irwin, Scottish Painters At Home and Abroad 1700–1900, 1975, pp.107–9

This subject was one of twelve scenes from Ossian which Runciman painted in 1772–3, in oil on plaster, on the ceiling of the Great Room in Sir James Clark of Eldin's new Palladian house at Penicuik, Midlothian. As these paintings were destroyed by fire in 1899, an account of Runciman's work there must rely on surviving descriptions and a small number of drawings and etchings (mainly in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland).

Booth points out (pp.334–5) that Runciman's commission to paint decorative schemes for Penicuik not only made possible his visit to Italy, 1776–70, but also ‘coloured Runciman's attitude to his studies in Rome and gave him the necessary incentive to experiment with new tendencies at work there’ among such artists as James Barry, Johann Tobias Sergell, Henry Fuseli and Runciman's own fellow-Scots Gavin Hamilton and John Brown. These influences, particularly Hamilton's, encouraged Runciman to devise epic and classical themes and a Neo-classical style for the Penicuik decorations.

For the ceiling of the Great Room, Runciman drew his subjects from the recently-published epics which purported to be translations from the ancient Scottish bard Ossian but which in fact proved to be the inventions of Runciman's contemporary James Macpherson. Of these, Erse Fragments was published in 1760, Fingal in 1762 and Temora in 1763; though later the subject of controversy, all were greeted with the enthusiasm born of rising Scottish patriotism after the defeat of 1745. Booth notes (p.339) that Runciman was the first artist to illustrate Ossian's work on a large scale; she also observes that Runciman ‘concentrated on those stories where strangeness, tragedy and melancholy are the dominant traits’.

Gray makes the point (p.6) that Runciman, ‘in the manner afterwards adopted by Barry in the case of his illustrations of “Human Progress”’ (see T 03784–8 in this catalogue), evidently wished to preserve a record of his work at Penicuik by himself making etchings (on a reduced scale) of his work there.

The subject of T03604 is taken from Ossian's Fingal. Carbon Carglass, daughter of Torcul Tormo, is held prisoner by King Starno, her father's murderer and Fingal's deadly enemy. Fingal finds her by moonlight.

Fingal rushed in all his arms, wide-bounding over Truthor's stream, that sent its sullen roar, by night, through Gormal's misty vale. A moonbeam glittered on a rock; in the midst stood a stately form; a form with floating locks like Lochlin's white-bosomed maids. Unequal are her steps and short, she throws a broken song on wind. At times she tosses her white arms, for grief is dwelling in her soul.

She calls on the spirit of her father. ‘“Who art thou?” said Fingal “Voice of Night?” She trembling turned away. “Who art thou, in thy darkness?” She shrank into the cave. The King loosed the thongs from her hands.’ (quoted by Booth, p.341).

Probably this (rather than the small, upright version; see T03605 below) was the design painted on the ceiling of the Great Room at Penicuik, but there seems no certainty over this.

Runciman's loose and free etched line is very individual. Booth (p.341) considers this etching of ‘Fingal Encounters Carbon Carglass’ to be ‘the most satisfactory’ of Runciman's etchings. It is not clear whether these etchings were published or privately printed. T03604-T03606 are printed on wove paper, which came into common use in England in the 1770s; these impressions could be first printings, though the appearance of the paper makes it unlikely.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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