Alison Watt Centifolia
Alison Watt, Centifolia, oil on canvas, 2019

Feathers, flowers, books and lace have been plucked from the eighteenth-century canon and dropped onto the palest grey or roseate-white painted grounds in Edinburgh-based artist Alison Watt’s sixteen new paintings, each visual quotation startling in its precision. The series was created in response to the SNPG’s collection of paintings and sketches by Allan Ramsay (1713-84), and single-word titles hint at the historical source material. Watt describes her sustained fascination with these works as pedagogical, a learning from the past through close archival attention. The conversation is maintained in the exhibition space, where Watt’s painted fragments encircle a cabinet of preparatory drawings by Ramsay; two half-length portraits are included, of Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick (the first and second wives of Ramsay); and a further portrait of literary hostess Frances Boscawen (not in the gallery collection) is noted by way of a catalogue reproduction in a vitrine.

Watt’s re-presentations are gauzy and seductively scumbled, the paintings’ surfaces suggesting a translucent veil upon the past. Blowsy roses drop their petals, book pages flutter, and intricately patterned lace rumples across chalky canvases. The pink ribbon worn by Anne Bayne sits surprisingly rigid in Watt’s rendering, its firm severity counterposing the softness of pink silk. The unexpected inclusion of a crisp cabbage leaf is a delightful reference to the Bluestocking Boscawen, apparently an avid gardener. These items are easily overlooked among the richness of the original portraits, held or worn by human figures and woven within the picture’s detail. In contrast, Watt’s fragmentary studies return materiality and heft to the artefacts. Boldly isolated the objects demand attention. They sit solidly within her canvases, casting robust shadows, a jolting reminder of the social worlds these female sitters inhabited.

Ramsay’s graceful mastery is—as Watt ventures—admirable, yet these portraits engender ambivalent pleasures today. In that earlier representational economy, flower arrangements, frothy lace and ribbons were included as potent markers of femininity and class. Angela Rosenthal informs us Ramsay even ‘ …“gendered” the grounds of his canvases, using an intense dark red background for his male portraits … and a distinctive “soft pink beige” underpaint for the depiction of women [which] had an effect on the physical presence of his sitters and the gendering of the appearance of their skin.’ The skin of his female subjects consequently ‘seems transparent, pastel-like … or like the semi-translucent surface of marble’. Diaphanous and insubstantial, this alabaster flesh with its faint bloom of colour contributed to a racialised visual economy that made legible a particular, gendered concept of whiteness. Such portraits, Rosenthal asserts, were ‘both an expression of anxieties about racial purity and a means by which the English formulated ideals of femininity and nationhood.’[1] Today a different exhibition might have approached those aspects of Ramsay’s work head on; offering a political critique of eighteenth-century portraiture and its contribution to a gendered and raced representational regime. This could be seen as a missed opportunity. Watt’s delving into the institution’s archive, during a period of belated scholarship and activism concerning the decolonisation of UK museums, might have recognised other important lessons from the past. [2]

Watt, however, cleaves to formal connections. Light suffuses her series, a sense of refraction depositing shards from the original drawings and paintings upon new canvases: each piece a jewel-like ornament. In this, Watt’s approach is underpinned by a collage logic that relies on painterly rather than literal incision to distribute its fragments—an attitude, not bound to glue or pasting, but to the operation of dis- and re-assembling, of prompting the viewer to look anew and askew at known things. The restrained, intimate installation and minimal titles of the exhibition appropriately refuse much explanation, while Watt’s careful consideration of each painted object celebrates the power of close looking and lingering in a present moment marked by dwindling commodities of time and attention.


Victoria Horne is a Senior Lecturer in Art and Design History at Northumbria University.

Alison Watt (b. 1965), A Portrait Without Likeness, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, ends 9 January 2022

[1] All Rosenthal, ‘Visceral culture: blushing and the legibility of whiteness in eighteenth-century British portraiture’, Art History, 27.4, Sept. 2004