Portrait of an Edinburgh Landscape – James Skene Presentation Summary 29th October 2012

Summary of a presentation to Historiography and Cultural History Class

 29th October 2012

Archive:

The Central Library on George IV Bridge holds a fascinating archive of material relating to the water-colourist and antiquarian James Skene (1775-1864), the subject of my internship.  The archive includes over 200 watercolours of Edinburgh and related antiquarian writing, not least Reekiana (1836), a proposed text on the history of the city which owed its origins to an earlier idea and collaboration with Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

Subject:                                                                                                         

James Skene was a native of Rubislaw in Aberdeenshire.

Following the death of his father in 1783, Skene travelled with his mother to Edinburgh where he attended the High School. His arrival coincided with the beginnings of the construction of James Craig’s New Town. In the autobiographical introduction to Reekiana (1836), Skene describes how the New Town then, merely comprised a few” strange houses” at the end of the North Bridge.

Skene was called to the Scottish Bar and travelled extensively as a young man.  He visited France and Germany, and became a proficient linguist.  His knowledge of the German language led to a friendship with Walter Scott, a slightly older contemporary at the Scottish Bar.  As young men, both became involved in the local yeomanry.

Skene was a highly proficient draftsman with an eye for historical detail.   In the early 1820s, Skene and Scott discussed a publication to be known as Reekiana combining Scott’s historical anecdotes of Edinburgh with a series of lithographs by Skene.  Specific proposals for the project are contained in a letter from Skene to Scott dated 28th March 1823 and held in the archive.   The idea as a collaboration was never fully realized although after the death of Scott, Skene wrote his own text of Reekiana.

Finding an angle

  • 1823 Reekiana
  • 1836 Reekiana
  • Edinburgh as the subject of antiquarian narrative:
  • The draftsman as antiquarian

Sources: 

James Skene:  Memories of Sir Walter Scott (ed Basil Thomson – London 1909)

James Skene:  Reekiana (1836 – unpublished)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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