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This report is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

Winter in the North Peter Davidson

After the storms and migrations, after the explosive roar of the armies of geese rising from the hills above the house, things fall quiet in slanting sunlight which turns pale and strengthless halfway through the afternoon. This is the final day of the truce with the cold when the tender plants are brought in, before the last herbs and flowers in the garden soften and fail in the frosts. The washed brightness of the end of October falls on umber and viridian in the valleys, white pencilling on the high slopes above.

This is the light-drenched autumnal world of Raeburn’s portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk, now in the National Gallery in Dublin. To any eye accustomed to the northern seasons, the belated gold of this most wonderful double portrait speaks of the year irrecoverably on the turn and the winter close at hand. It is one of the great portraits of a marriage which has lasted and deepened with time. Neither figure is still beautiful in person, but they are beautiful together in gesture and the mutual understanding implied by gesture. What is remarkable is that the painting manages to express the degree to which, consoled each by the other, they are indifferent to the passing days which strip the last leaves from the trees behind them, to the morning frosts beginning to whiten the northern slopes of their hills.

Raeburn also commanded a colder palette: the slate-grey and silver-grey of wintery Scotland. ...


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