Malcolm M’L. Harper
“The Gallovidian.” – 1904
The death of William Mouncey at Woodlea, near Kirkcudbright, in December, 1901, at the comparatively early age of 49 years, the Landscape Art of Scotland sustained a serious loss. Mouncey, as an artist, had in his works shown such marked individuality, that his name had become familiar, “not in Scotland alone, but in the great Art Centres of Europe.”
Every year saw his works well placed on the walls of the Scottish Exhibitions. Special collections of his pictures were exhibited in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London, as well as in Dresden ; and continental connoisseurs there, and elsewhere, discovered such qualities of genius in them that his paintings came to find favour both at home and abroad.
From about the year 1888, Mouncey’s artistic powers, as a sympathetic interpreter of nature had gradually developed, and at the time of his lamented death his work was of the finest quality. His best efforts were clear and luminous in colour, and the sentiment in many of his pictures had much in common with Monticelli, Corot, Hobbema, Linnell, Constable, and Mans, whose works he greatly admired, and when opportunity offered he carefully studied. With longer life and health to prosecute his art, for which he had such a genuine devotion, he might have produced greater works. The zenith of his powers had not been reached – when he passed away it was only being revealed. Still in his “brief span” he succeeded in placing himself in the front rank of Scottish landscape painters.
It is pleasing to think that the last few years of Mouncey’s life was cheered by success, and by the general appreciation felt for his gifts as an artist. At Woodlea he lived a quiet industrious life, honoured and respected by all his artistic friends. Happy and contented, he quietly worked in his studio prosecuting the art he so dearly loved. It has been well said that the artist, equally with the people, is happy who has no history. There are in Mouncey’s life, no startling experiences to describe, no unhappy calamities to chronicle, nor any special incidents to enter into full detail. Nevertheless, his life was not without interest.
William Mouncey was a native of the ancient Royal Burgh of Kirkcudbright. His father was also born there, and followed the business of a house painter and decorator.
By the desire of his father, the subject of our memoir adopted the same calling. Thus, like so many who have achieved success in the pursuit of art, he practiced for some years a different profession; but, happily, one quite congenial to artistic study in his leisure hours. Mouncey early developed a strong love of art, and we have been told that when quite a boy he showed a keen appreciation of, and feeling for, natural scenery. Every spare moment during the intervals of work in his trade he devoted -like the famous landscape painter, Old Crome, of the Norwich school, who was also a house painter – to drawing and sketching in the fields. The drawings and studies of his youth and early manhood, and the long period of immediately study and practice from Nature which he had gone through in later years, gave him the power to simplify and to work out the impressions he received, broadly, boldly, and without any unnecessary detail.
Mouncey spent the most of his life in Kirkcudbright; and, like all true landscape painters, he did not require to roam far a-field for subjects Well pleased was he always with the natural beauties of the surroundings of his home, from which he drew inspiration for the creation of his poetic, refined, and interesting works. Thus he was cradled and brought up in the midst of the scenery in which he delighted, the various phases of which he delineated with artistic skill, and with colours of great freshness and beauty. To seek impulse for such work he had not far to go. For years his furthest journeyings were to the delightful wooded glades of the Barrhill, the quaint old orchards of the Buckland Burn, and the Millhouse, a strange old world aspect, surrounded with appropriate sylvan accessories.
The Senwick wood, around the Millha’ on the Borgue shore, was also a favourite locality with him, and afforded many good subjects. The hanks of the river Dee at Tongland, with its varied beauties of rushing torrent through wild and rocky banks, swelling hill and verdant meadow, shadowy woods, and leafy lanes were all in the vicinity, and presented the choicest features of landscape. The hill summits around Woodlea, Mouncey’s dwelling, also showed many fresh and vigorous pastoral landscapes in the course of the river. The sunset effects and sundown on the old town, with the grey ruined castle rising high in the rosy air, the far-away Galloway hills bathed in purple, and the stretching sands of the river, in varied hues of gold, silver, and turquoise, as viewed from the golf course, were often the theme of admiration as Mouncey convoyed me to the stile of an evening on my way to the railway station.
Little wonder, therefore, that in early life such favourable surroundings should have fostered the feeling and affection for landscape scenery, with which he was so obviously endowed it was with considerable interest and satisfaction we for several years watched the development and progress of the school with which Mouncey became allied. Among the group of artists, which for some years was known as the “Kirkcudbright School,” Mouncey’s individuality and strength of character developed, and soon the steady growth of his executive efforts, which, in artists’ phraseology, may be de scribed as painter-like qualities, were marked by style, good colour and composition, and intelligent suggestion.
Though, like Corot, Verheyden, and others, Mouncey adopted art as a profession comparatively late in life, he was not long in attaining to the position at which he aimed. After he had embarked on his professional career, he gave close and earnest application to his art, and sought, in his interpretation of Nature, to carry out his own individual ideas, regardless of the ways and thoughts of those around him -of criticism or of fame. The seriousness with which he took up and followed his artistic calling was certainly an earnest that his contributions to modern Scottish art would be durable and far-reaching.
While a youth, working at his trade, Mouncey’s single aim in life always was that he might be in a position someday to relinquish it, and adopt art as a profession. To be free to carry out his bent was the goal towards which he was always striving, and we can well remember his delight in the feeling of freedom he enjoyed, and the pleasurable expressions he used on reaching it.
The success to which he attained, however, was the reward of steady strenuous labour, close application and study. To reach the position he realized as a Landscape Painter, Mouncey had a hard struggle. At times the dark clouds of non-appreciation and neglect seemed as if they would never lighten. Still, that enthusiasm in his art by which success is obtained never failed him. He persevered under many disadvantages and difficulties; and in the prosecution of his artistic aims and ideas he was always so absolutely sincere that we were confident his strivings after the true and good in art would he rewarded, and that his place as a leading Scottish landscapist would be assured. With him it had all along been “art for art’s sake,” and in all his artistic work he neither subordinated his convictions to sordid, selfish ends nor to the fashions and fancies of an “artistic public.” For several seasons the writer of this article spent enjoyable and instructive holidays in the company of Mouncey, rambling and sketching among the rich and varied scenery of Galloway.
Mouncey was enthusiastically devoted to his art, and was rarely drawn away from his beloved pursuit. He was a ceaseless worker: kept to his studio all day long, and when away from it was never satisfied unless he had sketching materials with him. He seldom left home for any length of time for a holiday, but in the autumn of 1896 the writer, after some persuasion, succeeded in getting him off for a change to new surroundings in Bedfordshire. We had easels and painting requisites with us, and the writer of this sketch bears in lasting remembrance the delightful sketching excursions spent in our friend’s company on the banks of the Ouse. The weather was so excessively hot that any sketches we made were done in our shirtsleeves. We still recollect how much Mouncey was enamoured with the picturesque old thatch cottages so trimly kept, with vines trailing about the doors and quaint windows; how delighted he was with the fine old bridge; and variety of water craft about the river and the ancient, venerable appearance of the ivy clad churches, nestling so snugly amidst fine old umbrageous trees, he also greatly admired.
We remember one, in particular, near Odell, situated on a height in the valley, with the river winding with silvery surface through the fat meadows bordered by willows, which struck him as a true resemblance of Constable’s famous picture of the ” Valley Farm.” He made a few sketches of river scenes with churches and cottages, but we are not aware that he ever wrought them into finished pictures. Though admiring the diversified scenery, he did not appear to be any way inspired by it, and expressed himself that he felt his strength lay more in the treatment of his own native hills, bosky glens, and rushing rivers. At home he was in the midst of the scenery best adapted to his brush and palette, and it is as a limner of Scottish landscape that we best appreciate him. From Bedford we made a hurried run to London, and during our brief stay the most of the time was spent in the National Gallery. Mouncey at that time was very enthusiastic over the work of Constable and Hobbema, and lingered long examining the many fine paintings by these masters in the Galleries. We also had pleasant rambles about the Thames, Mouncey observing many pleasant subjects for pictures.
From the writer’s intimate friendship with Mouncey up to the time of his death, we had frequent opportunities of learning the bent of his mind, and artistic methods. We write, therefore, with knowledge when we say that Mouncey was undoubtedly a born landscape painter, with true artistic feelings and instincts, and that nature had been the guiding principle to him in all his artistic efforts. He was entirely a landscape painter. Figures, he seldom painted of any size. Neither by nature nor by custom was Mouncey a courtier nor a flatterer, so when we write thus of him, it is to be hoped we do not in the least defeat the purpose of well balanced appreciation by extravagant praise.” Down right, honest, and sincere, he was ever ready to express his convictions on art, or any other subject with which he was conversant. He was too true an artist, and held the dignity of his calling too sacred to be a self-exploiter. It was impossible for him to take advantage of the advertising medium which is now so much of a fine art, with vapid literary and artistic aspirants. To natures such as his, these modes of securing a sale in the art and book market, or of ever reaching fame by such means, were utterly abhorrent. So the spontaneous recognition of his artistic powers by his brother artists and fine art dealers, though it was somewhat long delayed, was truly merited, and very gratifying.
Since the year 1881, when Mouncey first found a place on the walls of the Royal Scottish Academy with a small landscape – “Home along the Shore,” a view from the Castledykes, with a solitary figure returning from the fishing in the evening glow, he exhibited there, and in the “Royal Glasgow Institute,” almost continuously till his death. In the exhibition of the “Royal Glasgow Institute” in February 1902, there was exhibited the picture which he had just completed, when death stayed his hand for ever. It was entitled “The Raiders,” a large landscape depicting a reach on the river Dee at Tongland, with overhanging trees, a company of horsemen driving cattle over the ford giving the title to the picture. This picture showed the strength of his powers, and was much admired. It was, therefore, with feelings of sincere regret artistic friends learned that the painter of such a fine work had “passed the bourne.”
About the same time Messrs James Connell & Sons, Fine Art Dealers, 31 Renfield Street, Glasgow, held an exhibition of Mouncey’s works. The art critic of the Glasgow Herald commenting on it in these favourable remarks: – “Looking round the room, our first impression is one of amazement, that work so luminous, and powerful, and distinguished, should be the product of a man who had no training in art schools, who spent his life in a country town, and had none of the educational advantages of a great city. With the exception of a short season spent in London, where he limned the Thames in its picturesque and intensely human aspects, and some brief excursions elsewhere, he passed his days in Kirkcudbright, seeking inspiration in ‘the beautiful land that fringes the Solway Firth.’
The collection in Messrs Connell’s galleries is almost entirely representative of the artist’s studies in his native countryside. ‘The Quarry’ is a large canvas which was shown last year in the Royal Scottish Academy, and attracted much attention by reason of its dignity and fine composition. In similar and in smaller canvasses, Mr. Mouncey paints Kirkcudbright and its neighbourhood in various keys, but always with distinction. In pure landscape his foregrounds are sometimes painted in rich browns and greens, while through arching trees we look out on sunny meadows, or undulating country. ‘The Harbour, Kirkcudbright,’ with ships at anchor, is thus treated, the town receding in silvery light. Mr Mouncey paints his native countryside in sunshine, at sunset, and in quiet evening light. One of his most powerful pictures, ‘The Thames,’ reminds one very much in arrangement of James Maris’s ‘Dordrecht,’ exhibited in last year’s International Exhibition. Mr. Mouncey presents the Thames as seen from Vauxhall Bridge, Westminster, and its towers dominating the river and its shipping and hay barges, as the cathedral of Dordrecht does the Maas and its activities.”
Through the patronage of Messrs James Connell & Sons, Glasgow, Mouncey’s works became widely known to a large circle of lovers; and, by their exhibitions of his works, to the general public. The first special exhibition which they held was in October, 1898. In the Scots Pictorial of that month he was hailed and commented on as a new Scottish landscapist thus: – “The first notable quality about the pictures of Mr Mouncey is their individuality, and the second – and his strong point – their fine sense of colour values combined with a happy tonality. The artist is of the impressionist school, but he is a true impressionist. He goes to Nature for his first impression, which he rapidly transfers to the canvas.
Then more leisurely he studies his picture in its several parts, balancing here and there the strength of light and shade until he feels satisfied within himself that he has reached the meeting point when truth to Nature, depth of tone, and richness of colour blend together. From the artist’s point of view, Mr. Mouncey handles his work in a broad, vigorous style. He lays on his colour in no sparing fashion to begin with, but he has to unload it as he goes on, and he generally finds himself – at least in his later work – with a picture that is painted in the artistic method of the day, a style in which the art of showing the canvass here and there is a not unimportant feature of the final brush work. With his art he invests his subjects in a glamour of colour that is intensely fascinating. Not only does his work please the artistic eye, but it also satisfies the larger public, to whom the mysteries of paint and technical brushwork have no meaning whatever. It is only given to a few artists to do this.”
We might easily enumerate and describe many of these noteworthy pictures, but it will suffice to mention that in 1890 he exhibited three fine landscapes, “November, driving Sheep to Turnips” “From the Barrhill, Kirkcudbright,” and “Gurth the Swineherd,” the last, a large landscape with woods in the ruddy foliage of autumn, being the most notable. It was hung on the line in the R.S.A. Exhibition, and attracted the attention of artists and critics as a painting of unmistakable merit. It shows the artist to be gifted with a fine sense of colour, and is wrought out with a technical breadth of freedom and artistic qualities “as far removed from the aesthetic aridness of the older landscape of composition pieced together from studies as from the flat prosaic fidelity to nature of that entirely null and void, spuriously realistic painting of the so-called guardians of the woods and waters.” This painting has for years been in the possession of the writer, and is one of his most valued art treasures. In the year 1898 Mouncey exhibited in the Royal Glasgow Institute “The Edge of the Wood;” in 1899, “Morning, Kirkcudbright Harbour,” and “The Dark Rolling Dee;” in 1900, “Landscape near Tongland;” and in 1901 “The White Farm,” and “The Lake.”
It is thus observable that the scenery of his native district, which he loved through life, forms the subjects of some of his best works.
In concluding this sketch of Mouncey’s artistic career, we may just remark that, save nature, we can hardly say he ever had a teacher. He studied for a short time in Edinburgh, but like many more who have attained to eminence in art, he never had the full benefit of an early training in its elements, though, no doubt, from his father, who had an artistic bent, he was taught a knowledge of the craft of painting, and thus had an early acquaintance with its workings; which, along with his artistic instincts, stood him in good stead. His real progress was the outcome of a long term of serious and patient study, and observation of nature in the woods and fields. In all Mouncey’s works we see the personal and individual artist, with a strong feeling and love for nature in her quieter moods.
His main characteristics being a sensitiveness for the delicacies of tones. A distinct feeling for colour as colour, and a sense of composition natural, rather than acquired. With these inborn gifts and the high ideal in art which Mouncey always had before him, he succeeded in gaining recognition of his artistic gifts far beyond the narrow confines of his native county.
Mouncey, though naturally retiring, and diffident was by no means a recluse. As the owner of property in the burgh, he felt it his duty to bear the responsibilities of citizenship, and for many years was a useful member of the Parochial Board of Kirkcudbright, as well as a member of the Town Council. In all matters connected with the Burgh he took an intelligent interest, and viewed with pleasure the carrying out of schemes having for their object the progress and prosperity of his native town. In the early days of the volunteer movement, he served for some time in the ranks of the Kirkcudbright Coy. of the Galloway Rifles.
To Messrs James Connell & Sons, Fine Art Dealers, 31 Renfield Street, Glasgow, we are indebted for the use of the blocks of the illustrations to this article. Though these exemplify in a striking manner the chief characteristics of the compositions of the painter, they, as black and white reproductions, necessarily do not give much idea of his fine feeling for colour.