This vaporous watercolour was made by Gustave Doré on his first influential trip to Scotland in April 1873. By this date Doré had achieved considerable fame in London as an illustrator. In 1872 Doré’s London: a Pilgrimage appeared, with text by Blanchard Jerrold. Doré’s nightmarish evocation of the burgeoning metropolis, contrasting the misery of conditions in the East End, with the sumptuous world of the affluent had an enduring impact on later artists. Van Gogh’s admiration for the London Illustrations led him to paint a version of Doré’s haunting image of dehumanized convicts circling a bleak exercise yard. The year following the publication of London: a Pilgrimage, Doré was persuaded to accompany his friend Sir Christopher Teesdale on a trip to Scotland. In Blanche Roosevelt’s The Life and Reminiscences of Gustave Doré, Teesdale provides a description of the circumstances of their journey to Scotland.
‘It was with much difficulty that he was persuaded to undertake the journey, as he was very averse to leaving his home. At last it was managed by my going to pay him a visit at his house in the Rue St. Dominque, and then bring him back to London with me. After a day or two spent there, we started from St Katherine’s Wharf in an Aberdeen steamer… I did all I could to make him take to salmon-fishing, but it was a very unfavourable moment, and he was not an apt pupil. He soon became wrapped up in the scenery of the Deeside, and was far happier with his sketch-book than with his rod. He used to get up on the hillside with an old stalker, and dash down all sorts of memoranda there. In the evening, at our comfortable little hotel, when dinner was over, the sketch-book used to come out again, and then with his water-colours, or anything else that came first to hand, the memoranda of the day were amplified. Doré’s memory of anything that he had once seen was marvellous, and he seemed to work at hight as if the scenes he had made note of during the day were still before his eyes.’
This long account of Doré suggests that the present watercolour was unlikely to have been made en plein air, but represented, instead, an evocation of the Scottish landscape made in the evening after a day exploring Deeside. As Doré himself wrote from the Invercauld Arms in Ballater to his mother: ‘I shall have my memory pretty well filled with an ample number of landscapes, which seem to me more suitable to my London Exhibition than Swiss Alpine scenes.’ Watercolour was a medium particularly associated with Britain and it is telling that Doré explored its potential in the watercolours he made in Scotland. The present sheet shows Doré’s mastery of wash. Doré used a saturated wash of blue to suggested the distant hilltop, cleverly using a loaded brush of water to create the diffuse effect of clouds covering the hill. The rest of the landscape is similarly articulated with bands of colour modulated with areas of water, imparting a liquid quality to the scene. Scotland had a lasting impact on Doré, who produced a number of monumental Scottish landscapes. As he noted in a letter to his mother in April 1873 from Ballater: ‘the view is indeed magnificent, and I fish above all in order to catch beautiful landscapes.’