The Great British Art Tour: the fairy folk who made the house stink | Painting

T.The Riders of the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) are John Duncan’s masterpiece. It is an icon of the late 19th century Celtic revival – a movement that evokes the ancient cultural identities of Scotland and Ireland. Remarkably, it was Duncan’s first major work in the challenging medium of tempera. His adoption of tempera showed his admiration for Renaissance painting, but there was one major disadvantage for his family. His experiments with tempera combined color pigments with egg yolk and mastic varnish. Not only did the house stink, but his daughter Bunty remembered: “We ate meringue for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In the Celtic myth, the Sidhe are fairy tales. They are shown in procession and ride out from Beltane at the May Festival to initiate mortals into their faith. Duncan wanted every rider’s demeanor and expression to reflect the characteristics of the Celtic symbol they wore. From left to right: The tree of life denotes wisdom; the love of the Grail Cup; The sword symbolizes strength and power: and the stone (or crystal) of silence is hope, since it reflects the past and the future.

Duncan’s talent was to mix many sources together to create a modern representation of an ancient culture. The sword has similarities with examples from the Bronze Age – we know he studied illustrations from museum collections. The shield is inspired by the British Museum’s Battersea Shield. His horse’s mask is based on Torrs’ Iron Age pony cap in the National Museum of Scotland. The painting also reveals Duncan’s study of Italian Renaissance artists, and he paid tribute to the curtains of Edward Burne-Jones’ King Cophetua and the Beggaress as inspiration.

Exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1911, the painting was the only Celtic revival painting by the Dundee-born painter to be sold during his lifetime. It was presented in 1912 by businessman, politician and philanthropist J Martin White in the gallery’s nationally recognized art collection and has been on display almost permanently ever since.

• You can see more art from McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum on Art UK here and learn more on their website, or take an audio tour of McManus’ Gilbert Scott building and collections.

• This series was created in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on a digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website features works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities, and hospitals, as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.

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