JAMES HOWE (SCOTTISH 1780-1836)
LAST OF THE LEITH RACES
Signed and dated, oil on canvas
80cm x 244cm
Born in Skirling, Peebleshire in 1780, James Howe left for Edinburgh as a young man with a single-minded determination to pursue a career in art. He went on to receive a somewhat unorthodox entry into the painting profession via an apprenticeship as a house and carriage painter. Though unusual, this was not a completely un-furrowed path as indeed both Alexander Runciman and Jacob More's careers began with similar apprenticeships. Despite listing 'portrait painter' among his expertise, it was Howe's natural flair with animals - particularly the depiction of horses - that made him a favourite amongst wealthy landowners. Such was the regard for his talents that one of his chief patrons, the Earl of Buchan, described him as "a second Stubbs in embryo". The middle years of Howe's career were spent exhibiting as part of the Society of Artists. Founded in 1808, the Society provided the first ever platform for living Scottish artists to present their work to the public and counted Sir David Wilkie, Alexander Carse and Sir Henry Raeburn among its prestigious membership.
'The Last of the Leith Races' is a fine example of the features which define Howe stylistically. A master of panoramic composition, he depicts a sweep along the sands of Leith; gleefully plunging the viewer firmly into the thick of the action. By adopting a naïve, almost primitive style, Howe is able to tangibly evoke the movement and excitement of the horses charging past. Often characterised by a sense of personality and humour, his energetic painting technique was ideally suited to the depiction of this notoriously raucous event. Among the hubbub of the scene our eyes are drawn to the prize awaiting its victor on the far stand, the lame beggar requesting alms in the foreground and the high-blooded hunters champing at their bits, nostrils flared with exhilaration.
The Leith Races were an important social event in Scotland throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, attracting thousands of visitors from as far afield as Northern England. Very different to racing in its modern form, they involved several heats back and forth along the sands at the mouth of the Water of Leith, on the east side of the harbour. Leith Race week was atmospherically described in James Grant's Old and New Edinburgh thus:
"vast lines of tents and booths, covered with canvas or blankets, stretched along the level shore; recruiting-sergeants with their drummers beating, sailors ashore for a holiday, mechanics accompanied by their wives or sweethearts, servant girls, and most motley groups, were constantly passing in and out of the drinking places; the whole varied by shows, roley-poleys, hobby horses, wheels-of fortune, and many strange characters which were once familiar in the streets of Edinburgh...Saturday, which was the last day of the races, was the most joyous and outrageous of this seashore carnival"
Eventually, a growth in the popularity of the thoroughbred led to a shift in racing methods, with speed becoming the focus over endurance. Consequently the Leith Races were moved to a new turf track in Musselburgh in 1816. Though the race in its original incarnation has now all but faded from public memory, its significance as a cultural and historic chapter in both Edinburgh and racing history has not been overlooked by today's scholars. Only a very few paintings recording the event are known to exist, one of which - a major depiction by William Reed painted in 1859 - is now in the collection of the City Art Centre and currently on display in the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.
Howe's name has not always held as prominent a position in Scottish art history as it rightly deserves. In one of the few texts that address his career, author A. D. Cameron discusses the artist's relative lack of recognition; noting that Howe favoured lucrative publicity-attracting commissions as opposed to the pursuit of critical approval. He also postulates that the artist's alcoholism may have denied him his full potential. Ultimately, the language of Howe's art was of a colloquial rather than gentrified nature and his chosen subject matter was perhaps unsuited to the refined tastes of 19th century high society. His style, however, was perfect for capturing the vibrant fairs and revelries of the general public and today his works are regarded as valuable folk historical documents. Considering the extreme rarity of both the subject and scale of this work, 'Last of the Leith Races' can rightly be considered a major work in Howe's oeuvre and of significant historical import.
Sold for £44,450 (buyer's premium included)