My Stephen Copley Research Award funded a trip to Edinburgh to consult the National Records of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery’s collections of letters and drawings by the painter Alexander Runciman (1736-85).
What interests me about Runciman — who is best known as the creator of the first (now sadly lost) decorative scheme based on James Macpherson’s Ossian epics — is his heroic treatment of female characters from the epic tradition. Whereas other late eighteenth-century artists (most notably Angelica Kauffman) had pioneered painters’ treatment of women as heroic subjects, they also tended to circumscribe the heroism of female epic characters, such as Andromache and Penelope, to passive acts of suffering and endurance. In several instances, Runciman went a step further, representing the suffering of female epic heroes not as something in which they have no agency, but something that they bravely elect to undergo. This is most obviously the case in Runciman’s depiction of Corgan Carglâ, a hunter from Macpherson’s Ossian, who chooses to be imprisoned in a cave for life rather than submit to her husband’s murderer.
Before my research trip, I thought I had discerned the origins of Runciman’s contemporarily unusual approach to female heroism in preparatory drawings for a rendering of the death of Dido, which appear to give Virgil’s tragic heroine more and more agency in successive sketches. The truth was, as I found out, both more interesting and more confusing. The drawings (held by the Scottish National Gallery) do gradually shift away from the passive and sentimental renderings of Dido that were popular with earlier eighteenth-century artists, in which the queen typically appears to have died as the direct result of her abandonment by Aeneas, rather than (in any obvious way) by her own hand. However, while what appears to be the final drawing shows Dido very much alive, clutching the sword with which she will end her own life and evidently weighing her options — an artistic choice which emphasises her agency and tacitly associates her with the Classical tradition of tragic but heroic suicide populated by figures including Seneca and Lucan — the painting itself rows back on these innovations and offers a conventional portrayal of Dido as a passive and inert victim.
National Records of Scotland
A year later, as I discovered in a letter held at the National Records of Scotland, Runciman was contemplating an even more drastic return to the gendered conventions of male heroism and female passivity that typify the epic. His original plan for what he would later turn into the Ossian decorative scheme at Sir John Clerk’s Penicuik House (near Edinburgh) was an uncompromisingly manly and conventionally heroic scheme based upon the life of Achilles. The only female character Runciman proposed for this series was Achilles’ mother, Thetis, whose agency, as Runciman’s detailed description makes clear, would not even have extended to untying her own sandals.
Evidently, Runciman later opted for the Ossian illustrations, which put Corban Carglâ centre stage, but even here, he agonised over whether to represent the imprisoned hunter as an awe-inspiring figure in her own right, or as a damsel in distress saved by Macpherson’s epic hero Fingal. Two preparatory drawings (also at the Scottish National Gallery) show Runciman wavering between these options, with a muscled and armed Fingal occupying the foreground in one and a (literally towering) Corban Carglâ dominating the frame (with Fingal relegated to the background and looking up awe-struck) in the other.
My findings have made me reflect upon external factors that may have caused Runciman’s apparent flip-flopping, what his prevarication may tell us more broadly about the difficulties or potential repercussions of portraying female heroes during the Romantic period, and the particular problems he may have faced as a male artist championing this model of heroism. I am very grateful to BARS for funding what has been a very productive few days of confusion!
By Jonathan Taylor (University of Surrey)