Friday, July 29, 2016

PHOEBE'S FOSSIL FACE

In one of my other blogs I have introduced a previously undocumented Phoebe Traquair (1852 - 1936) watercolor that was discovered in Canada, where Phoebe's son lived and died. The writing on the watercolor gave the signature of the artist and the place that was painted in the landscape:  Callander in Scotland.
The landscape looks like a Scottish mountain scene with a stream coming towards the viewer
over rocks and in the background, three peaks, one left and two right.
            Simple enough you would think.
            But Phoebe is more complicated an artist than appears at first glance.
            What I discovered in turning the landscape to the side 90 degrees left is that Phoebe has painted into the rocks of the stream a face. The face is clearly visible if the watercolor is turned to the
left and held there. Here I have marked out the areas where the face is delineated; on the right the face as it appears unmarked. (The white light is just the flash of the camera.)

The white slab at the bottom may be intended to suggest a man's tie, but the dark and light areas above it show a man's face with eyebrows raised in surprise or anger or both, captured and caught
in the rocks that are part of the natural world of the watercolor.
          Is this face intentional? It is such a powerfully realized layout of facial features that it seems likely that it is. The more one looks at it, the more convincing the idea that she has painted
a man's face into the landscape. She has certainly painted the landscape of a face.
Large eyes, bulbous nose, slightly open mouth with suggestion of mustache above it, and the
eyebrows sweeping up and into the hair!
But why? and whose face?
         Artists sometimes reuse canvases for other purposes, for other paintings, for lack of
painting materials, and the subsequent painting covers over the original painting. But here,
she has not painted the landscape over the portrait and hidden the portrait, she has painted
the portrait INTO the landscape and left it for all to see. The man's face is shaped by the rocks,
planted into the landscape, and only hidden when the landscape is viewed head on. When the
watercolor is turned on its side, the face emerges from the rocks and pools of the water flowing
over the rocks. She is giving us a face caught in the rocks, a type of fossil.
         Phoebe's husband, Ramsey Heatley Traquair (1940-1912), was a Scottish paleontologist, a fish fossil man, a very good one. He won several prizes during his lifetime for his research (see his Wikipedia entry.) Phoebe had met him in Ireland when she did drawings of fish fossils for his research as Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science. They married in 1873 and moved back to Scotland together the following year. He was twelve years older than she, a respected academic whose work she contributed to until her own career as an artist was launched in Scotland in the 1880's.
         Normally one would not assume necessarily that the artist would draw the face of her
husband into her work. But this work is from 1881 and she is still doing drawings for him,
drawings of fossils. Is she on a fossil-hunting trip with her husband when she paints the landscape
in Callander? Is she bored waiting for him to return from gathering fossils from the mountains she
has painted in the landscape and decides to incorporate a fossil into her watercolor, the face of
her husband, as a fossil? All speculation, of course, if the portrait in the rocks did not look at all like the face of Ramsey Heatley Traquair. But he was a fossil specialist and this face in the watercolor
does look like him. We have a photograph and a humorous self-portrait by Ramsey himself.
          The self-portrait is to be found in a group of documents gathered by Miss Roberta MacIntosh in her 1860 Commonplace Book now in the Scottish National Library. In this self-portrait, also signed, Ramsey senior draws himself discovering a giant fish's head emerging out of the rocks. His own writing below says:  "A lucky blow of the hammer discloses


a new species of fossil fish.  Great delight of the Geologist thereat. RHT. R.H. Traquair"
Ramsey Heatley Traquair, the father of Ramsey Traquair the architect, and husband of Phoebe
Anna Moss Traquair later, has humorously shown himself with an upraised hammer, aiming at
rocks to reveal the fish within. He gives the fish a body and teeth and a top hat like his own and
glasses like his own. His own hat has fallen off his head in the surprise he expresses at finding
fish in the rocks.
          Ramsey Heatley Traquair found many of the specimens of fish fossils in rocks near Kemback in Dura Den in Fife, Scotland.

 

 
Another paleontologist holds an example of a fish fossil from Dura Den in this photo:

Ramsey depicts himself with a sharp pointed nose, not a bulbous one, but large nonetheless.

His hair is in shock at the discovery of the fish and electrically spikes back from his forehead.
          The painted portrait in Phoebe's watercolor Callander landscape looks less like her husband's earlier self-portrait and more like a photograph taken later of Ramsey Heatley Traquair.

 In this photo his large nose, mustache and dark eyes resemble the face in Phoebe's drawing; he has
lost the suggestion of hair on the forehead, but his tie and mustache are faithfully reproduced in
the landscape face:



Is her husband the man in the rocks? Has she made him into a fossil to preserve him for posterity? and remind posterity of his profession? In her version he looks as surprised as the fish in his own drawing, and maybe as unhappy.
          Phoebe is, like most artists, a rebel. And perhaps this portrait was just a way of poking fun at her husband, her idea of humor as she whiled away the time waiting for him to return from fossil hunting in the rocks near Callander. But the idea of turning your fossil-hunting husband into a fossil which is a hidden part of a landscape then given to your son in Canada has a touch of passive-aggression.  Passive aggression on the part of the artist, Phoebe Traquair, has rarely had such a magical landscape.
 


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