The Great British Art Tour: Scene from a warm Victorian marriage

·3-min read

The scene is the epitome of 19th-century domestic comfort. The subject settled in an armchair draped with a thick colourful blanket. Her sewing box is open but she has set aside her embroidery and is absorbed in her book, comforted by a feline companion slumbering on her lap.

The subject is Elizabeth Allan-Fraser (1805-1873) and this affectionate portrait was made by her husband. The painting resists Victorian sentimentality through its authenticity – this is a genuinely warm image. The fireplace is felt rather than seen, but we can just glimpse the dance of orange flames in the shiny black grate.

The couple first met in 1842 when the young artist Patrick Allan returned to his native Arbroath to undertake a commission for an edition of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Antiquary. Scott is known to have been influenced by Hospitalfield House and by Arbroath’s dramatic coastal cliffs in writing the novel and he fictionalised the location as the setting for narrative.

It was at Hospitalfield House that Patrick met Elizabeth Fraser, heiress to the estate. A short courtship followed and the pair were married the following year. Allan would go on to take the Fraser name in honour of Elizabeth’s family and their 30-year marriage was evidently characterised by true fondness, warmth, dedication, mutual respect and significant industry.

The couple left no heirs to the Hospitalfield estate, and they dedicated themselves to supporting artists and art education in Scotland in their lifetime and through an astonishing legacy when the estate was bequeathed in trust to support artists and education in the arts. Hospitalfield was established as Scotland’s first residential School of Art in 1902 supporting students of limited means through four years of tuition in purpose-built artists’ studios.

The couple built a collection of art – works gathered and commissioned primarily for their suitability to inspire and instruct young students of art. In this respect, the portrait of Elizabeth is unrepresentative within the Hospitalfield collections.

The scene exists today in the dining room at Hospitalfield almost exactly as it is depicted by Allan-Fraser. The small oval portrait of Major John Fraser, Elizabeth’s father, remains in situ, as does the furniture and decoration. The elaborately carved 17th-century Flemish oak cabinet dominates the same wall, which is decorated with early 18th-century embossed leather panels in gilt on green, featuring flowers and scrolls. Elizabeth’s sewing box, and even some examples of her embroidery work and yarns, still rest in the same location. Today, the dining room is used by artists who come to live and work at Hospitalfield through our programme of residencies, drawn to the tranquillity of this room overlooking the garden.

• You can see more art from the Hospitalfield House collection on Art UK here, and find out more on its website.

• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows 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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