Bruce Swanson, former President AAS
I am an artist and jewellery maker with a practice based in Aberdeen. I graduated with a Masters degree from Gray’s School of Art in 2018 and for the past two years have been President of Aberdeen Artists Society (AAS). As a jewellery maker, my art practice is quite different from that of James Giles and our paths crossed only recently when I came across him while researching the history of the Society ahead of the AAS online exhibition, 'Coming Home', earlier this year.
AAS today owes Giles a debt of gratitude for his far-sighted actions as the founder and first President of the original Aberdeen Artists Society. While it didn’t last long in its first incarnation, James Giles and his fellow artists pointed the way for a flourishing artist-led Society to be a vibrant part of the fabric of Aberdeen, as it continues to be today.
Aberdeen Artists Society was founded in 1827 and established itself with annual exhibitions in various temporary locations across the city. In the late 1820s, when Giles’s energies were diverted towards the recently-established Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Society went into a state of suspended animation, from which it didn’t revive until 1885 when it established a presence in the newly-built Aberdeen Art Gallery. Since then the Society has been an almost continuous presence in the city (excluding the periods of the two World Wars), holding popular annual exhibitions in the Art Gallery and supporting art and artists in the North East of Scotland.
If Giles were to return today, I think he would be amazed, delighted, and fascinated by the breadth of art practices that are represented by the Aberdeen Artists Society. While it is noteworthy that the early exhibitions, quite unusually for the time, displayed 3D works alongside paintings, I think Giles would be in awe of the variety and breadth of different media and techniques that are being used for artistic expression today including: painting, drawing, print-making, ceramics, jewellery, digital art, performance art and video. I also believe he would be delighted that the Society exists with essentially the same artist-led remit as when it was first established. He would find it today in robust good health with a vibrant membership of established and emerging artists.
Giles is recalled vividly in the history of AAS entitled 'Particles of Ligh', which gives an impression of the artist as a dynamic 26-year-old founding force. In 1827, together with other notables who have made their mark on Aberdeen - including the architect of Union Street, Archibald Simpson - firmly established the idea of an artist-led Society for “mutual improvement in painting and the furtherance of art in Aberdeen”. In doing so, they ensured that Aberdeen maintained a cultural presence in Scotland commensurate with its size and importance as a regional city. The establishment of the Society was and continues to be, a recognition of the vibrant artist community and the art-loving population of the North East.
I am delighted that AAS continues to be an important and active part of north-east Scotland’s art culture and look forward to this heritage being built on in the future by new generations of artists. The art world, which will always reflect wider social trends, is continually changing and Aberdeen Artists Society has throughout its history been on the front line of these trends. I trust that Giles’s legacy to the city will continue to adapt and maintain its place in this continual debate and that in 150 years, if I were to return, I too would hope to be both amazed and delighted by what constitutes contemporary art in Aberdeen.
I have chosen two works of James Giles's from the Haddo House collection. Both, I imagine, were painted for local patrons of art to hang in a public room in a large house such as Haddo and are “of their time” – a time before photography was ubiquitous when the skill of faithfully rendering a landscape was highly valued.
The first is entitled 'Aberdeen from the South with the Bridge of Dee'. On first impressions the composition is not overly compelling: much near-featureless sky and a sparse foreground but on closer inspection the viewer is rewarded with some incredible attention to detail in the centre of the canvas (see the detail below); the work of a talented artist who has captured the details of a city he obviously knows, and has observed, extremely well. The painting shows a remarkable photograph-like representation of historic Aberdeen - with its church spires and busy waterfront, together with the distant distinctive curve of the beachfront. An image reminiscent of the city scenes painted more recently by Eric Auld another well-known Aberdeen artist.
'Aberdeen from the South with the Bridge of Dee', James Giles
The second image is more generic but still expertly painted and composed. On Deeside is a representation of a familiar scene to many. While the image is not placed in an exact location on Deeside the picture captures the hillsides, forests and watercourses familiar to anyone who spends time walking on Deeside today.
'On Deeside', James Giles
Bruce Swanson © Fergus Connor
Courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House. Paintings can be seen by visiting Haddo House