The Painter and the Prime Minister (& Me)


I remember, as if it were yesterday, the afternoon, more than half a century ago when I discovered James Giles. Bored and restless and in need of distraction during that dreary week between Christmas and New Year, I had set out to explore the maze of rooms, then hardly used, ‘downstairs’ at Haddo House, where I was staying. But I didn’t get far, because in the first room I came to I chanced upon a mountain of files and documents: the Gordon family’s archives. 

I picked through the rent books, the ledgers of estate accounts, tried, in vain, to decipher the handwriting of 18th-century clerks and letter writers, but it was not until I found two bulging albums that my teenage ennui vanished in an instant. They looked, at first glance, like a catalogue: on every page there was a watercolour of a castle, its architecture meticulously detailed.  But these were not dry records, I soon realised: they had life. Sheep grazed beneath the craggy walls of Tolquhon; cattle ruminated amidst the ruins of Kildrummy; at Pitfichie a man and his dog could be glimpsed beneath an arch; smoke poured from the chimneys of Kinnaird Head Castle; fishing nets were drying on the beach at Old Slains; at Dudwick maids went about their duties in a yard full of pecking hens. The settings were romantic, sometimes wildly so: the ruins of Gight on the edge of a wooded glen, the roofless Place of Tilliefoure in a grove of towering trees. But who, I wondered, had painted this Aberdeenshire Arcadia?

A crash course in family folklore and a tour of the house’s main rooms where dozens of paintings by James Giles still hang provided the answer, and over the years (Reader, I married a Gordon), I learned more about the close and extraordinarily productive friendship between the painter from Woodside and his patron, George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, statesman, Prime Minister and connoisseur. They met in 1830. The Earl was ten years older than Giles, but they soon found they had much in common: both had travelled widely and loved, in particular, the light, landscapes, art and antiquities of Italy; both were fascinated by the natural world and all that the North East countryside had to offer. 

Though the relationship between the two men began formally - I was right, it turned out, in thinking that the castle drawings were commissioned as part of the Earl’s project, later abandoned, to publish a history of Aberdeenshire - Aberdeen had more on his mind than art. He had been aghast to discover, on inheriting Haddo in 1804, that the house was set in ‘a dreary and extensive peat moss’ and surrounded by open drains. He set about planting trees and did so at a prodigious rate: between January and September 1808, for example, he planted no fewer than 698,610, many with his own hands. He recruited Giles to help him, in particular, to design the terrace around the house, where the artist drew for inspiration on his love of the gardens he had seen on his travels in Italy.  A triumvirate was formed of Giles, who became a semi-permanent house-guest, Hyslop the forester, and the great statesman.  Not everyone viewed it with enthusiasm - ‘Giles and Hyslop rule the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister rules the nation,’ the locals muttered - but Haddo was transformed.

It’s an extraordinary story – too long to tell here – but that is why of all the pictures James made for his friend and patron, the one I love best is a view from the drawing room. The door to the garden is open and your eye is taken across the sunny terrace with its Italianate flowerbeds and fountain, through the trees to the Upper Lake and on to the bosky heights of the Deer Park. All is quiet, all is well in the Eden so lovingly created by Giles and Hyslop and Aberdeen.


The Park seen from Haddo



Simon Welfare © Anke Addy

Haddo: The Park Seen through the Open Drawing Room Door, James Giles
Courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House. Painting can be seen by visiting Haddo House