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Issue 12 - Contemporary whisky art

Whisky Magazine Issue 12
November 2000


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Contemporary whisky art

Ian Buxton explores the whisky industy's shift from patron to sponsor of visual art.

Fancying himself an artist, whisky baron Tommy Dewar once painted a cow in a meadow and asked a friend for his opinion. ‘The ship seems alright,' he was told, ‘but I think you have made the sea too green.'

This little story is, perhaps, a metaphor for whisky's place in art history. Despite its status as Scotland's national drink and distilling's undoubted impact on the Scottish landscape, the industry and its product have made little impact until recently on the artistic consciousness.

From the nineteenth century we have Sir David Wilkie's ‘The Scottish Whisky Still' and Sir Edwin Landseer's ‘The Illicit Still', now in the Wellington Museum in Apsley House in London. However, these are genre works depicting Scottish life rather than showing any specific interest in distilling. The Landseer is the more striking piece with the carefully structured group of the bootlegger and his family, surrounded by his dogs and casually sitting on a dead stag, echoing the still and mash tun. Landseer packs this picture with dramatic tension setting the whole in a wonderfully lit and romantic glen. Understandably, since it encapsulates a number of comfortable clichés about whisky and the Highlands, reproductions of this picture can be seen in several books on whisky and in a number of visitor centres. However, the work itself transcends the familiar and is well worth seeing in the original.

In the early part of this century whisky's relationship with art was dominated by marketing...

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