A Diversion to the East Neuk: A watercolour by James MacMaster

Map of the East Neuk of Fife

Map of the East Neuk of Fife

As a change from examining the portraits of the late Stuart era I’m taking a slight diversion in this post to visit the “East Neuk” of Fife in the nineteenth century.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “Neuk” is simply the Scots word for nook, meaning a corner. The East Neuk of Fife comprises the fishing villages along the north coast of the Firth of Forth including Crail, Elie, St Monans, Anstruther, Largo and Pittenweem. Fishing in the East Neuk continues but much reduced with tourism now being the main industry.

The East Neuk has consistently attracted artists to its picturesque harbours and sea fronts; St Monans is to Fife as Polperro is to Cornwall.   Although artists still paint in the area the high point of the East Neuk’s popularity for artists seems to be in the late Victorian era so I’m looking particularly here at a painting from that time (which helpfully I bought a few years ago).

Elie, James Macmaster 1891

Elie, James Macmaster 1891

This is a watercolour view by the Scottish artist James MacMaster. Described, rather lazily, by Bonhams as a “village by an estuary” it is fact not difficult to work out that this is a view of the village of Elie because MacMaster typically inscribes the details in his work. So we have a view of the village of Elie, painted on the 26 June 1891.

Elie,detail

Elie,detail

And in case we were in any doubt we have “A bit of Elie” written on the back.

"A bit of Elie" detail, reverse.

“A bit of Elie” detail, reverse.

Macmaster also signs the work with his (also typically) full signature.

Elie, detail of signature

Elie, detail of signature

Not that much is known about James MacMaster other than he was born in 1856 and died in 1913.  As his signature makes clear he was a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) in 1885 and the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) in 1890. Despite the large number of views of the fishing villages of the east coast of Scotland MacMaster was from the west coast and a Glaswegian.

Judging by his work he was both prolific and well travelled, at least across Scotland.  Apart from the numerous views of the East Neuk there are also views of the Highlands and a considerable number of the Ayrshire coastal towns from Ayr in the south to Largs in the north.  There are some views of English landscapes and one of Rotterdam.

MacMaster occasionally works  in oils but his main medium is watercolour (usually with some body colour) and his favourite subject, which he keeps coming back to, possibly because they’re the most commercial, is the East Neuk especially St Monans, Largo and Elie.

Returning then to the “bit of Elie” I thought I’d find out where the scene was painted from and compare the view with the current village.  Concentrating on the architecture, as the more enduring elements of the scene, one problem immediately arises; the lack of a church steeple…

Elie, detail.

Elie, detail.

Elie photo

The internet comes to my aid here because I learn that the church shown in the top right of the painting was demolished in the 1960s.  The distinctive spire can however be seen in old photographs.

Elie Free Church (demolished c 1962)

Elie Free Church (demolished c 1962)

Other buildings from the 1890s survive however and provide a way to orientate the artist’s view.  In particular a row of cottages are easy to spot and compare with the current view.

Elie photo details Elie details

So I’m now pretty sure where MacMaster was sitting to paint. He was on top of some sand dunes to the side of the harbour and although the view has changed quite a lot it is, I think, still recognisable.

ElieCompared

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2 Responses to A Diversion to the East Neuk: A watercolour by James MacMaster

  1. Laurie Chapman says:

    hello…I have recentely come across an original watercolor of James Macmaster…It is called “after a november gale” and also written on it is “largo bay”…I am very curious to know more about this artist, what his paintings are worth (not that Im going to sell mine…love it too much!) Would be awesome to hear from anyone who knows anymore on this artist?! Thanks!!!

  2. Leon Lowe says:

    Very nice treatment of a work by a noteworthy, and probably under-appreciated, Scottish artist. I own an example of his work of the cliffs in northwest Ireland.

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