The Scottish artist Peter Graham rose to fame in London for painting mist-steeped evocations of his homeland. According to an English critic, writing in 1899, Graham ‘brought home to the toilers in the cities aspects of the Highlands which had never before been depicted in paint, and with which the vast majority of people of this country were unfamiliar’. In this spectacular, brooding painting, the artist dwells upon an appalling Scottish national tragedy, the culmination of a long and complex betrayal of the MacDonald clan by members of the Campbell clan, acting in concert with Sir John Dalrymple, the Scottish Secretary.
At 5.00 a.m. on 13 February 1692 the royal forces of William III – all of whom, under the false pretence of collecting taxes, had been billeted with the citizens of the idyllic valley of Glencoe – rose against their MacDonald hosts to execute a ‘secret and sudden’ massacre. The royal troops were instructed to ‘put all to the sword under seventy’, and after doing so they burned Glencoe’s villages to the ground. After the Massacre of Glencoe depicts a few straggling survivors of this carnage, climbing to safety into the breathtakingly beautiful hills above their torched homes. An emotional tension holds Graham’s painting taut, reflecting the artist’s awareness of the incompatibility between the sublime grandeur of Glencoe as a physical locale and the memory of the gruesome and horrific events that took place there.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 93.