James Macpherson's Ossian as a starting point for visual art
James Macpherson’s Ossian was one of the driving forces in the visual arts of late 18th and early 19th century Europe. It originated in the narrative traditions of the Gàidhealtachd, the culture into which James Macpherson was born in 1736. In the 1760s he synthesised traditional Gaelic material and his own work into an English-language epic that was taken up throughout Europe as the epitome of northernness. Macpherson’s central figure, the legendary Celtic bard Ossian, was soon identified as ‘the Homer of the north’.
Macpherson's writings continue to impress as a starting point for visual artists. For example Calum Colvin’s Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry / Oisein: Bloighean de Sheann Bhardachd, an exhibition made for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2002. Another example is Norman Shaw's Nemeton project. Ossian work by both Shaw and Colvin formed part of the exhibition Uinneag Dhan Àird an Air: Ath-Lorg Ealain na Gàidhealtachd / Window to the West: The Rediscovery of Highland Art, held at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh in the winter months of 2010/2011.
Shown here is a detail from the title page of the first edition of Macpherson's Fingal, the first part of the Ossian poetry to be published (1762). The image is by the English artist Samuel Wale. It opened the floodgates of Ossianic illustration for Scottish, Irish, Danish, French and German artists in particular.